The Epigenetics of Endo
Ep-i-gen-et-ics: the study of changes in organisms (people) caused by changes in gene expression rather than 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. That's why epigenetics is soooo cool for us endo girls (or anyone with a chronic illness) because it shows us why we're not the unlucky winner of a genetic lottery, how our genes express themselves, and why we can't "cure" endo but we can heal it into remission.
This new information 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 science that's 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 us that our genes are expressing the way they are (painful, awful endometriosis) 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 do, there's a high probably you will develop bad teeth, yes. But if you eat a balanced, very nutrient-rich diet, you probably won’t (and I’m not talking about more veggies, I’m talking more butter and liver). 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.
But epigenetics is more than food. Researchers studying epigenetics have looked at how everything we do — think, eat, breathe, stress about — affects our genes. Indeed, 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 today. Pretty trippy.
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 pick 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 to now be living a healthy, vibrant life. It’s why a sickly person like me who dealt with severe endo, autoimmune, chronic illness, and joint issues is now healthier at 32 than at 16. It shows that even if you inherited a line of weak epigenetic markers, if you give of your genes an abundance of what they need/crave/are dying for, they will start expressing correctly again.
How Lifestyle Makes your Genes Sick
Epigenetics examines both 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 and then walk, your body will simultaneously be digesting that food 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.
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 here “turned on”, there’s not yet a known way to turn them back off. 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 therefore be retrained with the right inputs. Let me 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. Oh, and for our children.
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 and lifestyle (after failing miserably following the pharmaceutical path). 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 lifetime of nutrient restriction, lots and lots of unrealized stress and self-pressure, and movement deficiency. 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 - diet, movement, and mind - I'm now vibrantly healthy. So healthy I could finally do what the doctors said I never could do on my own: conceive a child.
But, for all you nagging endo-sisters, I still admit that even though I'm healthy and can say I’ve healed my endometriosis, I still can’t say I’ve cured it. 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.
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 did NOTHING for me!” 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”. So the question is, what is eating right, and how does eating right look different for me and you?
First of all, across the board we can agree that every endo girl needs to give their extremely malnourished body a big infusion of nutrients to regroup and heal. It means eating way more than we imagined, 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 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 whereas some women with European heritage will relish butter no prob. Some women will heal exceptionally well with lots of cold water fish, others with grass-fed red meat. Some women will feel best eating a high percentage of fats and low carbs, while others may really need grains in their diet. Some of you may not feel anything until you finally address the deep-set stress and anxiety that plagues your genes every second of every day. 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.
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 old “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, sugar, and caffeine 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 certainly was for gluten-free toast and cereal me.
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” vegan shake powders, not to mention all the highly refined VEGETABLE OIL (insert scary scream of death!). This oil is like pouring free-radicals over every healthy thing you eat.
And remember, most of 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. Read all about it HERE.
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, a potential desire to be vegan. 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 I finished my gut healing protocol — not the endo itself but the mental gate I had to tear down as I was forcing myself to eat as many nutrient dense foods I possibly could. I looked at the Weston Price Fertility Diet 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? I was used to taking supplements, not eating TONS of real food.
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 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, so let's start feeding them :) Let's eat to evict our endo, and pass on a legacy of strong genetics to our children and the generations after.