We know that some genes lead to specific outcomes in our development, such as hair and eye colour, while others can actually be triggered “on” or “off” by the environment they interact with.
This change in gene expression is called Epigenetics, which literally translates to ‘upon the gene’. This means that just because we have a gene that codes for a trait or disease, it does not mean that this trait or disease will actually be expressed. The environment that the gene interacts with, including the proteins that come into contact with DNA, is crucial for determining whether the gene will be “turned on”.
This dynamic interaction between our genome and the environment has important implications
for chronic disease management.
The thinking behind Epigenetics is that if we can control certain aspects of gene expression in chronic disease, then we can potentially reverse, or at least manage, the symptoms of autoimmune disease by manipulating the environment we surround our genes in.
What does ‘environment’ mean here and how can we change it?
When researchers talk about the ‘environment’ influencing genes, they are not referring to the climate or geographic location, but to the interaction of genes to the body’s internal environment.
Genes are part of our DNA. They contain the code for the building blocks that help our body to function. Genes are like recipes that exist within the larger cookbook of our DNA. Genes and DNA exist within every human cell in the body. Their environment is our body. It is impacted by everything we eat, drink, and do on a daily basis.
Gene expression may be influenced by:
- The field of Nutrigenomics aims to identify ways that nutrients impact gene expression
- Fluid intake
- Water plays an important part of the internal environment that surrounds every cell
- The microbiome
- A diverse ecosystem of bacteria that reside primarily within the large intestine, but also exist throughout the body and influence the immune system
- Stress and Trauma
- The response we have to stress has the potential to alter our internal environment and gene expression. This could explain why stressful events often pre-date the onset or flare-up of autoimmune disease.
- Exercise leads to changes at the cellular level, which has the potential to impact gene expression.
- Exposure to pollution
- Exposure to chemicals that cross the barriers of our internal environment have been shown to play a role in gene expression.
You may have been told that you have a genetic predisposition to your autoimmune disease, or that you have a gene that codes for a particular disease outcome. Epigenetics suggests that a predisposition is just that, a likelihood of developing a particular condition, but not a guarantee that you will.
For example, the autoimmune disease I am predisposed to is Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS). This disease has often been characterized by the presence of the gene HLA-B27. About 90% of those who develop AS have this gene. However, only 5% of the population with this gene actually go on to develop AS. Having the gene doesn’t mean that you will develop AS. This means that there is another component, besides having this gene, that results in it the development of AS. One theory is that there is an epigenetic component and that “lifestyle medicine” that addresses gut health may be a way forward in disease prevention and management.
The takeaway from this example is that genes are not always the determining factor in whether or not we develop an autoimmune disease. All of the above factors can work together to increase or decrease the likelihood of developing, sustaining, or reversing disease.
This theory helps to explain why nutritional interventions often work to decrease symptoms of autoimmunity and why I was able to reverse my autoimmune disease. I still have a genetic predisposition to my disease and if I alter the above factors, I can still bring back the achy joint pain. The difference now is that I have the tools to identify and reduce this pain before it becomes serious.
If you’re interested in how nutrition and lifestyle factors play a role in your autoimmune disease, let’s chat!