By Dr. Mercola
Genes are often thought of as a constant in the health equation; something you inherited from your mother and father and were more or less “stuck” with for the rest of your life. This, however, is selling yourself, and your genes, short.
While your genome, or the assembly of your DNA, does not change, your epigenome does — in response to a variety of factors, not the least of which is your diet. As explained by the National Human Genome Research Institute:1
“The epigenome is made up of chemical compounds and proteins that can attach to DNA and direct such actions as turning genes on or off, controlling the production of proteins in particular cells.
When epigenomic compounds attach to DNA and modify its function, they are said to have ‘marked’ the genome. These marks do not change the sequence of the DNA. Rather, they change the way cells use the DNA's instructions.
The marks are sometimes passed on from cell to cell as cells divide. They also can be passed down from one generation to the next.”
What is fascinating about the epigenome is your power to influence it on a daily basis via the foods you eat.
Your Diet Alters How Your Genes Behave
The genes in virtually all of your cells may be influenced by the nutrients available to them, according to a new study conducted in yeast cells. Yeast cells are simpler to study than animal models, but they display similar genes and cellular mechanisms to humans.
The study revealed that nutrients released from food led to changes in the way the genes function.2 The behavior of genes and the protein molecules produced were influenced by the availability of nutrients to the cell.
Proteins, in turn, provide structure or carry out chemical functions of the cell. Study author Markus Ralser, Ph.D., a biochemist at the University of Cambridge and the Francis Crick Institute, London, told the Daily Mail:3
“Cellular metabolism plays a far more dynamic role in the cells than we previously thought … Nearly all of a cell's genes are influenced by changes to the nutrients they have access to.
In fact, in many cases the effects were so strong, that changing a cell's metabolic profile could make some of its genes behave in a completely different manner … The classical view is that genes control how nutrients are broken down into important molecules …
We've shown that the opposite is true, too — how the nutrients break down affects how our genes behave.”
It’s not the first time diet has been shown to alter your genes. For instance, certain foods, such as broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, garlic, and onions contain substances that act as histone inhibitors, which essentially block the histone protein.
This allows 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.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric, is also known for its ability to modulate genetic activity and expression — both by destroying cancer cells, and by promoting healthy cell function.
For instance, research published in Biochemical Pharmacologyfound that curcumin inhibits the activation of NF-kappaB, a regulatory molecule that signals genes to produce a slew of inflammatory molecules (including TNF, COX-2 and IL-6) that promote cancer cell growth.4
Further, research using identical twins has shown that diet trumps genes in terms of the level of health you achieve.
Eating excessive quantities of sugar and grains may be especially damaging, as research shows carbohydrates directly affect two key genes in your body that govern longevity and youthfulness.5
Parents’ Eating Habits Influence the Health of Future Generations
Poor dietary choices can become encoded into the gene expression patterns (epigenome) of your DNA and your gut microbiome, leading to permanent changes in the balance of bacteria in your body — changes that may be passed onto your children.6
As noted in the Nutrition Journal,7 a mother’s diet may shape her child’s taste preferences in utero, skewing them toward vegetables or sweets, for instance. There’s also evidence that children inherit their microbiome from their mother, and part of this may be “seeded into the unborn fetus while still in the womb.”
If a mother has an imbalance of bacteria, she will pass this imbalance onto her child and “thus fails to present the ideal commensals for a proper immune education during her child’s most critical developmental window.
This developmental dysbiosis leaves the offspring’s immune system poorly trained to fight off infections and encourages autoimmune and allergic diseases,” the study’s author noted. In a study on mice, even failing to eat enough fiber was found to be problematic.
Low-fiber diets were found to cause "waves of extinction" in the guts of mice and this altered gut flora was passed on to offspring. As much as 60 percent of the microbe species suffered severe decline in the low-fiber group.8
In some cases their numbers remained low even after the mice were again given high-fiber meals, suggesting it can be quite difficult to repopulate certain gut bacteria once they've been severely diminished.
Each successive generation of offspring in the low-fiber group also ended up with less diversity than their parents, suggesting the problem compounds over generations.
Dad’s Diet Matters for Baby’s Health, Too
Even a father’s diet plays a role in his child’s future health, as “paternal epigenetics related to methylation of DNA and histones can also be inherited by the offspring and could alter early development of the immune system.” As researchers explained:9
“Since the information encoded upon DNA is passed from parent-to-child and even potentially from parent-to-grandchild, cells that learn bad habits like ignoring signs of infection or over-reacting to antigens could combine with microbiome shifts to further worsen a child’s immunologic development.”
Further, in regard to folate an animal study showed that paternal folate deficiency was associated with an increase in birth defects in offspring compared to fathers eating a folate-sufficient diet.
There was, in fact, a nearly 30 percent increase in birth defects, including severe skeletal abnormalities, among litters sired by fathers who were deficient in folate. The Epoch Times reported:10
"The research… shows that there are regions of the sperm epigenome that are sensitive to life experience and particularly to diet.
And that this information is in turn transferred to a so-called epigenomic map that influences development and may also influence metabolism and disease in the offspring in the long term.
The epigenome is like a switch, which is affected by environmental cues, and is involved in many diseases including cancer and diabetes. The epigenome influences the way that genes are turned on or off and hence how heritable information gets passed along.
Although it has been known for some time that there is a massive erasure and re-establishment that takes place in the epigenome as the sperm develops, this study… shows that along with the developmental map, the sperm also carries a memory of the father's environment and possibly even of his diet and lifestyle choices."
