The Health of Your Children’s Children’s Children

Your children’s children’s children? Intense, I know.

Not to get all serious on you right upfront, but the decisions you make today have the ability to impact not only your children, but your children’s children and potentially even your children’s children’s children and beyond.

As I discussed in a previous post, we know that genetics aren’t the keys to the kingdom that we used to think they were; rather, it’s the interplay of your genetics and your environment (or, epigenetics) that determines much of your health. And, what’s even more, is that your epigenome (the environmental influence on your genetic blueprint) can impact genetic expression for multiple generations, just like your genome (the genetic blueprint itself). Essentially, environmental exposures in one generation can lead to epigenetic changes that affect gene expression for at least two subsequent generations who were not even exposed to that environmental factor directly. The phenomenon can been labelled “transgenerational”.

Mark Hyman, MD, Chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine, explains this well: “If your grandmother ate too much sugar, or smoked, or was exposed to mercury from too much sushi, the genetic modifications she incurred from this exposure could affect you. Her epigenome would carry an increased risk of disease that could be passed down from generation to generation.” Similarly, if your grandmother meditated daily, ate foods grown from her garden, walked everywhere and laughed a lot, her epigenome would likely carry a decreased risk of disease that would be passed on to you. Pretty incredible, isn’t it?

Recent animal and human studies have shown how this epigenetic memory is passed through generations, affecting things as diverse as the risk of high blood sugar, the risk of obesity, early cognitive performance, susceptibility to stress and even propensity for binge eating. These epigenetic changes do not affect the actual DNA sequence of genes, but they can change how that DNA is packaged and how those genes are ultimately expressed.

So, why do these epigenetic changes get transferred between generations?

It’s adaptation at it’s best. Basically, “...long-term environmental changes can lead to evolutionary adaptations based on changes in DNA sequence. However, during the intermediate term, over several generations, perhaps organisms have evolved epigenetic mechanisms to transmit adaptive gene-expression profiles from one generation to the next to provide progeny an advantage over individuals who are not similarly ‘pre-adapted’”. In other words, it takes many, many generations for gene sequences to change, so in order to pass on adaptive behaviors from one generation to the next, the body makes epigenetic changes, which can occur within a single generation. This is precisely why the life experiences and lifestyle of one generation can impact the development of subsequent generations.

I know this can feel like a lot of pressure. Your decisions may affect not only you, but your baby and your baby’s baby? That’s a lot to take in.

However, this information is meant to be empowering, not overwhelming. You have the power to change your health for the better, and the good decisions that you make today and everyday also set the stage for the amazing children that you will have one day. What better gift can a parent bestow on a child than the foundation of vibrant health?

I think it also merits mentioning that the body is incredibly resilient. The goal here is not to make perfect health decisions 100% of the time; that’s impractical and overwhelming. Just aim to do a little bit better everyday; aim to upgrade your diet or your movement routine or your stress management techniques just a bit every month. This is about doing better, not doing it all always. And, this is an area that’s rapidly developing each and every day so stay tuned for more as the story unfolds.