On top of your genes

I am an avid learner.

I recently went to a Café Sciéntifique hosted by the CIHR, and 4 brilliant researchers in medicine:  Dr. Anthony PhillipsDr. Tom BoyceDr. Michael Kobor, & Dr. Martin Hirst.

This is what I learned.

Epigenetics is the study of changes in the regulation of gene activity and expression that are not dependent on alterations in the gene sequence. There is a rapidly growing realization that complex diseases ranging from asthma, diabetes, addiction, schizophrenia, inflammatory bowel disease to the majority of cancers, may involve an interplay between specific environmental factors related to epigenetic regulation of the genetic blueprint. Epigenetics provides a compelling model for how environmental influences throughout development can have life-long (and potentially multi-generational) effects on human health.

– Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR)

Translation: Epigenetics is the field of research that I have always wished for.

Lives are complex. Bodies are complex. Nature is complex.


Health is one giant complexuous ball of yarn.

Epigenetics is beginning to unravel the weave of these complexities.

Nature or Nurture? The debate begins.

Why do twins, separated at birth have the same diseases, likes, and tendencies? Nature! we say.

But then, how is it that children raised with healthy soil, air, food and low stress environments within higher economic status have lower incidence of disease? Nurture! we say.

I think we could all, from experience, say it is both. Though, we do tend to side with one or the other, when it is convenient for our own mental motivation.

The nature side: “I’m not smart” “I’ll never be the all-star” “I am a depressed/sick/ugly/any other adjective person”

The nurture side: “My mom/dad/caregiver screwed me up” “If I just keep ‘cleansing’, I will be immune from disease” “If I change my life/home/partner this condition will go away”

Of course, there are examples where it is perfectly appropriate to assign nature & nurture, but let’s focus on epigenetics, where the lines are a little fuzzy. I like the enigma of health.


In the 1950’s, we lived in a world of Radical Environmental Determinism

Radical – as in the latin term for ‘root’. We, as a society, believed that the determinants of all health & development were rooted in environmental influences (everything that influences you, after conception).

Some may remember this in the derogatory term ‘Refrigerator Mothers’ when referring to autistim & schizophrenia being a direct result of a lack of maternal warmth. Mothers in this era, bore an unequal burden; as we now know that yes warmth is one, but not the only, factor involved in autism.

Other theories that still exist today are that  foods, metal accumulation, antibiotics and more, cause these conditions; None of which are wrong, but not one of which completes the picture. As naturopathic doctors, we hold our environmental causes as a pillar in our practice. If we hold too tightly to this theory, we close our eyes to other factors in health.

As we learned in Grade 10 biology – thanks to fruit flies & Mendel’s quadrants – hair, height, skin & eye colour and some other traits, are attached to genes, but we knew little else of what was determined by the miniscule bundled spirals in the billions of cells in our bodies.

When the human genome project was initiated in 1990, and then completed more than a decade later, we began to see parts of health, that were inextricably linked to the DNA strands within us.


Enter the 21st century, when Radical Genetic Determinism took the reins of health determinant research, with it’s strong rebuttal.

Genes trump nature. This theory has had it’s glorified moment in the spotlight.

Now we “know” it is neither but both. Disease is a result of a particular vulnerability combined with a challenge in situation or environment. We are learning that the layers of complexity turn up and down like dimmer switches, creating illness or wellness depending on who turned which lights on.


I call it Radical Spectrum Determinism – where health is determined in the strength spectrum of genes, environment and socioeconomic status.

What we know so far, is that the switches in your genes &  histones (your bundles of genes) are regulated by methyl tags. 10 years ago, in my undergraduate degree, I had decided that DNA problems related to B12 (methylcobalamin) deficiencies in fetal development, were actually methyl deficiencies. I had concluded that methylation was one of the main processes in regulating health. I am pretending that they have built this research on my small paper. It helps me feel involved.

Methylation of your genes is triggered on and off by everything and anything. A healthy future is not about supplementing methyl as much as regulation of it. Too much and too little can cause illness.  You can achieve all the methyl you need in a healthy, varied diet. Your methylation regulation is up to how your body & mind manage what you have in you.

We have also come to realize that Socio-Economic Status (SES) which has long been a controlled-for variable in studies, not only changes study results, but has a tangible affect on the long term health of populations. Translation: We knew it was a dimmer switch, but only recently thought to consider how much light it shed.


In fact SES is the single most important determinant in disease in children.

I take the assumption that this is related to household stress levels. I don’t know how this holds up in societies where finance/status is not a stressful concern, but in my western world, economic status rates fairly high on the scale of stressful concern. My sense is that particularly within Vancouver’s economic profile,  SES plays a role in household stress. There are clear patterns, found in research on Vancouver citizens, that show parental stress in the foundational years is directly related to inflammatory markers  (such as CRP & certain interleukins) found in individuals age 16-24.  

In a more extreme example, situations that trigger PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) turn the dimmer switches for inflammation on full blast and make them sticky – or more difficult to “turn off”.

What has been found is that hugging, – or as researchers call it ‘maternal warmth’ – in the first 5 years of life, can turn these switches down or off. 


In fact, mama’s kisses can make the pain go away.

I believe this is all evidence to maintain strong social support & financial aid programs, subsidized education, and community events. Canada does have a great system, and it can always improve. We need to consider how healthcare costs are really affected when we marginalize access to social & economic benefits. If we really want to see societal health improve, we need to roll all these theories into one.

Oh hey, Epigenetics has rolled all these theories into one.

How that relates to you?

Eat well. Hug more. Support your community, as best you can.

Many hands, light work, healthy society.