The fascinating thing about epigenetics is that it is an invaluable tool in tailoring nutrition to assure better health outcomes. And, fortunately, there are so many ecogenetically salubrious foods which silence genes that cause disease and activate genes that promote good health.
Activating proteins at the genetic level holds the key to controlling the expression of genes that promote a healthy body. Many of us reach our 60th birthday without ever having to see a medical specialist. However, many of us will need medical attention because from birth, our cells are assaulted every day by various carcinogenic chemicals.
Ask yourself if the 7.1 billion pounds of chemicals estimated by the EPA to contaminate our water supply yearly has nothing to do with cancer, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. It is a wonder that our cells survive as well as they do, considering that our external environment becomes our internal environment.
The evidence overwhelmingly shows that something has gone terribly wrong in the last 40 to 50 years, and these environmental factors coincide fairly precisely with the vast industrialization and immense toxic pollution of our world. While a genetic susceptibility may combine with a chemical to create disastrous health effects, the fact is that without the chemical trigger the genetic susceptibility might remain silent for a lifetime.
Fact or Fiction: Safe Levels of Exposure
Two basic questions are needed: “What is a safe level of exposure to these carcinogens?” and “Is there a safe level for pregnant women and developing fetuses?” Chemical dangers have been documented, and they have consequences to your health that can be projected statistically over time—because it’s shown that 1 out of 3 Americans will be told they have cancer. During pregnancy, fetal development and exposures are a growing area of concern because not only are environmental toxins a major issue, but studies are finding that the risk for developing chronic ills such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes originate during those nine months in the womb. Scientists believe that a fetus’s risk for disease development later in life begins in utero based on stress levels, drugs, toxins, general health and fitness, and nutrition.
More than 10 years ago, the National Cancer Institute answered the question about whether there is a safe level of exposure to carcinogens. “None” was its answer in 1990. In an NCI booklet called, “Everything Doesn’t Cause Cancer,” the Institute said, “There is no adequate evidence that there is a safe level of exposure for any carcinogen . . . Low exposure that might be safe for one person might cause cancer in another.” Since there is no method that can measure individual risk, the Institute concluded, “Exposure to a low level of a carcinogen thus has to be considered a risk for everyone.”
The Truth About Toxins
Over 20 million Americans are exposed to toxic chemicals every year in concentrations that are at least 100 times greater than the EPA deems “acceptable levels.” These compounds continue to be overused and under-regulated, both here and in much of the industrialized world. As former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General David Rall reported, every single chemical known to cause cancer in humans is also known to cause cancer in experimental animals. I have little doubt that over time, with immense resolve, public policy changes could reverse much of this. But you, like my patients, cannot wait for the future because what matters is how you manage your health right now.
Toxic Exposures Trigger Cancer
Toxic changes in gene regulation can cause a normal cell to become cancerous or lead to other diseases. Conversely, bioactive nutrients can alter or even reverse this process.
Studies have documented that most of us have been exposed to and are currently carrying measurable levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), ranging in total numbers from the tens to the hundreds, and that they produce devastating effects on the male and female reproductive systems.
While EDCs remain undetected in any routine medical check-up, most of us don’t know we are carrying them, which makes it extremely difficult to determine the amount of exposure, and even harder to determine sources. Biological samples are critical in researching these toxins.
Below are specific actions to help lessen (and avoid) many environmental toxins.
Foods Pregnant Women Should Avoid
Making sure to follow a sound regimen to support the growing baby and to stay away from harmful substances is critical. Most of us are aware of the importance of avoiding tobacco, illegal drugs, and alcohol, but there are other harmful substances that should definitely be avoided, though not as widely discussed.
Aspartame And Other Artificial Sweeteners
Sweeteners such as Sweet & Low, NutraSweet, Equal, Splenda, and Neotame can be found in yogurt, chewing gum, soft drinks, and other desserts. Your body does not recognize these substances, and when it tries to metabolize them, various health problems can ensue. Toxic effects can include headaches, dizziness, seizures, vision impairment, and strokes, among others. Aspartame is the most complained-about additive in the history of the FDA. If a product says “Sugar Free” or “Diet,” it most likely contains artificial sweeteners. While sugar, itself, is not bad, especially organic cane sugar in moderation, it is a much better alternative to artificial options. Be sure to read labels.
MSG is a flavor enhancer commonly found in soups, snacks, salad dressings, seasonings, chips, and most Chinese food. This additive is categorized as an excitotoxin, which causes hyperactivity to brain cells as they try to communicate. Excitotoxins literally over-stimulate the brain cells causing them to die. This additive has also been shown to trigger cancer, heart problems, obesity, learning and behavioral disorders, and many others. Unfortunately, MSG is harder to recognize on labels as it is disguised by a multitude of names. Best ways to avoid MSG: Avoid fast foods, processed foods (even healthy types or labeled as No MSG), and foods that contain a long ingredient list.
This additive is used in cured meats, lunchmeats, hot dogs, etc. While they were once used as a preservative, nitrates, today, are used merely for appearance by offering a slightly red color to appeal to customers. As the meat is cooked, a carcinogenic compound is released that is highly associated with various cancers. Studies have shown that consumption of this chemical during pregnancy can produce children with higher risks for developing brain tumors. Nitrate-free meats are available, and you can find them at most health stores, or sometimes from your local grocer.
