Mark Sisson discusses how, through diet and reduction of stress, we can minimize the way in which genes may or may not express themselves in our body. Our genes change during critical periods such as adolescence. When these changes occur, the changes are then passed on through generations. Mark discusses the nutritional component in this article, You are what your mother and father (and grandmother and grandfather) ate. I will pull out the research he summarizes and shares relative to mental health. Remember, the important point; choices we make can have significant and lasting changes not only for ourselves but our children. That is to say, genes can be "reprogrammed".
On September 11, 2001, passenger jets struck the Twin Towers, leveling them, killing thousands of New Yorkers, and traumatizing tens of thousands more. Among those directly affected, but not killed, by the attack were 1700 pregnant women. Some of those women developed post traumatic stress disorder, some did not. When the PTSD-positive group had their kids, their cortisol secretion was lower and stress response to novel stimuli was impaired. Although as fetuses they weren’t conscious of the chaos, it affected them as if they had directly witnessed the blast. The affected children were no different genetically – they didn’t have “the stress gene.” Rather, the activity of the genes that regulate the stress response had been altered by an environmental input.
This was epigenetics in action.
Simlar research has been done with fathers and the results for their offspring are the same. Sisson continues:
What does this all mean?
That our choices are bigger than us. It’s easy to see how the foods we eat, the exercises we do (or don’t), and all the other choices we make can affect our own health, in this lifetime. Anyone who’s ever made a positive change to their lifestyle and seen the subsequent health benefits can attest to that. But these stories indicate that those very same life experiences can send epigenetic shockwaves to your offspring – and in some cases your offspring’s offspring. There’s more to it than bullied mice, Swedish famines, and terrorist attacks, though, as you’ll see below. The life experiences of both moms and dads can exert a wide range of powerful effects. But how, exactly?
He goes on to describe how the mechanism relative to nutrition has an effect and then discusses stress.
Maternal (and paternal) stress is one of the largest area of study in epigenetics, probably the largest besides nutrition.
Using a mouse model of prenatal stress, researchers were able to epigenetically trigger neurological and psychiatric disease states in the offspring. Prenatal stress induced microRNA regulation at sites in the fetus that affect and/or induce multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, brain inflammation, and bipolar affective disorder.
Lesson? It’s not like a traffic jam in the 2nd trimester is going to give your kid schizophrenia, but it does illustrate the worst-case scenarios associated with prenatal stress.
Even the mom’s mood during pregnancy exerts an epigenetic influence on the outcome of the pregnancy. If a mom was depressed or anxious during the 3rd trimester, her offspring was more likely to have altered cortisol regulation, including increased cortisol responses to stress at three months.
Lesson? Relax, kick your feet up, and try not to let daily stressors consume you during pregnancy. Easier said than done, I know. Also, don’t let the stuff from the previous section – what you’re eating – turn you into a ball of stress. Eating anything can be hard when you’re pregnant. Just make the best choices you can, and make your “bad” choices better.
Six weeks of chronic stress were enough to alter the microRNA (a regulator of gene expression) of sperm in male mice, whether the stress occurred in adulthood or childhood. When those mice later bred, they sired pups with dysfunctional stress responses reminiscent of neuropsychiatric disease. Another stressed out mouse dad study had similar results: altered stress responses in the offspring.
Lesson? Stress matters for dads, their sperm, and their offspring, too. Not just the moms are vulnerable.