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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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.