When we talk about detox, we tend to regard toxins as pathogens invading our bodies and singularly causing damage and disease. Sometimes, that’s true. However, our bodies are anything but passive. They actively respond to everything and may permanently change after toxin exposure. In addition to developing disease, they change on a molecular level. This is called epigenetics; the prefix is from the Greek “epi-” meaning “over.” Epigenetics includes the genetic expression linked to environmental factors.
Many of us were raised to believe that our genetics were immutable and perhaps prescriptivist. Now, we understand that’s not true. Epigenetics can shift our predisposition toward disease and change how our genes are expressed. Because toxins can trigger these changes, it’s important to understand the science of epigenetics and how it relates to detox.
Genotypes vs. Phenotypes
Your genotype describes your underlying DNA code, created when you were a zygote. Genotypes are passed down from your parents. However, most of what we observe in our bodies is our phenotype — the result of our gene’s expression. Phenotypes change throughout our lives, based on aging, diet, and other factors. Our genes switch “on” and “off” like lamps, depending on what our bodies need. For example, certain genes switch on during pregnancy to boost estrogen production and immunity.
While phenotypes cannot be inherited, they are heritable. As our gene expression changes, new cells will perpetuate those changes. In other words, our bodies are not continually making new cells with the original blueprint. They make modifications — for better or worse — based on our environment, lifestyle, and many other factors.
There is even evidence that epigenetic changes in phenotypes are also heritable. In other words, environmentally induced phenotypes affect gene expression in offspring. For example, epigenetic stress among elephants is causing many to be born without tusks. We are seeing evolutionary effects of both DNA methylation and phenotypic changes, which begs the question: How will our long-term exposure to modern life’s toxins change our species?
Environmental Effects on Epigenetics
Because we live in artificial structures surrounded by artificial objects, it’s easy to forget that we are organisms closely tied to our environment. The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we consume all come from the Earth. (Well, maybe not all the food — and that’s another issue.) Any contaminants in those essentials can and do affect our gene expression, which can lead to phenotypic changes that we may pass on to our descendants.
We have already seen the effects of PFAS, the “forever chemicals” that pollute our soil and waterways. PFAS have been linked to low birth weight and developmental defects. How can this be when the fetus is not exposed to PFAS? This happens because PFAS causes epigenetic changes in mothers, including glucose intolerance and low cholesterol (high cholesterol triggers development steroids that are crucial for successful pregnancies).
This epigenetic effect happens because gene expression is being altered by these synthetic influences. Some genes stay turned “on” longer than they should. Others turn on or off at the wrong time. Still others fail to turn on at all.
PFAS also seem to accelerate our “epigenetic age,” i.e., the rate of DNA methylation. This happens naturally over time, but rapid or excessive methylation causes the oxidative stress linked with cancer. People with chronic exposure to PFAS, such as firefighters, have an increased risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases. While there is still much to study about long-term PFAS exposure, it’s definitely an issue of concern. We likely won’t know the full effects until several generations from now.
Lifestyle Effects on Epigenetics
We have known for years that certain vices (alcohol, tobacco, etc.) can have carcinogenic effects. As we’ve researched more, we’ve discovered that it’s rarely a singular pathway. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to lung cancer, so even the occasional cigarette raises their risk. Others may smoke for decades and never develop cancer. The missing link is epigenetics — the complex changes in gene expression/phenotype and DNA methylation.
The bigger lifestyle factors, though, likely come from our profession and living environment. If your job entails high levels of exposure to industrial chemicals, diesel exhaust, etc., you’re more susceptible to their epigenetic effects. If your workplace or home contains paint or materials laden with VOCs, PFAS, or worse, lead, you’re immersed in those vapors for hours every day. And because these substances tend to accumulate in the body, your gene expression may change over the years — outside the normal effects of aging.
These chemicals also contribute to DNA methylation, which is when a methyl group attaches to the DNA molecule. This affects how the relevant genes are expressed. Methylation is a normal part of cellular activity. But just like anything else, it must be in balance. Otherwise, it contributes to the over- or under-expression of our genes. One key example is in autoimmune diseases, in which the body’s immune cells attack healthy tissue. For example, lupus is linked with low methylation in T lymphocytes (white blood cells), impairing their ability to receive signals accurately.
Assessing Our Risk
Because these conditions are difficult to study in controlled experiments, we must rely on observational data. Scientists have compared toxin blood levels with lifestyle choices, geographic region, etc. However, it appears that toxins can have lasting epigenetic effects even after leaving the bloodstream. That’s why it’s been challenging to pin down the precise levels of PFAS, PAHs, parabens, etc. that are objectively harmful — exposure not only varies by person but also throughout each person’s life.
To make things even more complicated, those effects are two-fold. Toxins may directly disrupt or damage our cells through methylation, or they may interrupt key metabolic processes, indirectly leading to disease. For example, heavy metals bind to essential proteins and enzymes, changing their activity, and release free radicals that cause oxidative stress. So, not only are our cells damaged, but our body cannot repair itself effectively, either.
Our bodies actually have powerful detox mechanisms. We have an army of enzymes and antibodies designed to expel waste, convert glucose or fatty tissue into energy, and ward off microbes. But just as our cars need all their valves, fluids, motors, and filters to be intact, so do our bodies. The accumulated epigenetic effects of environmental and lifestyle toxins can impair our ability to detox — compounding the symptoms and disease we experience.
There is still so much research to do. While some industries and governments have been eliminating known toxins, the progress is slow. Even if PFAS have been phased out, they linger in our soil. Parabens, phthalates, and other endocrine disruptors remain woefully common. Heavy metals can enter our bodies through both our food and our water.
Until sweeping and sustainable changes are made, all we can do is minimize our exposure to toxins. That means detoxing your environment and adopting a healthy lifestyle as much as possible. Once we do that, our bodies have more freedom to use their detox powers.
We also must be mindful of our epigenetics. Understanding how your body responds to certain foods, drugs, and chemicals is crucial to making healthy choices. Everyone is unique, which means there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all detox lifestyle. Some people may need to avoid dairy; others can consume dairy that’s produced without harmful hormones or additives.
Our bodies are complex ecosystems that constantly shift and adapt in response to genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. As the latter two can significantly alter our gene expression, we must be mindful of what we bring into our bodies, either actively or passively. Epigenetics affect our phenotype, diseases, immunity, detox, and what we pass onto our children. Take the time to evaluate your unique ecosystem and how you can optimize it for greater health.
This article is inspired by an interview with Dr. Melanie Keller, ND, the “Intuitive Edge Doctor” and the founder of SIBO Center for Naturopathic Medicine PC.