On the Subject of Epigenetics… Spoiler alert – this is COOL!


Welcome to Deep Dive Friday, my friends! Today we are going to deal with the subject of epigenetics, and I will source my information from Grain Brain, by David Perlmutter, M.D., unless otherwise noted. This is truly fascinating stuff as it deals with changing our genetic destiny. Yes, our genetic destiny. Thought it was etched in stone because certain traits “run in your family”? I was fascinated to learn that it is not.  As Dr. Perlmutter explains, we’re living a life that’s not suited to what we’re genetically supposed to do. The diseases that we see nowadays are largely brought on by our lifestyle not being in harmony with our genetic predisposition. But we can change this and return our DNA back to its original programming. Better yet, we can re-program some of our DNA to function even more advantageously.

This isn’t science fiction and here’s why. The field of study called epigenetics [1] is heating up, and it is the study of particular sections of our DNA, called marks, which essentially tell our genes when and how strongly to express themselves. Like conductors of an orchestra, these epigenetic marks are the remote control not only to our health and longevity but also to how we pass our genes on to future generations. Our day-to-day lifestyle choices have a profound effect on the activity of our genes.  We now know that the food choices that we make, the stress we experience, the amount of exercise we get, the quality of our sleep, and even the quality of the relationships that we choose actually choreograph to a significant degree which of our genes are active and which remain suppressed. Here’s what is AMAZING: We can change the expression of more than 70% of the genes that have a direct bearing on our health and longevity. Let me repeat that so that it really sinks in: We can change the expression of more than 70% of the genes that have a direct bearing on our health and longevity. Genetic destiny etched in stone? Hardly, so expand your mind and stop thinking that it is!

In Chapter 5, Dr. Perlmutter goes on to discuss how to enhance the expression of our “healthy genes” while turning off those genes that trigger such detrimental events as inflammation and the production of free radicals.  Since this book is mainly focused on preventing cognitive decline, he focuses mostly on brain health.

The first point he makes about brain health is that physical exercise is one of the most potent ways of changing our genes – it is as if when we exercise our bodies, we exercise our genes. Aerobic exercise in particular not only turns on genes linked to longevity, but it also turns on the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene, also known as the brain’s “growth hormone”. This is because BDNF plays a key role in creating new neurons, known as neurogenesis, and also protects existing neurons, ensuring their survivability while encouraging synapse formation. The connection of one neuron to another is a process vital for thinking, learning, and higher levels of brain function.  It should not be surprising that studies have demonstrated decreased levels of BDNF in Alzheimer’s patients. However it may come as a surprise is the association of BDNF with a variety of other neurological conditions, such as epilepsy, anorexia nervosa, depression, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Turning on the BDNF gene with aerobic exercise increases the amount of it, which has been shown to reverse memory decline in humans and actually increase growth of new brain cells in the brain’s memory center.

He also discusses other epigenetic factors which turn on the gene for BDNF production, namely caloric restriction, a ketogenetic diet, curcumin (the main active ingredient in the spice turmeric) and the fat docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which makes up 1/6 of our brains. It is all fascinating, and the upshot is that we are in control of all of these factors by the foods we choose to consume. We needn’t feel like victims – rather, we are empowered to encourage the expression of the best of our genetic code and suppress the worst.

Dr. Mercola also elaborates on how emotion, nutrition and environment impact our genetic expression:


He elaborates on the nutrition aspect by summarizing a study performed by the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University two years ago that was showcased at the annual Experimental Biology convention. The study demonstrated how “histone modifications” can impact the expression of many degenerative diseases, ranging from cancer and heart disease to biopolar disorder and even aging itself. According to Rod Dashwood, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology and head of LPI’s Cancer Chemoprotection Program, as quoted in a press release:

“We believe that many diseases that have aberrant gene expression at their root can be linked to how DNA is packaged, and the actions of enzymes such as histone deacetylases, or HDACs. As recently as 10 years ago we knew almost nothing about HDAC dysregulation in cancer or other diseases, but it’s now one of the most promising areas of health-related research.”

In a nutshell, we all have tumor suppressor genes (!!), and these genes are capable of stopping cancer cells in their tracks (!!!). These genes are present in every cell in your body, but so are proteins called “histones.” As Dr. Jean-Pierre Issa at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center explains, histones can “hug” DNA so tightly that it becomes “hidden from view for the cell.” If a tumor suppressor gene is hidden, it cannot be utilized, and in this way too much histone will “turn off” these cancer suppressors, and allow cancer cells to proliferate.

Now here’s where epigenetics comes in … certain foods, such as broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, garlic, and onions contain substances that act as histone inhibitors, which essentially block the histone, allowing your tumor suppressor genes to activate and fight cancer. By regularly consuming these foods, you are naturally supporting your body’s ability to fight tumors. (I’m running out of !!!!)

Certain alternative oncologists also tap directly into the epigenetic mechanism, such as Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, who uses a three-pronged approach to cancer based primarily on nutrition and detoxification, and Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, who treats cancer with a gene-targeted approach. His treatment uses non-toxic peptides and amino acids, known as antineoplastons, which act as genetic switches that turn your tumor suppressor genes “on.”

Mind = blown yet? If so, don’t worry – you can regenerate those brain cells! 🙂

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics