by Cynthia Billiar BSN, RN, IBCLC, ICCE, ICD, ANLC
Research suggests that we carry genetic memories of our ancestors that can affect our health. These genetic memories are called epigenetic tags. Epigenetics literally means on top of the gene, (Wilson, n.d.). Epigenetics encompass all the processes that lead to inherited changes in gene expression during development and across generations, (Epigenetics, n.d.).
Animal research shows that some epigenetic tags are passed through up to 10 generations out. During the Dutch Hunger Winter in 1944-1945 people suffered very difficult conditions, including stress and hunger. Researchers have been able to study the human epigenetic tags of the subsequent generations of the survivors of the Dutch Hunger Winter up to 60 years later. They found that the babies born to these survivors and several generations forward were more likely to have heart disease, diabetes, obesity and a wide variety of brain related conditions such as bipolar disease and schizophrenia, (Wilson, n.d.). Another study reported that descendants of the people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than that of their peers, possibly predisposing them to anxiety disorders, (Rodriquez, 2015).
The genetic information we inherit from our parents is called the genome, it is the complete assembly of our DNA. The epigenome is a multitude of chemical compounds that attach to the genome/DNA and modify its function, in other words, turning genes on or off; when this change happens, it is said to have “marked” the genome. This does not change the sequence of the DNA but it changes the way cells use the DNA’s instructions, (Epigenomics, 2016). The epigenome can be altered by environmental and lifestyle factors such as nutrition, chemicals, stress, and emotional experiences. Although our epigenome can potentially be altered throughout our lifetime, from in utero to age three is the most critical period of development in terms of the epigenome in humans. This is the time that our DNA is most receptive to epigenetic changes and alters the way our organs and predisposition to certain diseases develop. Maternal environment during pregnancy and the infant’s first received nutrition impacts the epigenome significantly, (Wilson, n.d.). Breastmilk can potentially change the epigenome to affect the lifelong health of the infant, (Wilson, n.d.). Just because you may carry a gene that is known to be associated with a disease does not mean it will ever develop, (Tow, 2014).
We have extensive evidence that those of us who have been breastfed or received breastmilk show lower risks of developing some non-communicable diseases. We know that breastfeeding can decrease the risk of developing type 1 diabetes and childhood cancers in children who are genetically susceptible to these diseases. We know that breastfed children born to families that are susceptible to cow’s milk allergies, if given just one bottle of infant formula, can become sensitized, (Walker, 2014). There are many components in human milk that can change gene expression and can decrease diseases such as childhood obesity, immune disorders, liver disease, and cholesterol issues, (Wilson, n.d.). Breastfeeding also benefits the mother, as we know it can decrease breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis later in life.
We cannot begin to know all of the epigenetic tags we carry or pass on from our ancestors that can affect our health and the health of future generations. We can however, make a difference with what we do know, and that is our choices do affect others. Remember that nutrition plays a key role in whether some of those epigenetic tags from our ancestors are turned off or on. Keep in mind that from in utero to age three is the most critical period of development in terms of the epigenome in humans, and that breastmilk can potentially change the epigenome to affect the lifelong health of a child. Take care of yourself because we now know what you do today can affect not only your health but the health of many generations to come.