By Dr. Mercola
What a woman eats and is exposed to during pregnancy can impact not only the future health of her child, but also that of her grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
It's difficult to really get your mind around this concept, as it is quite astonishing to think that what your grandmother or great grandmother was exposed to during pregnancy may have an impact on your health today… but that is what the research is showing…
Breast Cancer Risks May Carry Over for Three Generations
In a study on rats, those exposed to chemicals or foods that raise estrogen levels during pregnancy produce daughters that have a higher than normal risk for breast cancer – and that risk is passed on to the next two generations. It was not genetic mutations that were passed on, but rather epigenetic alterations that influence the expression of your genes.
The researchers analyzed DNA methylation, a normal process that allows cells to perform different actions by turning gene expression off. The rat descendants with increased breast cancer risk had "several hundred common DNA regions that were methylated differently than in a control group, providing statistically convincing evidence that breast cancer risk can be transmitted via epigenetic means."1
Dramatic Impact of Diet on Multiple Generations Revealed in the 1930s…
Starting in the 1930's, Francis M. Pottenger, Jr., M.D., conducted a now classic study on cats, which showed the power of nutrition in impacting multiple generations. Over a period of 10 years, Pottenger conducted studies involving upwards of 900 cats, which were fed either a healthy raw-food diet or a "junk-food" diet consisting mostly of cooked meat.
The cats on the raw-food diet thrived while those eating the cooked meat developed health problems – and the effects persisted in their offspring. While the cooked-meat cats of the first generation developed degenerative diseases later in life (and reportedly became lazy), the second-generation cats started to get sick in mid-life.
By the third generation, the cats developed degenerative diseases very early in life, had a shorter lifespan, and some were born blind. Many of the third-generation cats could not reproduce, and those that did produced even sicker offspring that often died within six months. By the fourth generation, the "junk food" cats died off completely.
You can read the details for yourself in the book Pottenger's Cats: A Study in Nutrition – the fact of the matter is, epigenetic changes have been found to be passed down through generations for decades now…
In 2010, research presented at the 101st 2010 meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington DC similarly showed that when pregnant rats were fed an unhealthy diet, both their daughters and granddaughters proved to be at greater risk of breast cancer.2 Even if the daughters of the first generation of rats ate healthy, their offspring – the third generation – were still at greater risk of disease.
Additional research has shown that rat fetuses that received poor nutrition while in the womb experienced epigenetic changes that primed them for a nutrition-poor environment once they were born, thereby increasing their risk of health problems ranging from diabetes and heart disease to obesity3 – and it's been shown now that these changes may last for two generations or more…
Are Rising Breast Cancer Rates the Product of Modern-Day "Food"?
It's easy to forget that the processed, pre-packaged foods and fast food restaurants of today are actually a radical change in terms of the history of food production. The modern frozen food business didn't begin until the mid 1920's when the General Seafoods Company set up shop and began selling crudely frozen fish filets, and fast food restaurants didn't get a foothold until after World War II.
So it could be that we're now looking right at these generational effects, caused by our grandparents' – and for the younger generations, great grandparents' – dietary changes.
If that's the case, then we have even more incentive to make drastic changes, and soon, because the disease trends we're now seeing are only going to get worse as much of the processed foods consumed today are not even food-based! Who knows what kind of genetic mutations and malfunctions we're creating for our future generations when a MAJORITY of our diet consists of highly processed and artificial foods.
Exposures to Synthetic Estrogens on the Rise
Substances that mimic estrogen in your body, and may increase breast cancer risk, are found liberally in the modern-day diet, in soy products, bovine growth hormones (rBGH, found in dairy prodcuts), and even in food additives like the preservative propyl gallate, and 4-hexylresorcinol, which is used to prevent discoloration in shrimp and other shellfish.
But you're also exposed to estrogen-mimicking chemicals from plastic food containers, personal care products, non-stick cookware, and other common sources.
The problem is so bad that researchers have expressed concern that children may be exposed to so many synthetic hormone-mimicking chemicals they could potentially overtake the actions of his or her natural hormones! And considering pregnant women are also exposed to these chemicals, the effects in utero cannot be ignored.
For instance, parabens – hormone-mimicking chemicals that are widely used in personal care products like shampoo, lotion, deodorant, shaving gel and cosmetics – have been detected in breast cancer tissues at concentrations up to 1 million times higher than the estrogen (estradiol) levels naturally found in human breast tissue.4 And, the presence of paraben esters have been detected in 99 percent of breast cancer tissues sampled...5
As breast cancer rates continue to climb, it's quite clear that our future generations could pay the biggest price of all if our food and environment continue to be contaminated with synthetic estrogens and other toxins.
The Good News: You Can Influence the Expression of Your Genes
Even if you know your mother (or grandmother) had a terrible diet while pregnant, or was exposed to a significant amount of synthetic estrogens or other toxins, it doesn't mean the die has been cast for your health.
As you age, your genome does not change but your epigenome changes dramatically, especially during critical periods of life, such as adolescence. It is influenced by lifestyle, diet, and physical and emotional stresses – how you respond to everything that happens in your environment, from climate change to childhood abuse.
The secret is in the methyl groups that modulate the DNA in your body, which is the realm of the epigenome. When a gene is turned off epigenetically, the DNA has usually been "methylated," the biological equivalent of being silenced. When methyl groups adhere to a segment of DNA, they inhibit the gene from being expressed.
For the most part you do not manifest disease merely by a defective gene, but by the regulation or expression of your gene by epigenetic influences. Even if you inherited a certain increased disease risk from your mother or grandmother, you can therefore change it.
How to Optimize Your Genetic Expression
A healthy diet is a wonderful start. For instance, 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 explained, histones can "hug" DNA so tightly that it becomes "hidden from view for the cell."6 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.
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."
If you're ready to address your dietary choices, read through my comprehensive and recently revised nutrition plan, which will give you tips and tools for eating healthy, dealing with stress, and living a lifestyle that will support your epigenetic health.
You can also turn your genes off and on with your emotions too. Many, if not most people carry emotional scars -- traumas that can adversely affect health. Using techniques like energy psychology, you can go in and correct the trauma and help regulate your genetic expression. My favorite technique for this is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).
Finally, if you are looking for tips to reduce your breast cancer risk specifically, you can find my eight top tips for breast cancer prevention here.