Pesticides and herbicides are sprayed onto many commercial fruits and vegetables, or even manufactured into GMO seeds. They are especially dangerous on fetuses, especially during developmental stages. The best way to avoid them is to eat only organic fruits and vegetables, use a carbon water filter to eliminate them from drinking water, and opt out of using any chemical fertilizers and pesticides around your house and yard.
Further steps to limit chemical exposure to unborn babies: Avoid processed foods, and eat local, organic, seasonal foods as often as possible. Exposure to numerous toxic compounds in the womb can affect development, brain function, and reproduction, as well as impair the immune system and increase vulnerability to carcinogens and lead to other diseases later in life.
There are also mimickers of estrogen that result in ecogenetic changes in a woman’s body.
Estrogen is a term that’s commonly used to refer to various types of estrogenic hormones produced by women: estriol, estradiol, and estrone. Estriol is the predominant form of estrogen produced when a woman is pregnant whereas estradiol is the common sex hormone produced by women throughout the majority of their life (usually during childbearing years).
Estrogen is mainly responsible for the growth and development of a woman during puberty. It circulates in the bloodstream and binds to its receptors, which are found in various tissues throughout the body (e.g., breast, uterus, bone). Estrogen’s role in the female body is complex, varied. And with so many functions from physiologic growth and development to maintaining bone strength, you’d expect the receptors for estrogen to be quite specific.
But, they aren’t. The most startling fact about many of our most pervasive chemicals is this: They are, effectively speaking, a new form of estrogen. A woman’s breast may successfully deal with the cancer risk posed by her own hormones. But, how do breasts handle poisonous hormones from the outside that are mimicking estrogen? The answer is, very badly.
Xenoestrogens—the name meaning “foreign estrogen” coined by Dr. Devra Davis in the 1990s—shocked the scientific community. Everyone believed that estrogen receptor sites in the uterus, breasts, and other regions in the body could only be opened by the complex and biochemically elegant key that is an estrogen molecule. Imagine how surprising it was to find out that the lock was, in fact, crude and not an elaborate, uniquely designed structure. Actually, estrogen receptors just require a decent biochemical approximation to estrogen, which will activate receptor sites very easily. Organic compounds—such as pesticides, plastics, and detergents—only have to make it into the human bloodstream to start docking at cellular ports that used to be strictly reserved for the female hormone.
Xenoestrogrens: Deadly Imitators
The xenoestrogen assault on breasts has numerous adverse effects. First, it fools the breast into behaving as though more estrogen had arrived. This promotes growth, which translates to increased cell division, multiplying DNA, and greater risk of replication errors that lead to cancer. In effect, cumulative estrogen exposure is being increased at the exact target site for the most common female cancer.
But xenoestrogens are a lot more damaging than just any old normal estrogen molecule. Real estrogen is a good and natural part of the body with plenty of useful tasks to perform, and we couldn’t live without it. The only problem is excess. Moreover, real estrogen tends to get disassembled pretty quickly and eliminated from the body. Chemical forms of estrogens, however, sit tightly on receptor sites, disrupt normal patterns of activity, and get stored in the fat of the breast as a permanent resident. The toxic nature of many of these chemicals can damage the DNA of the cell and result in cancer.
Pesticides And Breast Cancer
The breast is a magnet to poisons that mimic the shape of an estrogen molecule. Looking at Israeli farmers shows how fast and deadly that connection can be. Israeli farmers were more addicted to chemicalized agriculture than American farmers. Our 1972 ban on DDT did not deter Israelis from using it. But in 1978, Israeli laws banned the use of DDT, lindane, and BHC—three organochloride pesticides heavily used in Israeli cowsheds. Public alarm grew because the pesticides were contaminating milk and milk products at levels from 100 to 1,000 times greater than in the United States.
However, no question about breast cancer had been raised, although Israeli cancer rate levels paralleled the epidemic course in America. Trend lines predicted that breast cancer mortality would increase by 20 percent, but, surprisingly, over the next decade, the rate of breast cancer in Israel substantially dropped. With a ban on pesticides, breast cancer rates actually decreased by eight percent, and in the youngest age group cancer mortality rates dropped by 34 percent.
Every Woman A Target
An extensive amount of evidence supports the carcinogenic effects of these pollutants. We not only use toxic chemicals in our agriculture, but in the production of plastics and the bleaching of paper. Dumped into landfills, these chemicals leach onto water and soil, are consumed by animals and fish, and end up as part of the ecogenetically damaging food we eat. And since they are biochemically attracted to breast tissue, they make every woman a target.
A study found that the biopsied breast fat of women with breast cancer contained 40% more chlorinated pesticides than tissue from women who had no cancer. Bottom line: When I say that DDT, dioxin, or PCBs are dreadful carcinogens, scientific evidence supports this view.
Our real problem is the confluence of harmful agents that we are all continually exposed to. Red meat can be labeled “antibiotic and hormone free” in local supermarkets, but are they better? Studies investigating the amounts of zeranol, a growth hormone used in cattle, veal, and lamb, have been shown to cause breast cancer by behaving similarly to estrogen in the human body. Levels tested were thirty times higher than the so-called “tiny amounts” approved by the FDA.
Remember, it’s easier to take action to prevent cancer than to cure it, and the same goes for diabetes and heart disease. Keeping outside toxins from entering your body will advance your health and that of future generations.