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Epigenetics: A Functional Medicine Pillar

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

This term is commonly used in functional medicine and I am not confident it's always clear to my clients, or even my colleagues what this means or even why it is so important. I would argue that #epigenetics is why functional medicine clinicians focus so much more on your lifestyle because ultimately, the science has shown us that lifestyle is more important than our genes. Epigenetics describes how the environment controls our health by turning genes on and off.


We use to believe that our health was controlled by little more than luck spun down to us from our parents, and we ultimately awaited the fate of having pulled the short straw. Our lifestyle choices were more about comfort than they were about driving the everyday processes of every single cell in our body, every single moment we exist. When we understand epigenetics though, we understand that our lifestyle choices control how cells differentiate, whether they act like a brain cell or a heart cell for example. Epigenetics also controls how our genes respond to our environment and this is true whether we received good genetics or bad genetics. When we are sick and stay sick for weeks, months, or years at a time, our genes are exposed to a toxic environment and this can force our genes into expressing their weakness. Chronic stress, ongoing exposures to electromagnetic frequencies, lack of sleep, environmental toxins, and even toxic relationships can also create these toxic environments.



When our bodies are toxic, they become inflamed. We then feel pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, over-whelm, and even rage. Skin disorders are more common, as well as auto-immune disease, and even cancers. If we want to optimize our health, we must create a health environment for our body through eating well, exercising, and implementing lifestyle changes that supports healthy #gene expression. It really is that simple! Fix the environment around your cells and you can transform your life.


Our genes really are only part of the bigger picture that includes our mother's pregnancy with us, our birth, our childhood traumas and exposures, antibiotic exposures, sleep patterns, toxic chemicals and metal exposure, nutritional status, structural traumas, our relationship with nature, and our relationships with other humans. We are our environment, in that, our genes respond to our environment and ultimately, our own expression of self. Even our own thoughts can drive our overall health, no matter our genetic make-up!


Our genes do predispose us to certain limitations, but to say they are a curse or our health is dependent upon whether we drew that short straw is avoiding responsibility. A bad lifestyle is worse than a bad genetic report, for the vast majority of us.


Understanding Your Own Genetics


When I work with clients, particularly on a functional medicine basis, we talk a great deal about their individual genetics. This is also a big part of my Detoxification & Wellness program which my active clients are exclusively invited, because having an understanding of your genetics, means you can work to optimize, much more specifically, their expression.


For example, some of my clients have a polymorphism in their MTHFR gene which means they are a bit more vulnerable to becoming sick and when they are ill, they have a little longer recovery. They are also a little more vulnerable to vaccines, toxins, pesticides, and other environmental stressors than individuals who don't possess these genetic imbalances. Studies have shown that 98 percent of #autistic individuals have methylation issues, and that those with methylation issues have higher rates of cancer, heart disease, and #depression. They aren't necessarily the cause, but certainly raise incidence so it is vital for those with deficiencies in their methylation pathways to really optimize their detoxification pathways to prevent unnecessary pain, suffering and dysfunction.


Genotypes, Phenotypes, & Haplotypes


These terms are often used when discussing genetics, so I wanted to touch on them to help clear up any confusion and hopefully this can help you dive in a bit more to your own genetic profile and help solve some challenges you may face in your own health.


Genotypes & DNA

This includes the 20K genes that create your unique, individual-DNA, including any polymorphisms or SNPs. Your genotype is essentially your entire deck of cards, including those "short straws." Half were provided by your mother and have from your father. It will always be the same and never change. This is what determines your hair color, your sex, the length of your toes, and whether or not your ear lobes are attached. Like a crystal, no one else has the same DNA coding as you, unless you have an identical twin.


Phenotype

Once you have identified your genotypes, you want to dig into your phenotypes so you can better understand the expression of your genes. Looking at just your genes in isolation is not really useful clinically. We can't help you optimize your health without understanding their expression. If the genotype is the deck of cards, then the phenotype is how well your body can play the game of cards. Clinicians use various diagnosis to sort of identify these phenotypes, such as obesity, depression, and hypertension. These aren't just describing your symptoms, but also your genes, pathways, nutritional imbalances and lifestyle habits, even if they don't overtly recognize it. Every disease we suffer has both underlying genetic coding and environmental triggers that drive how our genes are expressed.


Typically, most people have one or two dominant phenotypes, but the more stressful one's environment, the stronger the phenotype manipulates our expression. One's genotype may for example determine if when under stress, one eats to self-medicate and gains weight or if they lose their appetite entirely, starts smoking, and becomes quite thin. Others may suffer insomnia, chronic pain, or irritable bowel. Some even experience rage. Different people, different genes, different phenotypes, different expressions. Because we can't feel our genetic SNPs, we have to recognize these symptoms so we can change our environment to manipulate their expression and ultimately optimize our health.


Haplotype

This is sort of where the rubber meets the road so to speak. When we look at combinations of polymorphisms, it can offer us a bigger picture and combining this with your phenotype, we can better understand how your body responds - its greater weaknesses, and ultimately, how best to support you. One potential example might be someone who has both COMT and MAO SNPs which both challenge our body's ability to break down stress hormones, such as #adrenaline and #norephinephrine. These individuals then are often highly intelligent, driven, and susceptible to burn-out and OCD issues.


When you are evaluating your #genotype then, you'll want to relate that to your expression of your environment which we see in your #phenotype, and ultimately, the combination of polymorphisms, which is your #haplotype. Addressing only one aspect of this will often give lackluster results. All of this is discussed much more thoroughly in the Detoxification & Wellness program along with information on how to test yourself and build a plan for optimizing your health.


Chasing Your Symptoms


Clients typically seek medical consultation when they have some level of discomfort, but rarely is the issue as simple as that single symptom. I've said it many times, but conventional medicine is so much like pulling the batteries from your smoke alarm to rid the siren and assume you can resume your life siren-free while completely ignoring the house fire. Functional medicine works to identify where the fire is within the body and to not only put that out, but strategize how to protect the home into the future. Understanding your genetic profile has become a huge part of functional medicine, because it really can tell us your weaknesses, and not just for specific dis-ease states but in how you respond to your environment and the foods you eat.


References


Marvin, B. A., Goldblatt, J., & Galanko, S. (2004). Association of MTHFR gene variants with autism. J Am Phys Surg, 9(4), 106-108.

Hsiung, Ting, D. & Marsit, C. (2007). Global DNA methylation level in whole blood as a biomarker in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, 16(1), 108-114.

Banecka-Majkutewicz, Z., & Sawula, W. (2012). Homocysteine, heat shock proteins, genistein and vitamins in ischemic stroke - pathogenic and therapeutic implications. Acta Biochim Pol, 59(4), 495-499.

Wei, J. Xu, J., & Lu, X. (2016). Association between MTHFR C677T polymorphism and depression: a meta-analysis in the Chinese population. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 21(6), 675-685.

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