Epigenetics:The Epicenter of the Future of Medicine

I have just finished writing  a new version of The Adaptation Diet (published by North Atlantic Books and to be released May 2013) which includes a new section on epigenetics, possibly the most important and powerful new information on how to lose weight and prevent chronic illness that I have seen in my 35 year medical career.  This new version of the book adds invaluable ideas on how to employ these new scientific breakthroughs in your daily life.

Epigenetics explores how genes that are carried in the DNA express their information. It is such a dynamic field that over 16,000 scientific articles are published every year and many academic medical institutions have established departments of epigenetics. Andrew Feinberg MD from Johns Hopkins University Center for Epigenetics wrote an article in JAMA in 2008 calling epigenetics the center of modern medicine.

Why is epigenetics so revolutionary?  In the past it was thought that whatever was inherited through the genes and DNA was fixed and unchangeable, our biological destiny written in the double helix of our DNA. One of the first clues that this was not so came from the world of honeybees. Scientists discovered that bees fed different foods as larvae became either workers or queen bees despite the exact same genetics. The differing diets of the larvae modified how their genes were expressed though a process called methylation which influences the structures around the genes and  which genes are turned on or off.

In humans, the greatest influence on methylation, as well as other epigenetic process(such as histone modification), is diet as well. What we eat, even what your mother consumed before you were conceived, can influence your gene expression and biological destiny. Obesity, and the risks of developing chronic disease including diabetes, heart disease and cancer are all a result of epigenetic phenomena. The greatest positive influence on epigenetic expression appears to be from what are termed bioactive foods including broccoli and other crucifers, soy, turmeric and other spices, garlic, green tea and folate rich foods such as green leafy vegetables.

However there are also many disruptive influences on gene expression caused by  changes in epigenetic states from exposure to environmental toxins such as BPA, PCB’s. phthalates and heavy metals. The interplay between adequate intake of bioactive foods and the amount of toxin exposure can determine so much about a person’s future health that I feel that epigenetic mechanisms are the most important focus in staying healthy.

I will write more about how to protect the epigenome and other new information from The Adaptation Diet in future posts including detailed information on bioactive foods and the toxins that have polluted the environment.

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Acupuncture Improves Unexplained Symptoms

Practicing Five Element acupuncture for the past 35 years I have often seen dramatic improvements in patients with symptoms that have defied easy diagnosis. Now a new study from England,  reported in the British Journal of General Practice,  has confirmed what I have observed in my practice.

In a group of 80 patients, those receiving Five Element acupuncture reported less pain, better energy  and fewer emotional problems. Many gained a new self awareness of what caused stress in their lives and how to deal more effectively with stress,leading to less medication use and better quality of life.

This self awareness and improved adaptation to stress often seen with this style of treatment, is discussed  in my book, Power of the Five Elements. These traditional concepts from Chinese medicine are very applicable to the types of life challenges we face today. For those not receiving Five Element acupuncture, the Five Adaptation Types presented in the book can provide insight into how to deal with stress and reduce stress hormones such as cortisol and lead to many of the same improvements in well-being as found in this study.

 

Toxins and Obesity

I have recently attended a most interesting workshop by Jeff Bland PhD, who pointed out something I know to be true from my practice experience: toxins in our foods and environment are contributing to the obesity epidemic in a major way. What was striking was the finding that diabetes itself  is more highly correlated with organic pollutants such as lindane, bisphenyl A and PCB’s than even obesity itself.

The effect of these pollutants is just starting to be recognized. One target is the mitochondria, the organelle inside the cell that produces energy. The effects of persistent organic pollutants (POP) is great enough that there is a new term for their effect on weight gain-obesogens.

You can reduce the effect of these pollutants through choosing organic foods, avoiding soft plastic containers and following the suggestions for detoxification in The Adaptation Diet to reduce the overall stress on the body.

Lose Weight Through Adaptation

Susan was typical of many of my patients. She ate pretty well, watching her intake of calories and fats, but she could not budge the weight around her middle. She had been on a variety of diets, they  worked to some degree, but the weight always came back. Even though she counted her calories, something was holding her back.

That something was poor adaptation to the foods in her diet. Unknown to her, she had multiple food allergies to which her body responded with increased cortisol, the main stress hormone. The cortisol increased the visceral abdominal fat which made further weight loss impossible. Poor adaptation also occurred from her lack of fiber rich foods, flavonoid rich foods (darkly colored vegetables and fruits such as cherries, berries, broccoli, kale, chard) and skipping meals to keep her caloric intake down. All of these patterns increased cortisol and stopped the weight loss.

Susan read my new book, The Adaptation Diet, followed the program to a tee, identified her food allergies, added in the right foods and turned around not only her weight, but her energy level and sense of well-being. It is possible to stop  weight gain in its tracks with a few simple dietary changes as outlined in The Adaptation Diet.