Solid Foods Shape Gut Microbiome in Babies by 9 Months
If you’re still dubious of the phrase “you are what you eat,” consider research published in mSphere that revealed solid foods take over shaping of gut microbiota by 9 months of age.11
Each individual's community of gut microbes is unique, and the groundwork for this gut flora is laid from birth. A baby basically "inherits" the microbiome from his or her mother, which is why it's so important to address your gut health before, during, and after pregnancy.
However, when researchers analyzed stool samples from children at 9 and 18 months, they found the major determinants of gut microbiota development were the length of time a mother breastfed the baby and their diet of solid foods (by 9 months, most of the children in the study had begun eating at least some solid foods).12
Breastfeeding helps establish a healthy gut flora in your baby, which is why breastfeeding is so crucial to your child's health. No infant formula has that same effect. However, once your baby is ready for solid foods, you’ll want to choose them carefully to further support a healthy microbiome in your child.
For instance, you can easily provide abundant probiotics in the form of fermented foods. This is one of the most powerful ways to restore and maintain your baby's beneficial gut flora. The first fermented food Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, creator of the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Nutritional Program, recommends for infants is raw organic grass-fed yogurt (not commercial yogurt from the grocery store), because it's well tolerated by most.
Ideally, make your own yogurt at home from raw organic milk, and start with a very tiny amount. Once yogurt is well tolerated by your baby, then start introducing kefir. If you have any problems with dairy, you can substitute vegetables fermented with yogurt culture or kefir culture.
From there, you can instill in your child a desire for healthy food choices, reduce risk of later obesity and other associated health risks, and promote the natural development of your child’s oral cavity, which could be helpful in preventing sleep problems by using baby-led weaning.
Your Gut Even Affects Your Bone Strength
The foods you eat shape the health of your microbiome, which in turn shapes your health, including influencing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity and even bone diseases like osteoporosis. Your body houses some 100 trillion bacteria, and about 1 quadrillion viruses (bacteriophages).
In essence, we're little more than walking microbe colonies, seeing how these bacteria outnumber your cells 10 to 1, and the bacteriophages in turn outnumber bacteria 10 to 1. These organisms perform a wide variety of functions, and we've now come to realize that they need to be properly balanced and nourished if we want to maintain good physical and mental health. Your genes, as it turns out, are only responsible for about 10 percent of diseases.
The remaining 90 percent are induced by environmental factors, and researchers are now realizing that your microbiome may be among the most important factors, as genes are turned on and off depending on which microbes are present. As mentioned, emerging science also shows that your microbiome can be rapidly altered, for better or worse, based on factors such as diet.
Your diet is one of the easiest, fastest, and most effective ways to improve and optimize your microbiome. So the good news is that you have a great degree of control over your health destiny. Even your bone health appears to be intricately linked to your gut microbiome.
For instance, research published in Current Osteoporosis Reports found that “modulation of the gut and its microbiome can affect bone density and strength in a variety of animal models … and humans.”13 As Scientific American further reported:14
“Some of the best evidence for this link comes from studying mice that were raised in sterile environments. These ‘germ-free mice’ are known to have greatly reduced microbiomes, and have been an extremely useful model system for studying the effects of the microbiome on various diseases.
In the context of bone health, these germ-free mice have increases in bone volume and density. Interestingly, if you introduce a microbial community to germ-free mice at young ages, these effects can be reversed, suggesting that the microbiome can regulate bone health.
These interesting results seem to be related to the immune system, and the microbiome's influence on maturation (or abnormal maturation) of immune cells. Different cells in the immune system can regulate bone density, and an imbalance in this regulation leads to diseases such as arthritis, cancer and osteoporosis (a disease in which bones become weak and brittle).”
Drinking May Lead to Liver Disease by Causing Imbalances in Your Gut
It’s widely known that alcohol is harmful to your liver, but it imparts its damage not only by damaging liver cells directly. Another reason why alcohol causes liver disease has to do with disruptions to gut microbiota. Interestingly, a series of recent experiments showed that alcohol downregulates two genes that produce antimicrobial molecules that have broad-spectrum activity against gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria.
Mice that lacked the two genes developed more bacteria in their guts along with more severe liver disease than normal mice.15 Scientific American explained why it’s not only what you eat but also what you drink that dictates your overall health:16
“The balance between microbes and immune defenses was upended and more bacteria were able to migrate through the gut wall into the body, eventually traveling through the bloodstream to the liver. T cells attacked the invaders and the resulting inflammation scarred the liver.
… [Researchers] completed the circle by looking at samples of human gut tissue taken during colonoscopies. Sure enough, heavy drinkers had more bacteria in their mucosa, just as was seen in the mouse model. That suggested the alcohol was suppressing production of the naturally protective peptides.”
You Are What You Eat, So Make Healthy Choices
The truth of the old adage that “you are what you eat” is becoming increasingly clear the more we learn about the microbiome and its intricate role in health. The best way to optimize your gut flora, and your overall health, is through your diet. Fermented foods are the best route to optimal digestive health, as long as you eat the traditionally made, unpasteurized versions.
Healthy choices include lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner), fermented grass-fed organic milk such as kefir, various pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash, and carrots, and natto (fermented soy). Fermented vegetables are an excellent choice to supply beneficial bacteria to your gut.
As an added bonus, they can also a great source of vitamin K2 if you ferment your own using the proper starter culture. Another wise choice is to simply swap processed foods for real foods, as described in my nutrition plan. People have thrived on vegetables, meats, eggs, fruits, and other whole foods for centuries, while processed foods were only recently invented.
Many of the top executives and scientists at leading processed food companies actually avoid their own foods for a variety of health reasons. If you want some ideas of delicious, healthy foods to get started eating right, here are 18 excellent foods packed with health-promoting compounds like antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals known to play a role in longevity.