Epigenetics and Your Child’s Teeth
Why Giving Your Child the Best Smile Requires More than Just Brushing
With the development of modern technologies, parents these days have much more influence on the health of their unborn babies. Where just over 50 years ago, there were no ultrasounds and many mothers still drank and smoked regularly, our 21st century knowledge now allows us to have an inside look into everything from the types of ailments our children are predisposed to, to computer-generated images of what they’ll look like even before they are born.
What you eat while you’re pregnant (along with other factors) may prompt epigenetic changes that influence your child’s dental and overall health.
Still, even with the most advanced science in the world, the general rule of thumb remains that our children will be born with the DNA that we give them – and that is one constant that will never change.
Or can it?
Ensuring that our children are born healthy and strong is a big concern for many expecting parents, and luckily, there are many studies, books, websites, doctors and more, who recommend a whole host of vitamins, supplements, and diets to ensure that mothers get the best nutrition possible while pregnant.
This idea – of eating well so that you can be strong to ensure that your baby is strong – isn’t too far off from some major advances in epigenetic discoveries that have happened over the past several decades.
What is Epigenetics?
Essentially, epigenetics is the scientific study of how our environmental factors and personal choices affect our DNA. Philip Hunter, a science writer specializing in biology, explains this idea clearly in his paper “What Genes Remember.” He states:
“It has long been known that an organism’s fate is not determined by genes alone. This much we can tell by observing identical twins, who over time tend to diverge both physiologically (developing differences in, say, height and posture) and psychologically (exhibiting different personality traits and even, sometimes, sexual orientations). Despite most identical twins having similar diets and lifestyles, subtle cultural and environmental distinctions appear to alter their phenotype—the sum of their nature and nurture.”
“In 1942, Conrad Waddington coined the term “epigenetics” to describe this idea that an organism’s experience may cause its genes to behave (or “express themselves”) differently. Scientists have found striking examples of epigenetic behavior in the animal kingdom—in the way, for example, honeybee larvae “decide” whether to become queens or workers depending upon their interaction with other larvae and the environment.”
Waddington’s theories have only strengthened over the years as new genetic studies are finding that the genetic changes in our bodies can now be passed to our children – or as Hunter puts it:
“Scientists have become convinced that there is a form of inheritance, called epigenetic inheritance, in which the behavior of genes in offspring is affected by the life experience of parents.”
Does This Mean that You Can Alter the DNA of Your Child Through Your Diet?
Yes and no. Our genetic makeup, on the whole, is unchangeable minus mutations (for example cancers) that occur along the way. However, what scientists have recently found is that our genes have triggers to certain external factors, such as food, which can cause them to react and modify themselves. So in a way, we can “coax” our genes into making the right choices with a few “triggers,” which are as simple as eating the right vegetables or avoiding fatty foods.
In a ground-breaking documentary by NOVA, Dr. Jean-Pierre Issa of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center explained the role of epigenetics as such:
Interviewer: “People tend to think that the genes they’re born with are set in stone—they’re not going to change. But your epigenome does change. Do we have some responsibility to maintain it?”
Dr. Issa: “The realization that the epigenome is so important to health and disease is really fundamental, because we now understand that the epigenome is something we can do something about, as opposed to the genome, which is what we are born with that we can really not modify.”
“The epigenome is a little more dynamic. Potentially what we eat in infancy and what we eat in development could affect the health of our epigenome. But it is more than that. Smoking and exposures and lifestyle habits can affect our epigenome. And perhaps more interestingly, not to be negative all the time, there might be interventions that would make our epigenome more healthy.”
What Dr. Issa explains is a novel concept that allows us to find out what “triggers” our genes have, revealing how we can control those triggers to prevent disease, illness and death in many circumstances.
What Are Some Major Negative Environmental Factors that Can “Trigger” Your Disease-Causing Genes?
There are some factors that will always be harmful or beneficial to our wellbeing, regardless of epigenetics or not. For example, it is pretty commonly acknowledged that smoking is harmful in virtually every way to your body. Also, eating fast food and junk food also will increase your chances of certain illnesses like diabetes, obesity and more.
In general, we are advised to avoid:
- Fatty foods (saturated)
- Fried foods
- Burnt foods
As Dr. Pieter Dahler states, “While epigenetics says our health is affected by environmental influences of previous generations, it also states that we have the ability to alter the way our DNA is expressed through lifestyle choices such as nutrition. Thus, to a certain degree, each of us can change the architectural plan of our being—or that of our child.
UAB biologist Trygve Tollefsbol, explains the harmfulness of these foods in more detail:
“Our work has shown that sugar can predispose a person to cancer,” he notes. “We took precancerous cells—these are cells destined to become cancer cells—and we found that when we reduced the amount of sugar in the culture where the cells were growing, it killed those cells.”
In direct contrast to foods that we need to avoid, there are also foods that we should eat plenty of. Among those are:
- Dark leafy greens
- Raw vegetables and fruit
- Whole grains
These choices seem pretty basic and simple, but in the long run they can and do affect the way that our genes react, thrive and stay healthy. Moreover, in regard to genetic inheritance, paying attention to your diet may actually improve your child’s genetic “triggers” for healthier bodies and, more specifically, better oral health.
An article by Dr. Pieter Dahler titled: “Bite Sized: Optimizing the Health of your Baby’s Teeth” describes how certain nutritional choices can affect our babies’, their genomes and their smiles.
“While epigenetics says our health is affected by environmental influences of previous generations, it also states that we have the ability to alter the way our DNA is expressed through lifestyle choices such as nutrition. Thus, to a certain degree, each of us can change the architectural plan of our being—or that of our child.”
“When it comes to dental health, parents planning a baby actually have a good deal of control over the quality of their child’s teeth. Understanding how teeth grow reveals a basic plan for optimizing that growth…it’s critical that a mother’s nutritional status be optimal from he time befo’re conception all the way through weaning, and that parents teach their child good eating habits to ensure optimal nutrition throughout their teen and early-adult years.”
But How Does Eating Right Directly Affect Your Child’s DNA and Oral Health?
Though the changes may be subtle, there are a lot of nutrients, vitamins and minerals that can cause our genes and the genes of our children to change for the better. For example, as Dr. Dahler states,
“Teeth and their supporting jaw bones develop from collagen, the main component of human connective tissue and the most abundant protein in the body. The “glue” of the collagen structure includes the components of the vitamin C complex, which bind together the tissue’s building blocks, amino acids…Other major nutrients required for healthy teeth are calcium and phosphorus, which form the basic crystalline structure of enamel, as well as vitamin A and the hormone cholecalciferol, or “vitamin D3.” In addition, hundreds of secondary supporting micronutrients are required as well.”
Essentially, what he is advocating is a diet that provides all the essentials for optimum genetic performance in your child. He continues to explain that:
“…[there is a] Case for Supplementation: Parents planning a baby should ideally be on a sound nutrition plan for a minimum of three months prior to conception. Such a program ensures—since most women don’t know they’re pregnant until sometime after conception—that the foundation for strong teeth is firmly in place at the time a woman conceives.”
But Why Would You Choose Supplements Over Real Food?
What Dr.Dahler advocates isn’t exactly choosing supplements over real food. Of course, under optimal circumstances it is always ideal to eat real whole foods in order to get the nutrients required for epigenetic changes. However, the conditions for much of our food these days are less than optimal, with many of them being contaminated with pesticides, chemicals, poor soil conditions and more. Or more specifically:
“While ideally the nutrients required for healthy teeth are obtained from food, many factors of modern food production make this a challenge. Poor soils, long transportation times, poor warehouse storage practices, extensive processing, and overcooking all compromise the nutrient value of food.”
So in other words, if all our food was ideally packed with the nutrients and vitamins that we needed to ensure our bodies stay strong, then of course, choose the whole foods. But if you suspect that your food isn’t providing you with the optimal vitamins, nutrients and more, then supplementation is a great alternative.
