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By Nikki Temkin, Functional Medicine Coach

“Every day brings new evidence that the mind-body connection reaches right down to the activities of our genes. How this activity changes in response to our life experiences is referred to as “epigenetics”. Regardless of the nature of the genes we inherit from our parents, dynamic change at this level allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate.”

The above quote is from Deepak Chopra MD & Rudolph Tanzi MD, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. You might have heard this term bandied around as a cutting-edge area of medicine, biology and psychology but what exactly does it refer to?

Epigenetics literally means "above" our genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes "on" or "off." These modifications don’t alter the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells "read" genes. Such effects on cells and physiological phenotypic traits may result from external or environmental factors, or be part of normal development.

This fast-growing area of scientific research is revealing how environmental influences—children's experiences—affect the expression of their genes. During development, the DNA that makes up our genes accumulates chemical marks – they determine how much or little of the genes is expressed.

Epigenetics in psychology is offering an understanding of how the expression of genes is influenced by our experiences and our environment to produce individual differences in behaviour, cognition, personality, and mental health. Identical twins are the perfect example of epigenetics. Although they share exactly the same DNA, their unique experiences in life will cause some genes (and not others) to express themselves. This is why, over time, identical twins come to look and behave differently.

Most epigenetic changes that occur in sperm and egg cells are erased when the two combine to form a fertilized egg, in a process called "reprogramming." This reprogramming allows the cells of the foetus to "start from scratch" and make their own epigenetic changes. But scientists think some of the epigenetic changes in parents' sperm and egg cells may avoid the reprogramming process, and make it through to the next generation.

There are studies (1) that suggest that epigenetic marks may be passed down to descendants that cause them to behave in a certain way in response to experiences their grandparents had. For example, if your ancestors had to live on rations during a war, you might feel the need to stockpile food with an irrational fear of not having enough.

Scientists now believe that epigenetics can play a role in the development of some cancers. For instance, an epigenetic change that silences a tumour suppressor gene — a gene that keeps the growth of the cell in check — could lead to uncontrolled cellular growth. Another example might be an epigenetic change that "turns off" genes that help repair damaged DNA, leading to an increase in DNA damage, which in turn, increases cancer risk. Epigenetics can therefore be seen as a mechanism for regulating gene expression and to transcend innate predispositions. All of this gives ammunition to the argument that genes are not our destiny, our genotype is not our fate, and to the belief that depending on our conscious response to our environment and experiences, we have much more power than previously thought to influence our genetic expression positively and even possibly pass down those positive effects down to future generations.

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__________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance: Myths and Mechanisms by Edith Heard and Robert A. Martienssen



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