Last weekend I went to the Integrative Healthcare Symposium in NYC and I got to hear a lot of my heroes speaking about medicine, gut health, and nutrition.
What is Epigenetics
Dr. Jeff Bland, the "father" of functional medicine, spoke first. He introduced the concept of "epigenetics" which is a revolutionary new field of science. “Epi” means “above,” so epigenetics is referring to what happens “above the genes” that affects how your genes are expressed.
Let’s backtrack a moment to high school bio class:
We're all born with a set of genes, and we are stuck with them. We can’t change the hardwiring of our genetic code. That may sound like tough luck, especially if your parents have heart disease, breast cancer, depression or they’re overweight.
But there is some wonderful, inspiring news coming from the field of epigenetics. Basically, there are epigenetic markers that can tell certain genes to turn on and off.
So the food we eat, the drugs we take, the time we spend in nature, how we handle stress – all of these are epigenetic factors that have an impact on how our genes are expressed.
An analogy: your genome is the hardware, and the epigenome is the software.
He showed this photo of prisoners in Oregon which gives a dramatic example. You can see that because of lifestyle factors (ie drug use), the genese of these prisoners are expressed in a different way over the space of just a few years.
Food is Information
Next we got to my main area of interest - how our food affects our health. Jeff Bland teaches that food is information - it speaks to our genes and tells certain genes to turn on and off. This is where the rubber hits the road, where the environment affects the epigenome.
For example, eating "white" foods (flour, sugar) triggers an alarm response in cells, which leads to inflammation. The nutrient signature imprints our cells with information. As the Atlantic article explains below, “eating fruits and vegetables can ‘turn off’ the heart attack genes, and exercise can sway the development of stem cells.”
Things started to get pretty technical and powerpoint slides whizzed by. But I can tell you one thing that Dr. Bland said quite simply:
Dead food gives dead information. Live food supports life.
Dr. Bland ended with a simple takeaway message: eat foods rich in phytochemicals, which are colorful plant foods - from red tomatoes to blue berries to leafy greens. And if you want to harness the power of epigenetics for good, then take care of your genome, because it's the most precious thing you own!
You can learn more about Epigenetics here:
Time Magazine: Why Your DNA Isn't Your Destiny
Time Magzine: How the First Nine Months Shape the Rest of Your Life
The Atlantic: How Health and Lifestyle Choices Can Change Your Genetic Make-up