Lose Stress, Lose Weight

Sarah, a long-standing patient of mine was baffled. Despite eating well and exercising she had put on thirty pounds in the past two years, mostly around her midsection. In addition she was tired and achy, had poor sleep and worsening memory and concentration. And she was only thirty years old. The one thing that had changed in her life was a difficult divorce leading to on going stress with her ex husband and their two children.

Sarah is not alone in joining the ranks of the obese. Obesity is an epidemic that is sweeping the developed world. Excess weight is not only a risk for diabetes and heart disease, but recent research has shown obesity associated with increased cancer incidence and worse outcomes in those with cancer. Dietary habits are strongly linked to this new health challenge, especially the use of high glycemic foods (those that spike blood sugar), excess calories (supersized meals) and fats that stimulate inflammation (trans fats, baked goods, red meat and whole dairy not organically produced).  One common thread in all these dietary indiscretions is the effect on blood chemistry including elevating cortisol levels, the main stress hormone from the adrenal gland. (see The Adaptation Diet for more info.)However, as Sarah now knows, it is not diet alone that raises cortisol and increases the risk for obesity and disease. The other major trigger is chronic stress.

Cortisol is essential for life, without it survival would be impossible.  It is the main way we respond to any stress mobilizing energy through release of fatty acids, raising blood sugar, moving blood from the digestive system to the muscles. In addition cortisol suppresses the immune system, reduces inflammation and decreases sex hormone production. It is catabolic, breaking down muscle for energy. All these changes help survival, and normally after the stress is resolved, cortisol returns to baseline levels.

However, the stress we experience today and that experienced by our ancestors  and to which our body’s response is geared are different. In past generations stressful events were about survival: you either caught lunch or you were lunch. Today, whether the stress is a boss who does not respect you, a sick family member, a difficult relationship, or dealing with the onslaught of stimulation and lack of quiet time, the cortisol response does not resolve as it does after a fight or flight response.  Elevated cortisol continues to change the body and is associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and increased cancer risks. This is what happened to Sarah.

To gain control over the stress response, Sarah used the information from Power of the Five Elements to understand her Adaptation Type. She learned that the anger and frustration she was carrying was so difficult to let go of because  she was a Wood Adaptation Type who has a very hard time with forgiveness and patience. Once she was able to see her behavior through this ‘map’. she followed exercises to enhance her ability to forgive and reduced her cortisol and eventually lost the extra pounds as well as learning to feel better about herself.

Chocolate and other Foods to Reduce Stress

I was recently interviewed for an upcoming book by Bill Gottlieb  on drug free healing. We focused on four food groups that studies have shown reduce stress by lowering cortisol levels as described in The Adaptation Diet. The first  is dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa).  I’m sure many people will be thrilled to learn the benefits of chocolate. Studies have shown that dark chocolate is one of the strongest antioxidant foods. In addition, in a study comparing subjects listed as high anxiety compared to low anxiety individuals, dark chocolate reduced the levels of stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine while improving the overall metabolism.

In addition to chocolate, other foods that are stress hormone tamers include fatty fish containing omega 3 fatty acids. When college volunteers were put through stressful tasks, those that had taken supplements of EPA-DHA, the key fats fish like salmon and sardines, they performed much better than those who did not supplement. Other foods we discussed include green tea which contains theanine an amino acid that improves brain chemistry and flaxseed which improve the feedback mechanism in the brain which controls cortisol production.

The bottom line is that you can eat your way to being less stressed, even using dark chocolate if you want. Increasing foods that reduce inflammation like organic dark-colored vegetables and fruits and eating a diet lower in animal protein will reduce cortisol and improve well-being.

Foods to Improve Adaptation and Cholesterol

When I do talks to the public one of the messages I give is to invest in your health and don’t let your cells go extinct. To protect your cells and organ function there are food groups which are not used enough in most people’s diet  that are extremely beneficial in improving cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels and reducing inflammatory hormones. First among these are legumes which include soybean, split peas, lentils, navy and other beans. These foods are rich in soluble fiber, protein and complex carbohydrates leading to improved markers of biochemical adaptation. Use one-half cup a day and your cells will be happy.

In addition, consumption of one-quarter cup per day of almonds, hazelnuts, pecan, walnuts and other tree nuts was found to improve levels of fiber, Vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, and potassium and lower intake of sodium.  Nuts should be consumed raw and organically grown. They can reduce total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol and are a great source of protein. The high potassium and low sodium found in nuts can help with hypertension as well.

Simple dietary changes can go a long way towards prevention of stress induced disease and improve adaptation as described in The Adaptation Diet.