There was a fascinating article entitled "DNA Is Not Destiny" just published in the November 2006 issue of Discover magazine1. It discusses a new science called "epigenetics." As I read through it, it almost seemed like science fiction.

The article covers an amazing study performed in a group of mice called agouti mice. It seems that these mice have a particular gene called the agouti gene which causes them to be yellow, markedly overweight from overeating and prone to diseases like cancer and diabetes. Researchers from Duke University fed the female mice a diet rich in methyl donors. There are many foods rich in methyl donors, including onions, beets, garlic and certain food supplements. To the amazement of the researchers, the majority of offspring of these mice were slender and brown in color and, additionally, didn't have an increased incidence of disease (like their parents), with the mice living to an old age. Researchers noted that the effects of the agouti gene had been "virtually erased". Although the offspring of the agouti mice did get the agouti gene, the methyl-rich diet fed to the mother mice basically turned off the deleterious effects of the agouti gene.

Although our DNA comes from our parents, there is an array of chemical markers and "switches" associated with DNA that are collectively known as epigenome. These epigenomes can literally turn on and off genes in our DNA. The article indicates that researchers are increasingly noting that an extra vitamin, brief exposure to a toxin or even added mothering can cause changes in the epigenome and, thereby, have a direct effect on genes. It further notes, something which I found rather unbelievable, "simply put and bizarre as it may sound, what you eat or smoke today could affect the health and behavior of your great grandchildren."

Researchers throughout the country are currently trying to identify these epigenomes, which can obviously be altered a lot easier than our genes. There is reportedly already one epigenetic drug that's been approved by the FDA against certain forms of pre-leukemia or smoldering leukemia. The article does indicate that, for example, folic acid which is rich in methyl donors, has been shown, without question, to positively affect offspring in regard to spina bifida and other similar conditions. It would seem that the methyl groups from the folic acid in some way beneficially affect the genes that would cause this condition. It appears that the field of epigenetics is still in its infancy but, I suspect, will become a major thrust in medical research in the coming years.

In keeping with this epigenetic phenomenon, there was an article published in the October 2006 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition2. The cohort study was performed at the prestigious Harvard Medical programs of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. Researchers looked at maternal nutrient intake (including foods and supplements) during pregnancy and effects it had on their two-year old children regarding wheezing and eczema. A total of 590 mother-child pairs were involved. Nutrient intake during first and second trimesters, along with antioxidant nutrient intake, was calculated. It was found that the highest intake of vitamin E and zinc by mothers was inversely associated with any wheezing by the children at two years of age. The study suggested that higher maternal intake of antioxidants during pregnancy may decrease risk of wheezing illnesses in early childhood.

In a study just published in the October 23, 2006 edition of the journal of the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers studied effects of alcohol consumption and risk of coronary heart disease3. A cohort of almost 9,000 men, free of any major illness, from the Health Professions Follow-up study, participated in this perspective study. Not only were these men healthy, they were non-smokers, not overweight, exercised at least 30 minutes daily and consumed diets heavy in fruits, vegetables, fish and polyunsaturated fats. During the follow-up period from 1986 to 2000, 106 men suffered a heart attack. Almost 1,300 men were identified as having about two drinks a day. Only eight of these 1,300 men suffered a heart attack, compared with 28 of almost 1,900 men who didn't drink at all. Authors concluded that even in men already at low risk for heart attack, moderate alcohol intake was associated with a lower risk for myocardial infarction. This brings to mind a study published several years ago that indicated moderate red wine consumption reduced risk of all-cause mortality by an amazing 49 percent, while beer and white wine were neutral and hard liquor increased mortality. The benefits of red wine appear to be from the high level of antioxidants and the amazing anti-aging nutrient called resveratrol contained in red grape skins and grape seeds.

The article in Discover has started me reflecting quite a bit. It's been a dogma in medicine and science that your genes are your genes, and there is no way to change them. This study indicates this is not so accurate. Quite certainly, the old adage, "you are what you eat" has a lot of truth to it now. It's extremely important to eat properly with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low saturated fats. Trans-fats should be avoided entirely. Obviously, cutting back on or completely eliminating cigarette smoking is crucial. Think for a moment that cigarette smoke could actually have some impact not only on you, but future generations as well. For those of you who don't exercise, now's the time to start.