Epigenetics is a term that has been in the news and on the web a lot in recent years – yet it is one which has many parents confused. Read on for a brief introduction to epigenetics – and also to learn more about risk factors for these changes and how those factors can be mitigated.

Just What is Epigenetics?

Most people understand the basics of genetics itself: it is the process by which a parent passes on certain genetic traits to their children, such as blue eyes or curly hair.  However, it appears that this pattern of inheritance is not quite so simple.  Things can happen to a parent — or grandparent —  which changes the expression of the gene – switching it on or off, for example – and these changes are then  passed down to future generations.  This process of changing the expression of a gene without changing the underlying DNA is at the heart of epigenetics.  This term was actually coined back in 1942 by Drs. Waddington and Hadron, but it was not until the 1990’s that interest in this was renewed.

In scientific terms, then, epigenetics changes the phenotype without changing the genotype when certain genes are switched on or off or otherwise altered. These changes can be passed down from one generation to another and while this is a regular occurrence, some of these changes can increase a person’s risk for diseases like cancer, mental retardation, immune disorders and psychiatric and pediatric disorders.

What is most troubling about the idea of epigenetics for most people is that is can affect not only the present generation but also generations to come. In one study, it was found that the grandchildren of people who had suffered childhood trauma (such as political refugees or those who had suffered from childhood abuse) had certain genetic markers that had been passed down in the family and that these changes lead to changes in biological processes for their descendants that could affect health and quality of life.

What Puts Children at Risk for Epigenetic Changes?

While epigenetics is a relatively new area of scientific research – and there is much that scientists still need to learn about it – there are some indications that certain factors put children at risk for these epigenetic changes.  These factors include:

  • Maternal nutrition. Most women know that a healthy diet during pregnancy is important for a healthy baby.  What researchers are now discovering is that the quality of maternal diet and nutritional status can affect epigenetic changes that affect not only the baby but could affect future children that that baby has as he gets older. Too little folate or choline in a mother’s diet while pregnant and nursing can cause a permanent change in gene expression.  Research shows that a lack of other nutrients – including vitamins B6 and B12, betaine and resveratrol can also cause genetic changes.
  • Exposure to toxins or drugs during pregnancy. Research indicates that if a mother, while pregnant, is exposed to certain toxins such as heavy metals (cadmium, nickel or arsenic in particular), air pollutants (like particulate matter or black carbon) or endocrine disruptors (like BPA), this too can cause epigenetic changes.  Some scientists believe that exposure to some medications can also cause these changes, though more research needs to be done on this topic.
  • Child abuse or trauma. Studies have shown that childhood abuse or trauma can cause alterations in the genes that affect not only the children themselves but their descendants, as was mentioned in the study above.  These changes, again, can have effects on the health of future generations.

What Can Reduce These Risks?

Because so little is certain in the area of epigenetics to date, nothing can guarantee that epigenetic changes will not happen. However, there are ways to mitigate the risk factors discussed above, including:

  • Good maternal nutrition. Eating a healthy diet while pregnant and making sure that it is rich in necessary vitamins and minerals can not only promote general mother and infant health but can help to reduce the risk of epigenetic changes due to a lack of certain nutrients.
  • Prenatal care and counseling. Research has shown that the best predictor of a health pregnancy and birth is good prenatal care and counseling. Visiting with a doctor or nurse practitioner throughout the pregnancy and getting counselling about prenatal vitamins and other healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce the chance of epigenetic changes as well.
  • Reducing maternal exposure to toxins. In our modern, industrialized society, avoiding chemicals altogether is impossible. However, there are ways to at least reduce exposure, such as not eating canned foods to avoid BHA and limiting outdoor time on days when air pollution/smog is high, especially if living in an urban area.
  • Counseling/therapy for family dysfunction. Unfortunately, childhood abuse and neglect is all too common a phenomenon in our society; however, seeking family therapies and counselling to help work on the underlying causes of dysfunction can help families to better cope with stressors.

It is good to keep in mind, however, that epigenetics is a field still very much in its infancy – and there is still a lot that researchers are simply not sure of. However, in the coming years, hopefully more information will be uncovered, including information on how to further mitigate the risks of these changes so that future generations will not be affected by the changes which are now taking place.