While you may have a family history of obesity, diabetes, heart disease or even cancer, studies on how environmental factors influence and regulate gene activity— epigenetics— suggest day-to-day choices can defy supposed genetic predispositions and fight disease.
In 2000, a groundbreaking experiment at Duke University showed the large role that nutrition plays in gene expression. Mice that carried the agouti gene were diabetic, obese, yellow-haired, and at a high risk of developing cancer. But when they were fed a diet of methyl-rich foods— those high in B-vitamins and folic acid— before and during pregnancy, their offspring were thin and brown, with the agouti gene effectively repressed.
The agouti mice experiment shows that what you eat can increase or decrease the likeliness of your children suffering from certain diseases and conditions through a process called DNA methylation. Methylation determines which genes are expressed and is crucial in modifying the activity of bad genes. An example comes from a study published by the Annals of Oncology, where it was found that high concentrations of methyl donors (the compounds that make methylation possible) in blood plasma resulted in a decreased risk of contracting cancer.
In addition to diet, research suggests stress can also impact DNA methylation. Conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can actually cause changes in your brain and behavior that eventually influence how your future children and grandchildren will handle stressful and social situations. Having an understanding of how nutrition and stress affect DNA may actually help prevent your family from falling victim to diseases that have plagued it for generations.
Here are a few ways to optimize the benefits of epigenetics and methylation:
Eat beans and dark greens
Methylation can’t happen without methyl, and folic acid is full of it. If you’re a mom-to-be, you want to eat foods high in folic acid like beans and dark leafy vegetables. Remember, what you eat now will affect the health of your child, as shown in this study published in Diabetes, which looked at the weight of 300 children at birth and then during childhood. Regardless of their mothers’ weight, the study showed that her diet directly affected the weight of her child.
Have some lean animal protein each day
Vitamin B6 and B12 are also essential for methylation, and lean animal products, like chicken, turkey and fish, are great sources of these vitamins. Make sure you’re having at least one to two servings per day, consisting of three to four ounces.
Track Your HRV
Because stress plays a role in which of your genes will express themselves, monitoring it is key. A way to do this is with heart rate variability (HRV) training. HRV measures the intervals between your heartbeats, and if you have a low HRV, it means your heartbeats lack variability— and you likely don’t get enough rest and relaxation time or physical activity, as these would cause your heart rate patterns to change. Low HRV is associated with heart attacks, high cholesterol and heart disease. Like most things in the world, there’s an app for this! Using a heart rate monitor— either chest strap or finger sensor— that’s compatible with a smartphone app, such as Inner Balance (which I love), iThlete and SweetBeat, you can track your HRV and change your daily habits accordingly.