Is Epigenetics the future of medicine?

Up until fairly recently it was believed that our genetic code was set in stone and that there was nothing we could do about the hand we had been dealt.

However we now know that while our DNA structure affects every aspect of our health and fertility as well as the health of our future offspring, we have more control over how our genes are expressed than was previously believed. So what we can do to control our fate? Learn about epigenetics and the impact that our dietary and lifestyle choices have on our genetic roadmap.

What does the term Epigenetics mean?

The term 'epigenetics' refers to the way in which our genes can be modified, without actually changing their genetic sequence. Epigenetics may be compaired to a light switch that in the presence of a particular environment and with certain dietary and lifestyle choices may dictate whether a particular gene is turned on or switched off.

Identical twin studies have shown us that even though the twins in the study shared the exact same DNA structure, the way their genetic code was 'expressed' differed, depending on how the individual twin had lived his or her life.

E.g. one twin became ill with leukaemia while her identical twin sister didn't. How is this possible? In this case, the twin who became ill had initially fallen and broken her leg, while convalescing she contracted the flu and it was in the aftermath of all that the leukemia reared it's ugly head. The environemental and physiogical conditions were such that the gene, which both twins carried, was allowed to 'switch on' making one twin ill, while the other escaped unscathed.

What does all this have to do with reproductive health?

Quite a lot actually. We know from recent research that the choices a mother makes while her baby is in utero can affect that baby's health, not just in childhood, but well into adulthood.

We also know that the choices a mother and father make in the months leading up to conception, well before the woman is even pregnant, may impact the raw materials that will become their baby (namely, the egg and sperm), which may also have long-standing consequences for their baby's future health.

The science of epigenetics may have far reaching consequences for those with genetic conditions, e.g. a risk of autistic offspring, as it may be possible for them to downplay the likelihood of how their genes express themselves purely from the choices they make in how they live their day-to-day life.

Hence, epigenetics could help a woman who has been experiencing recurrent miscarriages or who has had trouble conceiving. Equally, this research alters how we look at male fertility and sperm health, as we know that the DNA quality of the sperm is far more within a man's control than previously thought.

So next time you are about to blame something on your 'genetics', pause for a moment and consider whether the situation truly is beyond your control and if perhaps there is something positive you could be doing about it.

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