Healthy Living

Epigenetics: What Does That Mean? Why Do We Care?

05/04/2017 06:03pm ET | Updated May 5, 2017

Nowadays, a lot of people are talking about genetics and what finding out about our genes can mean for us. How can it impact our everyday life? Our health? Our future?

Many of my patients think that if it’s in their genes, they have no capability of altering outcome. If it’s in our genetic code, that means we’ll get it for sure right?

Wrong… the real answer is… maybe…

There are things we can’t change that was determined by our genetics like our eye color, our hair color… well, even nowadays we can change that with colored contacts and hair coloring. But in general, those things, our environment and habits can’t change that. But other aspects of what is in our genetics can be modified… based on what we do and how we live.

That’s right, you heard me correctly… you can alter your gene expression and it’s modifiable… and that, my friends, are what epigenetics refers to. The fact that some gene expression are modifiable without changing the actual genetic code, it’s the expression that is modified by outside impacting effects like how we live, eat, sleep, etc.

Let me give you some examples of how this could be possible.

For example, if you have the genetic predisposition for celiac disease, which symptoms occur when you consume gluten, let’s say you never eat gluten in your entire life. Could you still get celiac disease symptoms? The answer is no because it is triggered by gluten exposure. Imagine this, the treatment for celiac disease to shut down the disease is to avoid gluten, correct? For people who stop eating gluten, the genetic marker is still there but the antibodies that suggest celiac disease will disappear. This is a good example of what lifestyle changes can do for disease expression. This is the concept of epigenetics.

What if you have the genetic predisposition for diabetes, does that mean you’ll for sure get it full blown? The answer is that if you never eat processed sugars or carbohydrates and your diet is mostly vegetables and healthy proteins like fish or low sugar nuts, then the likelihood for you getting full blown diabetes is low. Sure, for those with genetic risks for diabetes, you have to eat a lot more strictly to avoid diabetes, but it’s still do-able.

A lot of my new patients will come in and say that because their parents have diabetes, it’s in their genes and that they can’t help but have diabetes so why not give in and just eat what they want. The point is that there is a chance that they have inherited more than just the genes for diabetes, they also usually have inherited the habits of their parents of consuming sugars and carbohydrates.

Lifestyle habits are just as important as your genetics when it comes to disease presentation or expression. If you know you have a higher chance for diabetes, simply eating a mostly vegetable, complex carbs, and healthy protein diet and no simple carbs or sugars, will give you a better chance at not having diabetes be an issue at all…or at the very least, have it not be an issue until your later years.

The message I want to convey here is that you are not a slave to your genetics. My patients with rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, migraines, lupus and other kinds of diseases that have genetic predispositions can attest to the fact that just because you have the genes for it and just because you have had issues with these diseases, if you change your lifestyle and diet in a way that shuts down the disease expression, you can have power over your destiny instead of assuming that you’ve been sentenced definitively to various disease states.

Obviously, when you make lifestyle changes and your symptoms or labs are improved, that doesn’t mean you are now free from all impact of your genes. If you go back to eating poorly or treating your body poorly, the issues will come back because it’s in your genes and we can’t change your genetic code.

Let’s use the celiac disease example again. If you never eat gluten, your celiac disease propensity may not be expressed but once you do eat it, it will become active but if you stop eating it, the markers for celiac disease could and will go away. But if you eat it again, it’ll come back. The genetic code doesn’t change, but expression of disease does based on your behavior.

So, takeaway point is this… whether the genes are being expressed one way or another… well, some of that is up to you.