THE BLOG
10/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Green Your Genes

In our traditional understanding of disease, we inherit genes that predispose us to certain health outcomes. It's a sort of Calvinistic paradigm that our health is ultimately in the hands of some predetermined biological fate. Sure, eating healthy and exercising may delay or decrease the outcome, but if you have that gene, you're fighting against nature.

The expanding science of epigenetics is shattering the conventional wisdom of genetic fate. It turns out that the genes in our DNA are like the hardware of a computer, but there are also epigenomes that act like the software that tell the computer how to work. All cells carry the same genetic coding, the same strands of DNA, but they develop and function differently based on the instructions in the epigenomes. That's how we can have cells that fight immunity and cells that transport nerve signals. It's called gene expression and essentially means that genes can be turned on and off, weakened or strengthened. How? Quite easily.

Back in 2000 at Duke University, a study was conducted on agouti mice (so named because of their agouti gene which makes them all yellow and plump, as well as prone to diabetes and cancer). Researchers transformed their grim genetic legacy simply by changing the diets of the mothers. The new generation of mice were slender, brown and lived to ripe old ages as the predisposition to cancer and diabetes seemingly disappeared. The brown mice still carried the gene, but didn't suffer the same legacy because the new diet had turned off the agouti gene. The gene was not expressing itself anymore.

Increasingly, researchers are finding that diet, exposure to toxins, and vitamin supplementation can alter epigenetic instructions. In essence, changing our software programming in ways that impact our bodies and brains for life. Even more shocking, studies suggest that what we eat, how we live, and what our environment exposes us to today could have an impact on the health of our distant descendants. For example, in the agouti mouse study, the new, healthier epigenetic coding lasted into the third generation of mice, despite what the second generation of mothers were fed. Put simply, you are what you eat, what your parents ate, and quite possibly what your grandparents ate as well.

For many people the transition to a healthier, greener lifestyle begins when they find out they're having a baby. Yet, by the time a pregnant woman makes it to her first early prenatal visit, most fetal organs have already been formed, and many interventions to prevent adverse outcomes come too late to have any affect. Also, biologically, the life process and the hazard to development, begins about 100 days before conception, when both the male and female germ cells (sperm and egg) begin their maturation process. It is at this time that both the sperm and the egg are most vulnerable to toxins and nutritional deficiencies.

Epigenetics compels us to start protecting our cells even earlier, long before you're even considering having a child. Even if you don't ever plan on having kids, greening your genes is an investment in your own personal health. Luckily, by virtue of greening, the decisions you make to green your genes also help reduce pollution, which decreases the entire population's exposure to unnecessary toxins and promotes the healthiest epigenetic potential for society. That's no small deed, and it's not that difficult. Go ahead, green your genes!

Step One: Eat Healthy and Organic

Choose organic, fresh or frozen, whole foods, multi-grains, low-fat meat and dairy, fish low in mercury, all natural, all good food. Even with a good diet, you should probably take a multi-vitamin to make sure you're covering your bases, but also be careful not to over do it. For example, pregnant women (and those planning on becoming pregnant) are encouraged to take a prenatal vitamin that includes folic acid to prevent birth defects. Even without taking the vitamin intentionally, almost every grain product we eat in the US is fortified with folic acid. Just because something is unquestionably good in certain doses, doesn't mean it is at any dose. We really don't know the impacts of over-supplementing and they could be equally as bad as under-supplementing, so consult a professional about taking supplements.

Step Two: Purge Plastics

Plastics can leach chemicals into food and beverages and their manufacture and disposal create enormous amounts of pollution. It's nearly impossible to avoid it all, so pay particular attention to avoiding those numbered 3, 6, & 7 (polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, and polycarbonate). Look for any type of natural alternative like glass, stainless steel, bamboo, wood, organic cotton, hemp, and wool.

Step Three: Get Pretty Without All the Ugly Ingredients
Personal care products are loaded with chemicals, and we unquestioningly slather them all over our bodies everyday. Cut back on how much you use and look for products with ingredients you can pronounce. Avoid products that contain parabens, fragrance, phthalates, formaldehyde, toluene, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, DEA and TEA. Use GoodGuide.com to find the safest options.

The next steps are to clean green and avoid using pesticides, but you can learn more about those and many other simple steps at Healthy Child Healthy World. There are really so many easy ways to green your genes and keep this whole planet spinning healthily through the cosmos, there's no reason you shouldn't be starting something today. Every little bit counts.

The good news in this grand picture of biological risk is that unlike genetic mutations, epigenetic changes are potentially reversible. A mutated gene is unlikely to revert back to normal; the only option is to kill or cut out all the defective cells. But a gene with defective epigenetic code might very well be reprogrammed to reestablish a healthy pattern and continue to function. It's never too late, or too early to start -- future generations will thank you!