Prior to the discovery of genetic’s mechanisms of passing family traits, humans from the beginning of time have recognized that children carry characteristics of their parents. However, they simultaneously recognized that the chip off the old block sometimes fell further from the block than others. At some point, the headline “Nature versus Nurture” offered good and bad natured debate as geneticists and social scientists argued over whether genes or the environment played a larger role in a person’s final work. Only in recent years has a deeper connection between nature and nurture been found in the burgeoning field of epigenetics.
Epigenetics, from an etymological standpoint means “upon” “genetics”, but this does little to help a patient’s understanding of this medical discovery. Epigenetics is the process by which environmental factors turn genes on and off in one’s cells. The same process allows every cell in a person’s body to contain the same genes yet produce heart muscle in one place, bone cells in another, and skin cells on the surface. This process then allows environmental factors to leave long lasting marks in a person’s genetics. The genes don’t change, but the degree which they are expressed is changed, sometimes across generations.
What difference does this make? For some pregnancies, this means the mother’s stress level and its hormones leaves marks on the growing embryo’s genes such that their risk of later health problems increases. For adult, this may mean that genetic factors influencing cancer growth are turned on or off, lessening or increasing the risk of future cancer. This is just the beginning of what we are learning about epigenetics. In short, there is not as much of a battle between nature and nurture as an intricate dance, each affecting the other. Nature and Nature becomes “Nature AND Nurture”.
Can we therefore blame our good or ill health on epigenetics? No, we still make choices about diet, exercise, and other lifestyle factors besides those that act epigenetically. However, through these epigenetic mechanisms, we have a responsibility to care for our health, both because it affects our future and because it sometimes affects the future of the coming generations through these epigenetic mechanisms. A pregnant mom’s diet and stress level do leave lasting marks on their children’s future.
At Sanctuary Functional Medicine, I walk patients through an understanding of their epigenetic potential in order to restore dysfunction causing their suffering. Using this medical insight and other methods, I can guide their choices in nutrition, toxin avoidance, supplements, and medications to optimize their health. There is much to learn in the field of epigenetics, but we are already seeing patients’ health improve.