Switching our genes
Step 2 of your biology in this Embracing the ‘omes series, relates to our epigenome. The epigenome (“on top of genes”) is directly related to your genome, which we discussed in our previous blog and which is the map of genes that you have. The epigenome is like a series or switches on your genes, and determines whether particular genes are set to on or off. For example, when we are hot, we have switches that regulate our stress responses and make us sweat to cool off – but it is rather unpleasant if we are sweating all the time. So we need a very complex suite of switches to keep things turning on at the right time, and importantly, to be turned off again.
Foods that switch
Sometimes there are switches that get turned on and, for some reason, don’t get turned off again. These switch positions can even be inherited across generations, from parent to child or even grandchildren, before the switches are reset. It is important that the switches of the epigenome work everyday so that you can adapt and function throughout your day. The switches get turned on and off by a number of molecular codes that are activated by our environment and even delivered through what we eat. Therefore, your dietary choices have an effect on your epigenome, and sometimes on your generations to come.
Inflammatory states are often an epigenetic state with certain switches turned on. We need inflammation to counteract disease or injury, but we also need it to turn off again. The wrong molecular switching is also thought to be the way that we get many cancers. For example, folate is known to be important in controlling the switches on genes that protect us from cancer, and a folate deficient diet is linked to higher cancer rates. Adding folate back into the diet can also turn the epigenetics switches back on.
Folate belongs to a group of nutrients, including B6 and B12, as well as Amino acids methionine, betaine, and choline, that are called methyl-nutrients. This is because the methyl group (CH3) in these molecules can be donated as a switch on top of your genetics, to restore your epigenetic settings. It has been shown that diets deficient in methyl nutrients lead to abnormalities in your gene settings, and that having adequate methyl-nutrients allows your genes to switch on and back off when needed.
Holly leaves are prickly for a reason - are you?
The methyl type of epigentic switch is also the reason why some holly leaves are prickly and others are not. Methylation switches in holly leaves get turned on or off depending on whether there are grazers around, not because of the foundational genetics alone. Maybe we get prickly too for a reason, and it is good to know that there are things we can do to reset the prickles.
Things that affect our epigenome
Diets that are deficient in diverse molecules, including methyl nutrients, can negatively impact our epigenome. We need to be able to restore our epigenome and we can do this by making sure we have adequate methyl nutrients in our diet. Methyl rich foods include cauliflower, eggs, flax seeds, lentils, liver, peanuts, soybeans and wheat germ, asparagus, cheese, eggs, fortified breads and cereals, legumes, liver, peanuts, oranges and spinach. You can get your methyl nutrients from seaweed as well, including B12 which is rare in plant products. There are the daily requirements of B12 in just 1.4g of our green seaweed, which is as easy as sprinkling 10g of Phukka on your scrambled eggs or eating a bowl of Phettuccine or SeaSpirals.
Lifelong and regular exercise has been shown to accelerate the resetting of your epigenetic switches. This is one way that moderate exercise is known to help us live longer and younger years.
Inadequate sleep will also alter epigenetic switches, especially ones in our brain neurons, so that we just can’t fire them properly anymore. This is why sleep deprivation is a form of torture, and sleep is an epigenetic reset that we should never underestimate.
What you learn and experience as a child turns certain epigenetic switches to a set pattern to the next stage of learning. This is sort of a bit scary because some things that you learn will influence your thinking for a longer time. But it is also a relief to know that learning is not set by the genes we have alone, and that we can shift our epigenome through more learning and experiences. This is related to what is known as brain plasticity. Switches can be turned on and off to open up and close down different parts of our neuron pathways. Once again, these switches require that we support them with the right molecules for switching, and the opportunities for resetting through sleep and exercise.
Exposure to pollutants
The finest air pollution particles known as PM2.5 act as stressors in our lungs and can negatively affect our epigenome, causing oxidative stress and inflammation. It has been shown that B vitamins can help to counteract the effect of air pollution on the epigenome. Methyl foods have been shown to restore the epigenome in our lungs in studies on fine particle air pollution, so think about this next time we are going through bushfire smoke or polluted cities.
Relax, knowing we can change
In summary, epigenetic switches can be changed by what we eat and how we live, including sleep, exercise, mental stimulation and degrees of chemical exposure. Some switches might have been changed by our parents and handed down with the switch already on, or off. This is why it is important to consider that what we eat, how we live and even exposure to environmental chemicals will not only affect us, but also the next generations. Each step we take, minute we sleep, good food we eat and chemical exposure that we avoid helps our epigenome reset itself. This can be motivating for us to keep up these healthy routines with a smile, knowing that the epigenome switches are working away.