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: