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Epigenetics and the New Power of Whole Foods

Jan 29, 2015 03:39AM
by Joshua Nachman MS, CNS, LDN

             Epigenetics. It’s becoming a popular word but what does it really mean?  If we break the word apart we have “epi”, meaning above or on, and genetics; our instruction manual for producing what our cells need. Epigenetics is the field which studies how we make changes to our genetic expression through both diet and lifestyle.

In many ways, the cutting edge of science is bringing us back to the basics when it comes to making dietary choices. The more science has learned, the more it has verified that a calorie-rich, nutrient-poor diet based in processed foods and high in sugar turns on genes which promote inflammation. When these diets are compared to a nutrient-dense, calorie-poor diet derived from whole foods, we see the genes which promote inflammation turn off and the longevity and anti-inflammatory genes turn on.

One study published by Dr. Dean Ornish showed that in a clinical population, after only three months on a whole foods diet with equal parts stress reduction and exercise, more than 453 pro-inflammatory genes were turned off and another 48 anti-inflammatory genes were turned on.

Yet some whole foods have more power when it comes to regulating our genetic expression than others. The research on epigenetics comes largely from isolated compounds within these whole foods. Three of the well-researched compounds are: sulforaphane, EGCG and curcumin.

Sulforaphane is found in most of the leafy green vegetables. While its concentration is thought to be highest in broccoli, sulforaphane can also be found in high concentrations in kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Sulforaphane directly helps to regulate gene expression by assisting the body’s natural regulatory process of turning genes on and off. In addition to being an excellent epigenetic regulator, this compound is well-known for being chemoprotective and helping to enhance the body’s natural detoxification pathways. Take home message: eat your greens.

Many of us have already heard of green tea being healthy and its extract, EGCG is where most of the tea’s current fame comes from. While the research on this green tea extract is extensive, how it works in the body to regulate our genetic expression is not yet fully understood. Despite this, we see the health benefits through epigenetic changes ranging from heart health to brain health and everywhere in between. Take home message: enjoy your tea.

Lastly we are left with curcumin; the turmeric extract well-known for its anti-inflammatory role in the body. In addition to supporting production of glutathione, our master antioxidant, curcumin helps us to regulate our genetic expression in a fashion similar to sulforaphane; down-regulating the expression of pro-inflammatory genes while up-regulating the expression of our anti-inflammatory genes.

In addition to these extracts, science is starting to study whole foods such as watercress in addition to many of those mentioned in this article, demonstrating that more than just the extract can help us regulate our genetic expression. In an age where inflammation and autoimmunity is running rampant, this is timely good news. So while you can go out and buy a supplement with these extracts, you can also help make your health-span equal to your lifespan through continuing to invest in the age-old wisdom of eating whole foods including, but certainly not limited to, tasty greens, herbs and teas.

Joshua Nachman MS, CNS, LDN is a clinical nutritionist in Johns Hopkins Gastroenterology and Hepatology department, lecturer, writer, adjunct faculty at Stratford University and a graduate of Maryland University of Integrative Health. You can contact him at





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