What Epigenetics Teaches Us

by Scott Morrice on 09/12/2012

What epigenetics teaches us is discussed, in part, in my Why Is Epigenetics Important and Can Epigenetics Make Us Smarter posts. I speak about how environmental influences such as stress, nutrition, and even our emotions can modify our genes, and about how these modifications can actually be passed on to our future generations—without the need to alter our basic DNA blueprint. In other words, our health issues are not always being determined by just our DNA.

One of the key points of those posts was, again, that these genetic modifications can be passed on to our future generations, notwithstanding there was no ultimate alteration of the DNA blueprint, or a genetic mutation. Modifications to our genetic blueprint do cause changes to occur of course, but what epigenetics teaches us is that there are other, equally important ways that genes are modified, such as through certain environmental influences.

Taking this a step further—when we speak of the impact of environmental influences being passed on to our progeny, most of this discussion is usually focused on the more immediate concern about the mother’s environment during pregnancy.

Mothers are cautioned, at every turn, not to drink, smoke, get stressed out, and on and on, while pregnant. You would think that it is the mother’s environment—while she is pregnant—her emotions, her stresses, her nutrition—that is the only thing that is important.

But the science of epigenetics would point us farther out.

Absolutely the mother’s environment is important during pregnancy. But so is her environment before pregnancy. After all, what epigenetics teaches us is that genes can be modified—at any point—by environmental factors.

And fathers have genes too. And so their environmentally influenced genetic modifications are also being passed on to future generations.

There was an interesting story—right on point, in the September 9, 2012 edition of the New York Times. In an article written by Judith Shulevitz and titled Why Fathers Really Matter, it is suggested that the father’s lifestyle decisions and choices made over the years, and maybe even those of his father, and grandfather, go a long ways towards affecting the health of his children.

So a slightly different shift in focus in this article. It is not suggesting that mothers aren’t as important as we always thought, but it is suggesting that rather than focus the whole spotlight solely on the mother, and her more immediate environment during pregnancy, epigenetics is now telling us that we need to understand the important role the father’s environment plays in his children’s health as well. It is not just his DNA that is in play here.

In fact, epigenetics tells us that neither party to a pregnancy can safely assume that it is only their “good” or “bad” genes that will affect their progeny. Mother and father also have to be concerned about the environmental influences that they both have been exposed to—during their entire lives. A detailed understanding of the DNA makeup of each is not going to give you all the information you need.

So, the bottom line—we need to start taking better care of ourselves—if for no other reason than for the sake of our unborn children.

I’ll keep you posted.

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