In this article we take a look at the science of epigenetics and its impact on child development. Read on for a clear epigenetics definition and find out how you can use what we know about epigenetic research to benefit your family. We also share some epigenetics examples, so you can get a detailed understanding of the scope of the ramifications of this research.
What is epigenetics?
Epigenetics is an area of science that looks at how environment and lifestyle can alter how our genes work.
“Your genes are not your fate. You can't change your genes, but you can switch certain genes on and off," says Thomas Olivier, a registered nutrigenomics practitioner and CEO of Omnos. “You are the designer. For too long we thought we were destined to get certain types of diseases, but the reality is that what you've inherited is more likely to be the habits. You inherit the genes too, but it's your lifestyle, diet and environment that will dictate the results."
The study of epigenetics does away with the idea of nature vs nurture; research makes it clear that both play a role in our health outcomes. From this vantage point, it’s possible to feel empowered to take charge of our health and shift from a reactive to a proactive approach.
How does epigenetics work?
"We are 99.9% identical in terms of DNA, the 0.1% is what makes us different to anyone else,” says Thomas. The 0.1% difference includes biological markers that indicate a predisposition towards certain behaviour, physical or physiological attributes. This could include traits like hair colour, how you remove toxins or how easily you absorb certain nutrients. You can learn about your genes with a simple genes test at home by taking a saliva sample.
We inherit these genes from our mother and father, and which genes are included or accentuated forms our unique genetic code. This is our genome, which simply means all of a person's genes. But this is where it gets interesting: there is also the epigenome, which consists of chemical compounds that instruct the genome.
You can think of it like this: our inherited genes give us the basic hardware. The epigenome, responding to our environment – including experiences during foetal development and childhood – is like the software which dictates gene expression, meaning which genes are turned on or off.
This is why genetically identical twins who have the same ‘hardware’, can have markedly different personalities and health outcomes.
In a recent webinar on epigenetics, Thomas explored how this could theoretically play out. In his example one of the twins joins the circus and enjoys plenty of sunshine, exercise and a healthy diet, while the other works 12 hours a day indoors in front of a screen, experiences chronic stress and eats a processed diet. If these twins were predisposed to type 2 diabetes, the twin in the circus is less likely to develop the disease.
Epigenetic impact on child development
But epigenetics doesn’t stop with just you. "You can set the scene for yourself, but also for the generation after that. That's the fascinating thing about epigenetics," says Thomas.
The crucial early years experiences influence the epigenome and decide which genes are turned off and on. There is now a substantial body of research to suggest that experiencing high levels of stress in early life can negatively affect a broad range of future outcomes, from cognitive function and stress response to risk for infectious, cardio-metabolic and psychiatric diseases.
How to use epigenetic research to benefit your children
You can use the science of epigenetics to help your children flourish, regardless of their genes. For example, physical activity helps combat obesity in children with the ‘obesity gene’ and helps them maintain a healthy weight. But epigenetics is particularly important in early infancy, a period of life characterised by rapid growth of different organs including the brain.
Here are some of the ways you can help set your child up for success:
- Provide rich learning opportunities: The stimulation that happens in the brain when a child engages with active learning and memory skills can help them become more effective learners in the future.
- Connect: Engage in exchanges that help your child feel supported and seen. A reciprocal ‘serve and return’ interaction facilitates these positive epigenetic modifications.
- Create a safe, healthy environment: Remove exposure to environmental toxins like fumes and mould and provide plenty of access to fresh air and time outdoors.
- Healthy diet: Poor diet and malnutrition, including during pregnancy, is associated with negative impacts on the epigenome. Focus on providing healthy, nutritious food and limit access to processed junk food.
We can’t control everything, but by focusing on cultivating a loving, responsive relationship within the confines of a safe and healthy home you can give your children the best start in life and set them up for a positive future.
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