Genes are not our destiny. As mentioned on our previous blog, Epigenetics Part 1, the “switching sequence” that determines which genes get activated and which get silenced, is modifiable by our lifestyle. This is a very empowering message as it suggests that even if we are dealt a bad “genetic hand” we can still enjoy robust health.
A wonderful example which illustrates that diet and lifestyle play a much larger role in development of diseases than genes comes from the Pima Indians who live in Arizona and also in the Sierra Madres in Mexico. These populations are very similar genetically, but their diet and lifestyle vary greatly. The Pima in Mexico eat a traditional diet low in saturated fat, high in fiber and they are also physically active. The diet of the Pima in Arizona is high in saturated fat, low in fiber and they are more sedentary. The incidence of obesity and diabetes within this genetically similar population varies greatly. The Pima in Mexico have rates of diabetes at 6.9% which is 500% lower than their counterparts in Arizona whose incidence of diabetes is 38%. This shows that even with similar genetics, the rate of diabetes can be drastically different depending on our diet and lifestyle. Plant based diets have been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, cancers and other chronic diseases in part by their effect on the Epigenome.
Though we can improve or degrade our epigenome at any age with our diet and lifestyle, the malleability of the epigenome is most pronounced during pregnancy and early childhood. A study by Godfrey and his colleagues showed the children of women who ate a diet low in plant foods during pregnancy were more likely to develop obesity and other metabolic conditions.
Another example comes from the ground-breaking research of Dr. Dean Ornish and his colleagues, where the effects of a whole food plant based diet and other lifestyle changes on genes that promote and inhibit the progression of prostate cancer were quantified . They showed diet and lifestyle changes down-regulated 453 genes which promote cancer growth and up-regulated 48 genes which inhibit cancer cell growth.
Sleep is another important lifestyle factor, through epigenetic changes, can alter gene expression. In this study by Moller-Levet and her colleagues demonstrated that sleep deprivation altered the expression of over 700 genes.
The exciting new field of epigenetics shows yet another way how a whole food plant based diet and a healthy lifestyle are so beneficial for our health. For those of you who may not be aware of a relatively new medical specialty called Lifestyle Medicine, you can follow the link here to learn more. In short, Lifestyle medicine focuses on preventing, treating and even reversing chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and others through diet and lifestyle.
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