In the seven years since I started writing Parenting for Peace the term epigenetics has graduated from being a practically unheard-of, esoteric branch of biology to an increasingly mainstream concept. (That worked out nicely, since my book’s entire premise turns on the epigenetic notion of just how much influence we have in who we and our children shape up to be.) In a recent post on Eco Child’s Play, author Jennifer Lance does parents a solid by gathering wide-ranging information and insight into why they need to understand and care about epigenetics.
Unlike what we learned in basic biology class, we are not immutably defined nor are our children unalterably determined by DNA. As I write in P for P, “Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression and function that occur without a change in the actual DNA code. Epigenetics recognizes that DNA is not the grand destiny maker of life after all, and identifies the mechanisms by which environmental signals (including diet, thoughts and behavior) can change the action of our genes—an unthinkable concept even just a generation ago.”
(In case you’re only inclined to read this far, here’s the take-away preview: parenting involves giving a potent set of “environmental signals”! Now will you read on??)
Lance, who also writes for Green Parenting News, focuses mostly on the nexus of parenting and ecology, so where does epigenetics fit into that equation? A mother of two school-age children who definitely walks her green talk, she points readers to excellent research while helpfully bottom-lining takeaway nuggets for those overextended parents who might not have the time and energy to plumb the original sources (which include Lancet, Scientific American and Time)—such as these:
1. Avoid BPA!: Our genes are most vulnerable during pregnancy and adolescence. Chemicals in our environment affect our genes (epigenetics).
2. Parenting and nurturing affects genes: Here’s the scientific proof attachment parenting is important. Behavioral cues are also part of epigenetics (“environmental factors that change genes in the first and second generation”). Babies need to be held and talked to closely to caregivers.
3. “The best diet for pregnancy is organic!”: Epigenetics again! Maternal diet has a great effect on the developing brain.
To me, Lance’s article points up the need to broaden our view of “ecology” beyond so-called environmental issues (the second dictionary definition) and recognize ecology according to its first yet lesser-used definition:
the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.
• (also human ecology) the study of the interaction of people with their environment
As a cell biologist, Bruce Lipton, one of my mentors, brought a fundamental tenet into the arena of human ecology, which he’d learned by working with the most basic building blocks of our existence, cells. When a cell was “sick” (not expressing wellbeing, not functioning as it should), he wouldn’t do surgery… or give the cell medication… but rather, he would change the culture—the medium in which the cell was living. When the culture was improved (ie, was appropriate for the cell), the cell improved, and vice versa. This was because of the continual process of the cell checking in with the environment—via gates and channels in its membrane, the true brain of the cell—and adjusting its functioning to suit the environmental cues. This notion of interaction with the environment is everything! It is what true intelligence itself is about.
In P for P I share the fundamental meaning of intelligence, which I learned from yet another brilliant mentor, Joseph Chilton Pearce: “the ability to bring in information and respond to that information for one’s own wellbeing and continuity. This can be applied to a cell, an individual, a community, a nation, a race, even to humanity itself. It is a primary fulcrum on which this entire platform of raising a peaceful generation balances. At every step and through every principle we are seeking to foster the greatest possible intelligence according to this powerful definition.”
The epigenetic influences mentioned by Lance—BPAs, pesticides, insufficient parental nurturance, vaccines—may be regarded as environmental cues driving epigenetic changes in gene expression designed to best equip the developing individual for that particular environment. A Parenting for Peace example of this adaptive process:
If a pregnant mother’s thoughts and emotions are persistently negative, if she is under unrelenting stress, the internal message—delivered to the developing baby—is, ‘It’s a dangerous world out there,’ regardless of whether or not this is objectively true. The baby’s neural cells and nervous system development will actually mutate (adapt) to prepare for the unsafe environment it perceives it is going to be born into. Chronic stress in pregnancy tends to sculpt a brain suited to survive in dangerous environments: short of attention, quick to react, with reduced impulse control, with a dampened capacity to feel calm and content.
(Please know that my book is geared far more to the empowering inverse of this reality: you can make conscious choices, in pregnancy and even before, to equip your child with the fundamental capacities required for experiencing abundant peace within and promoting innovative peace without, throughout the many years of his or her life!)
Now how would, say, autistic-spectrum characteristics equip someone for a particularly toxin-laden environment, given the suspected yet elusive association Lance traces between autism and vaccines? Nature works in mysterious, often brutal ways—ways that even our oh-so-sophisticated 21st century scientific technologies sometimes cannot decipher.
I have heard it said that the growing numbers of autistic youth best be heeded like the canaries that perish in contaminated coal mines: they are telling us that the culture is not healthy for children and other living things.
Source: “Epigenetics, Autism, Pesticides, and Vaccines: One More Reason to Live Naturally and Avoid Chemicals,” Eco Child’s Play, Jan. 18, 2012.
Image by: dullhunk used under its Creative Commons license.
Marcy Axness, PhD, is the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers.