Why you're not the unlucky winner of a genetic lottery, how your genes express themselves, and why you can't "cure" endo but you can heal it.
Ep-i-gen-et-ics: the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.
Epigenetics is a seriously cool area of scientific study that’s helping humans reframe the question of why we get sick— amongst many other things of course. In simplistic terms, it’s the study of our genetic software: if genes are the computer, epigenetics program them how to behave. It’s the study of why some genes get turned on or off based on environmental factors leading to things like, well, disease.
It also studies how a) totally different people from different lives can develop the same disease, b) how people living similar lives with similar habits can develop two completely different diseases, and c) how what your mother and grandmother ate/did can affect your health. Yup, some of it's even out of your hands.
And some of it being out of your hands might be a lot depending on the past few generations of relatives in your life. If the lifestyle behaviors of your mom and dad, and grandpa and grandma before them, were less than beneficial (lets imagine the men were smokers and the women yo-yo dieters) you indeed will feel the repercussions. This isn't that your genes themselves are altered and defective, it's that your ancestral software has been programed in a less healthy environment.
But epigenetics is more than food. Researchers studying epigenetics have looked at how everything we do — think, eat, breathe, stress about — affects our genes. And all of these things, do affect their performance in some way. Initial studies of Holocaust survivors grandchildren are showing the immense stress faced by their grandparents two generations before have increased epigenetics markers for their own stress disorders.
This is rewriting the health conversation we’ve all heard, that women like us lost the genetic lottery when in comes to health... heck it's the realization there's no "lottery" at all. It's the study that is showing it wasn't our genes that made us “the sick kid”, or that we got endo since it "runs in the family", it's showing our genes are expressing the way are because of real life factors, not unlucky mutations.
How is that different exactly? It takes the randomness away from disease development and allows us to take back the reigns of improving our health. Take a very simple example of bad teeth. If your grandma had bad teeth, and your mom had bad teeth, it's not written in genetic stone you'll have bad teeth. It all depends on how your genes are fed. If you eat like they did, there's a high probably you will, but if you eat a perfect, nutrient rich diet, you probably won't. It goes for bad teeth and flat faces without cheekbones, all the way to cancer, and chronic diseases. Just as we get sick when we don’t take care of ourselves, epigenetics shows us that so too can our genes.
The body is resilient though, and even if many of your negative epigenetic markers were inherited and compounded by your own lifestyle, your genes can be retrained to can up the slack. It's the reason more and more children with severe autism are being healed with intense diets, and why a person like Dr. Terry Wahls could reverse her advanced wheel-chair-bound multiple sclerosis and now be living a healthy, vibrant life. It shows that even if you inherited a line of weak epigenetic markers, if you give enough of your genes what they need/crave/are dying for, they will start expressing correctly again.
How Lifestyle Makes your Genes Sick
Epigenetics examines toxins (stress, chemicals, etc) and nutrition to see how they program your genetic expression. You could summarize this as all your "inputs", and your body needs a lot of the good kind.
Every cell in your beautiful body has a function and a specific nutritional need. Think for a second about just how much your body does. If, for example, you eat a snack and then take a walk, your body will simultaneously be digesting that snack while moving the rest of the food you ate in the past 24 hours through your entire digestive system, absorbing nutrients and channeling them to their appropriate places, fending off foreign invaders, and making waste products. Simultaneously, it will be sending blood to all the muscle groups involved with your walk, will be absorbing oxygen from your breath and sending waste materials out, pumping your lymph system, all the while your brain not only views the terrain and keeps you balanced but also is thinking up all those thoughts that fill your head. There’s tons more of course, going on during this walk, but think about all the nutrients that are needed to fuel these processes alone. Lots!
If that nutrient quota isn’t met today, that’s okay, the body will survive. But if it’s not met over a lifetime (or the lifetimes before you) then your genes will start expressing themselves differently. Without enough inputs, your body will have to start prioritizing what it does to keep you alive in the now. To conserve energy, certain genes in your body will start to “turn off” (usually the reproductive tract turns off first because the body has no extras for procreation during this time of “famine”), while your body might steal vitamins or minerals from other storage units in order to function at this very moment — like stealing calcium from your bones in order to power your muscles for your walk.
As your body becomes more depleted it won’t be able to even manage a task like making stomach acid (HCL) to digest your food. Like any recipe, HCL depends on key ingredients, so if you don’t have any to spare (zinc, B vitamins, etc), you won’t even be able to digest your food, making you even more nutrient deprived. This goes for every chemical reaction in your body, they all require nutrient ingredients, so without them the reaction either won’t happen, or it will happen at the cost of your nutrient stores.
