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Epigenetics, women's health, and worrying--guess what? It's not helpful.

cancer prevention epigenetics hormonal imbalance hormone balance methylation nutrition

Many women have mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers who’ve had “female troubles” as they used to say. Whether it’s life-long painful periods, a wicked bad menopausal transition, or a gynecological cancer like breast, uterine or ovarian cancer, many of us worry that the genes we have in common with our female relatives mean we are destined to have the same health problems. Most frightening, of course, is cancer.

I know this first-hand having a mom that died of ovarian cancer and a sister who has survived breast cancer. It can be scary to think that one is genetically pre-determined to get cancer. The truth is that so many diseases, including cancer, are far more complex than having one (or 30!) genes that are associated with it.

In the last 15 years or so there’s really been a “sea-change” in the field of genetics. Instead of focusing on the structure of the DNA, the blueprint if you will, of our bodies, biologists and geneticists have explained the science of epigenetics, the genetics “above” the genes. Epigenetics looks at the way our genes are turned on (expressed) and off (silenced) in the context of different environmental cues. This can be anything that affects the development of our bodies all the way back to when we were in our mothers’ wombs. This is why mom’s diet is so important during pregnancy.

The genes are contributed to the fetus but epigenetic patterns and settings are passed down as well. Early on in life we further sculpt these patterns and still have the ability to influence them in adulthood, although less so than in childhood. One of the best ways to influence gene expression is through nutrition. This is especially exciting for me, given that I’m a naturopathic doctor counseling patients on nutrition every day!

The diet and supplement plans I recommend to patients are based on both genetic and epigenetic considerations. I need to understand where you came from, essentially, to understand where your health is going. This is the bedrock of individualized medicine and takes into account the differences as well as similarities amongst patients. Please see below for some food and product recommendations. 

In the field of biology, much of the research on epigenetics has been done with identical twins. You would think that given the fact they have almost identical DNA that their health trajectories would also be identical. What is fascinating is that twins who grow up in the same household or in close proximity geographically have far more in common than those that grow up further apart. The environment plays a role in how the genetic blueprint is transformed into an actual human being and as I said earlier this goes back to the intra-uterine environment.

Evidence from various studies show that even personal experiences, whether good or bad, can affect the way your genes are functioning. Holy cow, right? It really does matter how we process the life events that we experience. Chronic stress and poverty have long been associated with higher rates of many different diseases. This is another reason naturopathic medicine has so much to offer folks. We are trained to think about the connections between mind and body, not by limiting our inquiry into pathology by taking away all other variables.

When it comes to hormones as well, even a small shift can produce large changes on tissues, glands, mind-sets and moods. Be it inflammation or problems with metabolism, my understanding of epigenetics helps me address the overall health of my patients. That includes the work I do with hormone-balancing.

The two main mechanisms of epigenetics are methylation and histone acetylation. They work in tandem with one another to allow cells to make accurate copies of themselves, which is happening all the time in our tissues. Helping to support these mechanisms of epigenetics means keeping the genes we want to express, turned on, and keeping the genes we want silenced, turned off.

This is accomplished by an individualized diet, a customized supplement regimen and counseling around stress-reduction and sleep hygiene. With proper self-care you can decrease the likelihood that you will encounter the same problems that family members may be, or may have, struggled with. It isn’t easy, but it is essential. And as a practitioner that listens to peoples stories every day, it sure is interesting!

If you want to know more about the top foods and products I recommend for methylation support please click HERE.

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