Supplements Aside, What Other Kinds of Foods Also Have Positive Epigenetic Results?
A study done by the University of Alabama (UAB) recently found that substances in many plant-based foods have the ability to epigenetically prevent cancer and other illnesses. These foods cause the suppression of genes that can cause fatal illnesses. Among the foods the study recommends in their Epigenetic Diet are:
- Fava beans
- Green tea
- Brussel Sprouts
- Soy Beans
Dr. Tollefsbol, head biologist of the UAB study, calls a diet consisting of many of these foods an epigenetic diet. The diet is advocated because, as he states:
“Many of these dietary compounds work on the particular enzymes that cause epigenetic changes…in order to moderate them and keep them in check so that they will not allow cancers to form.”
A good example of this is the vitamin folate, which is found in high quantities in dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach. Folate in this form is a methyl donor, which as Dr. Tollefsbol states:
“…keeps genes methylated, which counters the decreased methylation that comes with increasing age.”
In addition, other studies by Dr. Tollefsbol and his partners have found that:
“…three cups of green tea per day [have] been shown to suppress breast cancer growth in animal models… [and] equivalent of a cup of broccoli sprouts each day has been shown to reduce the risk of developing several different cancers in animals.”
Currently working on a book titled ‘Epigenetics in Human Disease,’ Dr. Tollefsbol has also compiled research about epigenetic components of Alzheimer’s and other conditions, including schizophrenia, dementia, and diabetes which are very promising, considering that much of today’s therapies are reliant on drugs, chemicals and mass medication.
Ensuring that you eat well for the health of your unborn child is a major concern among expecting parents these days. Though many parents believe that eating well allows them to pass on nutrients to their child in the womb, there is a lot of new scientific research that proves that our diets can do much more that “feed” our children.
In fact, with the growing research surrounding epigenetics, we might be able to “change” our child’s DNA with proper epigenetic diets, ensuring that they have healthy bodies and, more specifically, teeth.
Though you may not know it, preventing tooth decay requires more than simply brushing and flossing twice a day, and when it comes to infants, children, the elderly and impoverished communities, the obstacles are even more abundant.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that:
- “Tooth decay affects more than one-fourth of U.S. children aged 2–5 years and half of those aged 12–15 years. About half of all children and two-thirds of adolescents aged 12–19 years from lower-income families have had decay.”
- “Children and adolescents of some racial and ethnic groups and those from lower-income families have more untreated tooth decay. For example, 40% of Mexican American children aged 6–8 years have untreated decay, compared with 25% of non-Hispanic whites. Among all adolescents aged 12–19 years, 20% currently have untreated decay.”
- “Advanced gum disease affects 4%–12% of U.S. adults. Half of the cases of severe gum disease in the United States are the result of cigarette smoking. The prevalence of gum disease is three times higher among smokers than among people who have never smoked.”
- “One-fourth of U.S. adults aged 65 or older have lost all of their teeth.
- “More than 7,800 people, mostly older Americans, die from oral and pharyngeal cancers each year. This year, about 36,500 new cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed.”
Those are some shocking statistics considering that America is largely celebrated as a nation at the forefront of dental health. Though tooth decay is not as rampant as obesity, heart disease and other heath epidemics, it is still a debilitating and embarrassing problem that many people suffer with daily. If you knew that you could help prevent it in your child, wouldn’t you take the precautionary steps needed – especially considering they are as simple as eating well?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Cavities, Gum Disease, Tooth Loss, and Oral Cancers; At A Glance.
Hunter, Phillip. ‘What OUr Genes Remember’.
Dahler, Dr. Peter, “Bite Sized: Optimizing the Health of Your Baby’s Teeth” inn ‘Milk and Honey News from the Selene River Press’. Volume 3.
Matt Windsor and Emily Delzell. Express Yourself: Epigenetics Shapes the Future of Health. UAB Magazine.