This is a big reason why you might be dealing with chronic debilitating fatigue. Or lack of “spoons”. Because your body has absolutely nothing in reserves. This too, is how genes can go haywire and autoimmune diseases turned on.
Why aren’t your genes getting enough nutrients?
Many reasons, one being the enormous amount of processed foods we’ve normalized in our diets. The USDA estimates about 50% of the calories we consume are in the form of vegetable oils and sugar … this is akin to 1/2 of your calories come from cardboard. But worse. Literally worse than cardboard. The amount of sugar consumed is also pretty wild. There’s a figure that in 1700 the average bloke ate 4 lbs of sugar a year. Now the average American eats around 170 lbs per year.
Beyond that, it also comes from the demonization of fats — how we see fat as the enemy rather than a nutritional powerhouse (when it’s the right kind of fat of course). It comes from the government powers that condemned cholesterol and encouraged margarine and veggie oils over nourishing grass-fed butter and lard. It also comes from factory farms that created sick and sad animals, eggs, and milk with no nutrient content, the enormous corporate farms that thump out veggies from soils so depleted there’s little else beyond fiber and water, and the awful relationship many women have with food, thinking the less they eat the more they’re worth.
As for toxic inputs? We’re stressed to the max, and not just those of us with high power jobs, this includes the elderly, the rich, the poor, teenagers, and even children these days. The expectations we feel we have to live up to, the never ending “to do” list, the unforgiving self, it all ads up. Stress is one of the most potent environmental toxins around, and when we have heaps of it every day it’s like living in a backed up sewer system. We compete with others in our community, we’re afraid of failure, we tell ourselves mean things about ourselves, things so mean we wouldn’t even say it to someone we hated. Not to mention the 80,000 chemicals we face every day.
No wonder our genes started expressing themselves differently!
It's not too late: How changing your lifestyle now can make your genes healthy
“You can’t cure endometriosis” This is a phrase I detest more than anything. ANYTHING. Ugh, seriously, I wish it be struck from the earth. Why? Well, ok yes, because it is technically true. Like other autoimmune diseases and their relatives, once you get your genes “turned on” here, there’s no way right now to turn them back off. I will mention this doesn’t happen overnight, though. It usually takes a LOT of detrimental lifestyle issues to get to that point, a whole body degeneration that happens over many years of us ignoring the signs, but that’s for another blog post.
The reason I detest it so, so very much — even though it’s true — is because it makes us sufferers think there is nothing we can do to change our trajectory. No matter what, we will be sick, tired, and chronically ill. The end.
Which is why I love epigenetics :) Epigenetics allows us to see there was a pathway to the formation of our sickness, and therefore a pathway to healing rather than being the random genetic lottery winner of doom. A random doomed winner would be a person near a nuclear bomb. No matter what they did in their lifetime to keep their genes healthy, their body would most likely develop severe cancer. As for chronic disease? According to epigenetics, the genes haven't been changed by a random event, and can be retrained with the right inputs. Repeat that again: cells can be retrained. Cells respond directly to the diet and lifestyle communique we send them, and thanks to the resilience of our genes, they will respond quite nicely if they receive nice inputs. So with a series of lifestyle overhauls we an actually rebuild our genetic wealth and improve the health of every gene and cell in our body.
Want proof? A great example of this is Terry Wahls, who is one of my personal role models. She’s a professor who reversed her progressive multiple sclerosis through diet alone. I mean, she was in a wheel chair for heaven sakes! And now she flits around the globe helping others with autoimmune through her Walhs Protocol healing diet. She may not be able to cure M.S., but she discovered a way to heal from it.
More proof would be, well, me. My endo was life crushing, stemming from weak epigenetic inheritance, a white bread diet growing up, lots of unrealized stress (I just HAD to have straight A's), and calorie restriction. I was told there was no cure, prescribed pain meds and surgeries as bandaids, and even just a few years ago was told I should have a hysterectomy. But with two solid years of epigenetic healing (for me diet was a huge part but my endo was so severe it wasn't my only part) I'm now vibrantly healthy.
BUT (there's always a but) even though I'm healthy and can say I’ve healed my endometriosis, I still can’t say I’ve cured it. It healed because I was able to change the enormous factors contributing to chronic, debilitating pain and suffering so that my genes, now replenished, can allow me to live a normal life. I haven’t cured it because the genetic expression responsible for my endo is still “on”. I’m certain that if I went back to my former lifestyle I would end up in the same, sick, endo-y place. This is true of anyone you’ve heard that’s healed their auto-immune issues through targeted lifestyle changes: they’re healed but not cured.
Who cares, I say?! For me it doesn’t matter what word I use if my body is back to healthy. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck… Yes, of course it’s a shame we can’t cure our disease, but by living a new (better, funner, healthier, more creative) life, you can help ensure the other genes are happy and vibrant, meaning they’ll pick up the slack for the ones not working right. Have you seen a dog missing both its back legs? Yah, it’s like giving the dog a wheelchair, it may not have back legs but it can still chase a ball at top speed because the wheelchair makes up for its weakness. Your genes are similar: You may have a handful of genes that never work properly, but give yourself a genetic wheelchair and you can be like new.
This is why even though there’s no cure (don’t repeat that to yourself, btw), with the correct approach you can heal your body and reclaim your life. You can heal your epigenetic expression in many ways like you can heal from the flu … it just takes a little longer and lot more work since instead of one flu you have like, a trillion cells.
Epigenetics and Diet:
Your Heal Endo Diet Will Look Different Than Mine ... or Hers
If you’re reading this saying “But Katie, I Tried the Endo Diet and it was bogus. Do you hear me?? Bogus” please hear me out. Dr. Catherine Shanahan writes in her book Deep Nutrition, “By simply replenishing your body with the nourishment that facilitates optimal gene expression, it’s possible to eliminate genetic malfunction… No matter what genes you were born with, I know that eating right can help reprogram them”
This then is the big question: What does eating right mean? For everyone, it means giving your extremely malnourished body every teeny tiny nutrient it needs to regroup and heal. What it means in your unique personal case is going to vary depending on your lineage. This can be infuriating for anyone who wants to be told exactly what to eat to feel better, but on the positive side at least we know when you finally give your body exactly what it needs, in abundance, you can feel better. Right?
The uniqueness of your own diet will lie in how you feel eating certain ways because of your ancestral heritage. If you’re asian you may not be able to tolerate dairy products at all (casein allergy), while other women won’t be able to tolerate raw milk (lactose intolerance) but will be able to eat things like kefir, butter, and yogurt that have much less lactose because of fermentation. Some women with European heritage, like me, will relish raw milk and have it be a key to their healing protocol. Some women will heal exceptionally well with lots of fish, others with grass-fed red meat. Some women will feel best eating a high percentage of fats and low carbs, while others will feel they’re balanced perfectly at the 40-40-30% of carbs, proteins, fats. This is all unique, based on your heritage of how your ancestors best performed the past 200,000 years (that’s a long time) and why no issue of Cosmo will ever spell out which diet works best for you.
But, no matter what your heritage, there are certain themes that help genes worldwide perform at their peak. It means eating way more than we imagined, including a LOT of vegetables, tons of nutrient dense fats, a variety of raw and cooked animal products, and even some “weird” parts of the animal, be it bone broth (connective tissue), liver, or preferably both. The produce should be local and organic, the animal products from happy, grass fed animals. And, if you’re not digesting properly, that’s of upmost importance to fix asap so you can absorb it all.
The last generation of women in your family that regularly ate like this was, depending on your age, your grandmother, great-grandmother, or great-great grandmother. In a time before vitamins, rampant antibiotics, or an ER around the corner, health was as important as gold, and these women ate what their ancestors did before them to ensure generations of healthy genetic expression. The goal of the diet wasn’t to look hot on the beach, but a diet that ensured full body and reproductive health, health of self and health of offspring. Though they were probably pretty hot too, since this diet will make your body vibrant with health ;)
Which is why I look at the “endo diet” and wonder how it’s still in existence with all the nutritional knowledge that exists. As a diet that cuts out gluten, soy, dairy, meat, without saying what to replace them with is a diet that can be one of the most nutritionally void on the planet. I’m not saying it definitively is, but without the correct knowledge, food prep, and nutrition understanding it can be.
It’s an anti-inflammatory diet, and yes that part is good. It’s the reason you might have felt better at first, because most women with endo have developed allergies to milk, soy, and gluten, so indeed cutting them out is very positive. However your body’s inflammation is a symptom of a much larger problem, not the problem itself. So it’s like putting a stubby bandaid on a shark bite.
The longer term problem arises when a nutrient deprived body is deprived of even more nutrients, not to mention add a slew of nutrient robbing pharmaceuticals in to the picture.
Many women who adopt this diet continue eating quite a bit of processed foods, including gluten free pastas, breads, and refined grains. Then there’s the highly processed and refined dairy free products, highly refined nut milks, highly refined snack foods and “healthy” shake powders, not to mention all the highly refined VEGETABLE OIL (insert scary scream of death! I actually hope that scream was so scary you go throw out any safflower, sunflower, soy, canola, or vegetable oil you have in your pantry right now. Don’t even donate it, that’s cruel, just chuck it). This oil is like pouring free-radicals over every healthy thing you eat.
And remember, this stuff was invented about 40 years ago. Invented, not discovered. This is not what your great grandmother or any of your ancestors were eating for fertility and health. I'll do a blog about this soon.
Epigenetic powerhouses: What are they then?
Below is a list of foods considered cell healing on many levels. Again, because of your heritage you may or may not be able to consume dairy, but on the whole most everyone should avoid pasteurized milk.
- grass-fed meat: not overcooked, using all the fat, often on the bone, using every part of the animal
- raw grass-fed milk, kefir, cheese, or yogurt
- grass-fed organ meats
- pastured eggs, especially the yolk
- bone broths
- fermented foods
- large variety of veggies including (if you’re doing the Wahls Protocol at least 9 cups a day, 3 cups each) sulfur rich veggies, brightly colored veggies, and dark leafy greens.
- Plus lots and lots of nutrient dense fats in the form of pastured butter and lard, as well as organic, cold pressed olive oil, sesame oil, flax seed oil, or coconut oil.
- (If you’re terrified of some of these foods [ouch!! Endo flair!!] it’s imperative you heal your gut first. Nutrient dense diet only after gut healing so you don’t make yourself worse)
If you are eating these types of foods already, way to go sistah! Just remember if you’re still feeling junk you need to eat a LOT of them during your healing phase. The RDA (recommended daily allowance) is the bare minimum you need to abstain from acute deficiencies, so even if you’re meeting this RDA quota every single day you may still be exceptionally far from the amount your own, unique, and probably malnourished body needs to heal.
Which is why it’s just as important to heal your relationship with food as much as heal your relationship with your genes. Too often women to bring their fear of food with them during this healing journey — small portions, low fat, calorie counting. Indeed the highly restrictive endo diet could potentially look like a low-fat diet from the 80’s. I wish I could beat society up for this, for what they do to us women and our relationship with food. You can’t escape it! From our mothers insulting their own “thunder thighs” in front of us from a young age to our respected women role models always following the latest fad diet, oh yah, and the media telling us our self worth is directly correlated to our dress size. Is it really any wonder we grow up to demonize food?
Indeed this was even one of my own biggest hurdles after my gut healing protocol — not the endo itself but the mental gate I had to tear down as I was trying to eat as many nutrient dense foods I possibly could. I looked at the Weston Price Fertility Diet (listed at bottom of this blog post) and the Wahls Protocol and wondered, how the hell am I going to eat that much food?? A big breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including 9 cups of veggies, 4 cups of raw kefir, lots of eggs, organ meats, bone broth. coconut oil, fermented veggies, and 4 tablespoons grass-fed BUTTER?
It turns out that it wasn’t the fact I couldn’t eat this much, it was my mind telling myself “that’s too much food for you”. I didn’t have an eating disorder, but it’s obvious my eating was disordered from being raised in a calorie counting world that had me sadly thinking I knew my caloric limits. But nope, my body figured it out real quick ;) My genes were ravenous and I was amazed how much nourishing food I could throw back. And as I forced myself to eat more than I was mentally comfortable with, my body came back alive. I was finally feeding my sleepy genes what they needed to turn back on and support my sick genes.
Remember, your genes need a lot of nutrients. More than you might be able to imagine if you’re reading this while suffering from one or more auto-immune diseases.
Epigenetics is More than Food: Rewrite your Story
Epigenetics teaches us that not only does our food have profound consequences on our genetic expression, but so do our thoughts. This explains why placebo medicine works, as well as having a no-can-heal outlook may be one the big reasons you’re not improving: you’ve told your genes their limits.
Which is why I was so struck a few weeks ago listening to a podcast on how your personal “story” may no longer be serving you. The “story” is referring to how you define yourself based on what you’ve been told about you, or tell yourself. It’s more or less, how you separate yourself in a sea of others.
For many of us who are chronically ill, we end up needlessly defining ourselves by the endless doctor visits when they tell us about our infertility, our sickness, our weakness, and how we’re not on the road to recovery. Most of the time they tell us there is no road to recovery anyways. Then we repeat what we hear until it becomes our story, our story of being unwell. Our story that can never be healed.
When such a story no longer serves you, write it down and say goodbye to it. Then write yourself another story, one that does serve you in a positive way. When I did this, I was amazed at how deeply it impacted me, even this far on my healing journey.
I first wrote out my current story, one about a childhood of sickness, teenage hormonal difficulties, being told I’m infertile about, ummm, 10,000 times, having an autoimmune disease and told there’s no cure, endometriosis and told there’s no cure, even to my friends jokingly referring to me as “fragile”. This story HAD to go.
In it’s place I was amazed to watch myself write a new story without a second of thought, it was as if the floodgates of my true self had opened and out poured a 4 page long story of hope. What does a new story look like? It might redefine yourself from being born sick to someone who simply missed out on the deep nutrition she needed. Maybe it redefines yourself from a victim to a warrior who is working on beating all the odds that had stacked against her. You can exchange fragility for patience, weakness for strength, and infertility for bounty. It can be a story of acceptance that, perhaps, you don’t want a high profile career like your parents, or that you want to live a humble life close to the ocean, plants, and kitchen. I personally redefined myself as a healthy, fertile, capable woman, one who simply needs a lot more nutrients - food, movement, and love - than others might need, and that’s okay. I’m not sick, I’m healing.—
What does your story look like? How can you imagine your self image change from sick to vibrant? If you can imagine it, so too can your genes. Indeed your story is bound to be very different from mine, as all of our beautiful stories are, but I hope you can see the goal: shift your story from “I can’t cure my endo” to something new, hopeful, happy, and daring to try. Write it down. This is your story, not your doctors and not the latest scientific study.
If you believe you can heal, your genes will believe it too. And as you feed them the deep, deep nutrition they need, cut out the toxins and the stress, add in nourishing movement and more nature, and your genes will heal. So too will your body. Yes you may need surgery to help you along, yes you may need pain meds for a while longer, yes you may need your doctor and a team of holistic healers, that’s all part of healing too. But it’s your story, after all, so write one that makes you vibrate with happiness.
This, my friends, sounds like an epigenetic healing protocol to me.
More on Epigenetics
If any of your are epigeneticists I apologize for the simplicity of this blog post ;)
If you want to learn more about epigenetics and how they relate to your current sickness and your future health, please check out the following books
If you want to eat like your ancestors and are annoyed I didn’t talk about this more, check out the following cookbooks ASAP
- Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
- The Nourished Kitchen by Jennifer McGruther
- The Wahls Protocol Cooking for Life by Terry Wahls
And if you’re interested in my own epigenetic healing diet it's actually the Weston Price Fertility Diet is (basically how to epigenetically grow healthy babies or, it turns out, to heal my own body from endo), and is the following:
** every body is different, this food list might not serve your genes as well as mine.
- Fresh vegetables, raw or cooked, 9 servings
- 4 cups whole, raw milk daily - preferably from pasture-fed cows- and made into as much fermented into yogurt or kefir and you desire. If you react poorly to processed milk (as I did), know that you may not react to raw milk (like I don't). In fact, raw milk is an incredibly medicinal beverage regarded throughout the centuries for its medicinal qualities.
- 3-4 tablespoons butter daily, preferably from pasture-fed cows, for enough vitamin k2 to assimilate all these nutrients
- 1 tablespoon grass-fed tallow/lard daily, for vitamin D (find delicious grass-fed options here)
- 2 or more eggs daily from pastured chickens
- Additional egg yolks daily, added to smoothies, salad dressings, scrambled eggs, etc.
- 3-4 ounces fresh liver, once or twice per week (it's easy to buy grassfed, humanely raised liver here)
- Fresh seafood, 2-4 times per week, specifically oily fish (like mackeral, sardines, anchovies, etc), wild salmon, shellfish, or fish eggs.
- Fresh beef or lamb daily, always consumed with the fat (this is a lot for me, I only do 2-3x week)
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil daily, used in cooking or smoothies, etc.
- Lacto-fermented condiments and beverages: 1/2 cup each raw sourkraut, kombucha, and yogurt or kefir. Find your own fermentation lid here for easy veggie fermenting, and don't forget to read The Art of Fermentation!
- Bone broths used in soups, stews and sauces. 1/2-1 cup daily
- Soaked whole grains - no amount necessary, only if you want grains you can eat them, just make sure to prepare them properly by soaking them beforehand
- take 2 tsp high vitamin, fermented Cod Liver Oil to supply 20,000 IU vitamin A and 2000 IU vitamin D per day (I use this brand).