Epigenetics Coming Closer and Closer to Understanding the Heredity of Disease
Methylation is a concept I have been familiar with for a while now, but I never quite understood its significance when it came to Genetics. I’ve also understood for some time that certain life experiences can have a lasting impact on your body and brain’s ability to cope with stressors, viruses, cancer, aging, etc. But up until recently, most of my understanding was limited to a few rat studies, and I still wasn’t quite clear on exactly how this process works.
For as long as I can remember, Nature versus Nurture has been a huge topic of discussion and debate. Were you just born that way, or did life experiences shape you into this person you have become? The easy answer is, Yes And…. Yes, you have a thing called DNA and it has encoded within it, a set of instructions to make you. And at the same time, people and experiences shape who you become, physically, mentally emotionally and spiritually. But with the new-ish field of study known as epi-genetics, we are getting very close to understanding how these two forces – nature and nurture – effect us on a genetic level.
The term epi-genetics, which means “above” or “around” the genes, refers to several activities that occur on the strands of DNA in our body. One such process is known as Methylation. Methylation is essentially like a bookmark, put in place right above a very specific set of DNA code. But instead of just holding its place in the “book” this methyl group constricts this piece of code. You see, the DNA has to be unwound in a sense, and read like an audiotape. The RNA needs to read these codes and go about making new cells based off this recipe. The methyl group actually restricts, it covers up the information within that certain section. It binds tightly, making the unraveling an impossible task.
It turns out, we were on to this many years ago when studies were performed, where people would handle baby rats. The baby rats that were handled by humans and then placed back in the mother’s cage, would end up being far more resistant to the effects of stress that were put onto it later. We originally thought it had something to do with our touch. What we have since learned is that it has more to do with the Mother than with us humans. We’re nasty, filthy creatures, so after handling the baby rats, the mother sets about the task of cleaning these now dirty little babies. That extra attention that was shown to the baby rats? Well, it made them less prone to anxiety and more resilient during stressful tasks.
Many variations of this test were performed in order to see if we were interpreting things incorrectly. In each instance it continued to come back to the idea that early developmental periods which consisted of a lot of nurturing and soothing gestures affected forever the rat’s ability to cope with stress.
But up until recently, we didn’t really know why. With the ever-growing field of epi-genetics, however, those answers are coming in at an exciting clip.
Stress, both physical as well as mental and emotional, not to forget mentioning drug use, effects how our DNA becomes methylated. It has been shown that children who are bullied as youngsters, who have a genetic variation in their dna for serotonin transporters, have a much higher propensity towards life long issues of depression and anxiety. This still points to a purely genetic factor though – but I suspect as we continue to study this, we will find that the bullying itself may cause methylation points in the DNA of these youngsters, such that it becomes almost a cause rather than just a confounding factor.
I won’t go on much more about this, and will finish with a final thought, and then I’ll share a link to an article that really blew my mind about this field.
If you’re struggling with weight issues, if you have a hard time coping with stress, if you find that you never seem to get the joy out of life that others have, I want you to know that it is not as simple as a matter of “willing” yourself back to health. In some instances, as you will see in the article, these methylation points may have occurred in your parents or grandparents even, and so you inherited this propensity before you even opened your eyes for the first time. BUT…. There is hope. Researchers are looking at various genetic therapies, and drugs that might help undo this “bookmarking” causing you the blues or making you fat. I also want to point out one more thing —- Just because you may discover that you’re being fat is “not your fault” but rather encoded in your genes, I want you to take responsibility. I don’t want this to be a copout. I want it to serve as a reminder that we are more than our thoughts, our will, our emotions, or our physical shape. But there are ways to shifting the odds in your favor. Even Meditation is showing a promising effect on autism and at its root may be the mind’s ability to fix that methylation point which is causing the dis-ease. So if you’re serious about changing your body, your mind, your heart and your spirit, then you are in the right place, after all that is what my blog is about. Pushing the genetic envelope, or bookmark in this case, and learning of ways to overcome those blocks in our development.