Introduction to Epigenetics and how to live a longer, healthier life by Chili Leisure.
Did you know that 95% of us were born genetically healthy? We didn’t inherit a predisposition for serious diseases like cancer, diabetes or morbid obesity so this means that they are preventable. But what if you are in the 5%? Even if you were to inherit genes that predispose you to disease, these don’t necessarily determine the outcome.
We know that, in most cases, disease is developed because of the foods you eat, the air you breathe, environmental pollution, stress levels, lack of exercise and many other factors – consider these gene “signals”. Genes can be switched “on” and “off” by these signals so the expression of your genes can be modified. Genes that predispose us to cancer for example – these external signals can either keep them dormant or active, this is Epigenetics.
Epigenetics is the science of how environmental signals select, modify and regulate your gene activity.
As we can see from the diagram smoking tobacco causes up to 30% of all cancers and alcohol up to 6%. High alcohol consumption increases your risk of DNA mutations in you cells. Your body breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde which is classed as a group 1 carcinogen. Alcohol also increases blood oestrogen levels which can lead to a number of cancers, such as breast cancer, Liver cancer risk is highly influenced by alcohol intake. Up to 44% of aero-digestive (oral cavity, pharynx, larynx and oesophagus) cancers and 33% of liver cancers in Western Europe can be attributed to alcohol intake. Alcohol is a depressant. That means any amount you drink can make you more likely to get the blues. Drinking a lot can harm your brain and lead to depression. When you drink too much, you’re more likely to make bad decisions or act on impulse. Alcohol also slows down your metabolism so if you are trying to lose weight it will make it extremely difficult – it’s not just the extra empty calories and loss of control!
Most cancers can be PREVENTED with diet and lifestyle changes and the earlier we make these changes the better. It’s never too late however – after JUST one month of stopping smoking individuals have increased lung function, improved circulation and reduced heart attack risk.
Poor diet increases the risk of:
- prostate cancer by 75%
- colorectal cancer by 70%
- breast cancer by 50%
So, what are our goals?
- For those who have not been diagnosed with cancer – minimise your risk of being diagnosed with cancer
- For those diagnosed with cancer – work alongside therapies to increase their efficiency
- For those in remission – help your body to keep healthy and cancer-free
- For everyone – build resilience and slow down the aging process so you can enjoy a long, youthful life
Changes we can make to our diet
Cancer cells tend to have certain epigenetic changes that aren’t present in normal cells.
These changes may:
- Turn a normal cell into a cancer cell
- Increase the progression of the disease
- Help cancer cells to spread to a new location (metastasis)
The food we eat can slow down or speed up these changes. For example, highly processed fatty meats contain chemicals that alter our DNA and cause mutations, speeding up the process that leads to cancer. Green leafy vegetables (like spinach) help amplify favourable epigenetic changes that decrease your risk of cancer.
Plant foods are high in phytochemicals that help repair damaged DNA and promote desirable epigenetic changes in your cells. More than 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day is desirable. Garlic is known to switch on certain genes called “tumour suppressor genes” which help to stop cancer cells from growing – and tell them to die instead!
Turmeric which has been studied in the Harvard Cancer Centre gives your immune system an extra boost helping it to fight off potential cancer cells and Geno-toxins in your body.
When cooking with Turmeric mix it with black pepper and olive oil which allows the body to best use it.
10 Epigenetic fruits and vegetables to include in your next shopping trip:
- Pak Choy
Other foods that can be considered as having “anti-cancer” properties are:
- Cayenne Pepper
- Red Grapes
- Sunflower seed
- Kidney Beans
- Olive Oil
Antioxidants, Vitamins & Minerals
Many vitamins work as anti-oxidants, finding and repairing cells that have been damaged by too much oxidation or DNA mutations. Some vitamins are also anti-inflammatory and anti-viral. Combining vitamins has the best effects. Vitamins associated with longevity & cancer prevention are A, B6, B12, C, D, E and K. Minerals are needed to help your body to function at its best. Macro-minerals are needed in larger amounts and include calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, sodium, chloride and magnesium. Trace minerals include iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, fluoride, selenium and cobalt.
Exercise gets your heart pumping and increases the blood flow to your muscles. Your muscles contain cells which change and work differently when you exercise. In normal cells exercise keeps epigenetic changes in check, making sure the right changes happen at the right time. In addition, physical activity can reduce and even reverse some of the epigenetic changes that occur in cancer cells!
Adults should get 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week PLUS strengthening exercise on 2 or more days per week
Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. Without the coating, shoelaces become frayed until they can no longer do their job, just as without telomeres, DNA strands become damaged and our cells can’t do their job.
Individuals who exercise the minimum recommended amount experience about a 31% decrease in mortality risk. In 2008, a study found that physical activity can assist in maintaining the length of telomeres – keeping DNA healthy and you looking and feeling younger! Individuals who engaged in 4 different activities over the month were 59% less likely to have shorter telomeres. There is a 20-30% decrease of cancer risk from being physically active. Exercise decreases insulin, increases cell apoptosis, decreases IBS and enhances immunity – all beneficial to reducing cancer risk.
Stress can speed up the rate at which your cells divide. This means that there may be more mutations in the DNA leading to cancer. However, by relaxing your mind you can help reduce stress, promote positive epigenetic changes and decrease your cancer risk. In a pioneering Harvard experiment participants did relaxation activities like yoga, meditation, prayer or mindful breathing for just 20 minutes a day. The researchers took blood samples before and after 8 weeks and compared them with those who didn’t do any relaxation techniques. 2,209 genes responsible for the ageing process were changed. Some of these “deactivated” genes are the same genes that may increase cancer risk.
Here are some foods that can reduce your bodies oxidative stress:
- Dark Chocolate
- Green Tea
Did you know that Green Tea decreases the risks of heart disease and diabetes, enhances brain function and boosts fat metabolism (good for excess fat loss)?
Hugging & Massage
Could you imagine that something so delicate and sweet as a hug or a warm touch demonstrates measurable health benefits? Hugs can lower your blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels and decrease oxidative stress. More hugs and more relaxation helps balance us out and equals less telomere shortening and a longer, healthier life. A brief 10 second hug each day (with another human or pet) can increase your levels of the love hormone oxytocin, counteracting the effects of stress hormones.
Massage has other benefits on the body besides relieving plain. The Schanberg Group at the University of Miami found it had a beneficial role in the physiological aspect of individuals such as decreasing anxiety and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol. They found in 2005 that after massage individuals had decreased cortisol levels and higher levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. In 2010, it was found that massage increased levels of Lymphocytes (crucial in fighting off disease) and Cytokines (pro-inflammatory molecules).
The basics for a healthy, epigenetic diet:
- Avoid alcohol
- Avoid ALL processed foods
- Bulk up your meals with a variety of colourful vegetables – there is no upper limit!
- Beans, lentils, rice and soy based products are a good source of protein and fibre
- Herbs, spices, herbal teas and infusions add an extra benefit and flavour
- Take your Healthy Life Shopping List with you when you go shopping
A healthy lifestyle is a balance between diet, exercise and keeping levels of stress to a minimum through meditation, mindfulness and other methods.
If you want to know more about this subject and learn how to cook some meals that include Epigenetic ingredients then I have written a cook book called “The Epigenetic Recipe Book”. Proceeds from the book go to the Cudeca cancer support charity.
About the Epigenetic Recipe Book
In the Epigenetic Recipe Book, there are recipes that take advantage of the benefits of foods that we have described in this article. Each recipe details which ingredients are beneficial for a positive impact on your epigenetics and how they help your cells avoid mutation. All the recipes I have tried, tested, enjoyed and modified to include as many anti-oxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals as possible. I have also made sure the ingredients are easily available in Spain and I have also included the Spanish name so you can find them in your local super market.
Contact Karen Parnell, email@example.com for more details.
Karen Parnell is a Personal Trainer, Triathlon Coach and has a Diploma in Cancer Prevention & Longevity. She has been coaching and helping people meet their health and fitness goals for over six years. Karen is also a Tutor for the British Triathlon Federation and run a health and fitness centre, Chili Leisure, in Cómpeta, Spain.