Epigenetics. Can you change your expression?


Questions for the future

Ever wonder about your genes? Why a member of your family develops a medical condition and you do not? Below is a brief description of what occurs in our bodies and why some of us are afflicted with medical issues while others are not. The truly fascinating part is that we may have more control over this area then originally thought.

Building blocks of life

DNA contains the instructions for our body. Genes are wrapped around proteins called histones covered with chemical tags; referred to as the epigenome. The histones wrap inactive genes and make them unreadable; and relax active genes making them readable. The tiny chemical tags can affix to a gene and can either shut it down or activate it. Different sets of genes are active in different cell types. The DNA code is fixed for life but the epigenome is flexible and responds to signals from our world. Signals such as diet, stress, and toxins will adjust our genes in response to our environment. What does this mean exactly? It can mean that our genes, good and bad, get activated or turned on by factors in our lives. Another analogy for this was comparing us to a computer and the epigenome to our software. The software instructs us how, when, and how much. The epigenome tells our cells what they should be. If this should be a hair cell, a skin cell, and so on. These instructions pass on as cells divide. Scientists now believe the instructions can change due to our environment.

It starts early then you think

That old saying of “you are what you eat” may actually have some credence in this case. As well as the need to control your environment and the effects the environment may have on you. This idea both excites me and terrifies me simultaneously. This expression of genes can begin in the womb while a child is still forming. There have been studies on pregnant mice undergoing stress and then the response it triggered in their children once they were born. These stresses resulted in emotional and developmental issues in the offspring. This speaks volumes to what may be happening to our children while still in the womb. (1) I was aware of factors affecting your unborn child for things like smoking, drinking, or doing drugs. I was not aware of something like stress. If the stress that your child is exposed to in the womb through you, can then alter your child’s gene expression, this gives all of us a lot to think about before we ever decide to become pregnant. This is something that is very personal for me.
This is personal

I wish this information was more readily available 17 years ago. I have a daughter that has a genetic periodic fever syndrome. A periodic fever syndrome is a group of disorders, many of which are genetic disorders, in which the mechanisms which initiate and control inflammation in the body are disturbed. This leads to uncontrolled inflammation throughout the body. The syndromes are diverse and vary in degrees of symptoms and long-term complications. What they all tend to have in common is that they cause fever, joint pains, abdominal pains, and may lead to chronic complications such as amyloidosis. Amyloidosis is where proteins become insoluble and are deposited into organ tissues causing dysfunction and sometimes failure. They are termed periodical because the fevers and other symptoms come on in cycles. The fevers can be as high as 104 F which is terrifying for any parent. My daughters cycle happens to be once a month for 3 to 5 days all through winter. Her best health times are during the summer and she can be fever free for up to 3 months before it begins again. Thus far the only treatment we have available to us to limit the length and severity of her flares is prednisone. Not exactly a good long-term drug to take for anyone. I have a son who doesn’t have this condition. I am aware that not every family member will inherit genetic disorders; in fact the chance of my child having this was 1 out of 4 children. Yet I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t contribute to her being the one. Stress was a huge factor during my pregnancy with my daughter. Financial issues as well as extended family tragedies occurred when I was 6 months pregnant and lasted until she was born. These were circumstance that I had little to no control over. I know I couldn’t change my outside factors but if I could have reacted differently to them maybe this wouldn’t now be her genetic expression to bear? With this same idea in mind, is there any way to help turn it off?

What can we change?

They have been using epigenetic therapy to try to turn off cancer cells with some success. (2) There is also some studies indicating diet and nutrition as factors to consider in epigenetics and turning on or off cancer cells. (3) With this thought in mind we have been trying for several years to control my daughter’s environment to better control her disorder. Stress can be a huge factor for her in throwing her body into what is termed a “flare” in these fever syndromes. Strenuous exercise and certain foods also trigger a flare. We try to avoid stress and when that’s not possible help her control her responses to it through guided meditation. (4) We limit the amount and type of exercise she gets and we try to follow an anti-inflammatory diet. What we do know about her particular fever syndrome is that her TNF or tumor necrosis factor is off. This causes or promotes the inflammatory response which leads to numerous health issues in the body. (5) I also look for studies that show what herbs and vitamins help with the TNF and she takes these. (6, 7, 8, 9)

I know that we can’t stop her body from having flares all together.  The idea is that  by dampening the inflammation in her body we can possibly prevent the damage chronic inflammation has. This in turn could lead to less long-term complications in her future. The biggest hope is that maybe all of this will also change her genetic expressions so she won’t pass this on to her children. If we can possibly alter the epigenome, even slightly, that gives us something to aspire to and feel like we have some control over an impossible situation. The ability to control your own health is what we are all after here. We are predisposed genetically to have a certain body type, a certain hair color, a certain eye color. We may even be genetically predisposed to certain genetic-diseases but to limit those risks seems like a good idea to me.

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” William Shakespeare.




3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23909721

4) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14650573

5) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/gene/7124


7) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17827696

8) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16008121

9) http://restorativemedicine.org/tag/ashwagandha-withania-somnifera/

Frances Vincen-Brown
I am a licensed esthetician, a Karuna Reiki Master, and a master herbalist student.