Brain and Epigenetics

How is your brain doing?

  • Is your memory noticeably declining?
  • Are you losing your attention span endurance?
  • Are you having a hard time remembering names and/or phone numbers ?
  • How often do you find yourself down or sad?
  • How often do you fatigue when driving compared to the past?
  • Is your ability to focus noticeably declining?
  • Has it become harder for you to learn things?
  • How often do you fatigue when reading compared to the past?
  • How often do you have a hard time remembering  your appointments?
  • How often do you walk into rooms and forget why?
  • Is your temperament getting worse in general?
  • How often do you pick up your cell phone and forget why?
  • Can you count back from 100 by 7?
  • Has your handwriting changed?

You may have an issue with your brain. People don’t like to talk about brain issues, but sadly I see it in a large percentage of my clients. Brain issues are on the rise. It is estimated that over 24 million folks experience dementia and that number is expected to double by 2040. One in eight will develop Alzheimer’s, while 1 in 8 children have a development disorder like ADHD or autism. Antidepressants are now the number one prescribed medicine in the US.  What is going on? Maybe it is in our genes…..

What is Epigenetics?

Food, lifestyle choices, and stressors can change our brain by affecting our tissue, organ, and system functionality. How does it do this? By turning specific genes on and off….

The body contains genetic information that can code for more than 19,000 proteins that perform specific functions. We all know that we cannot change our genes, but we may have the power to control whether or not the gene is turned on/off or even at what level it starts to work. Otherwise as a species, how would we have ever evolved?

That being said, if you have family history of diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, etc., you may not be destined to have it. Instead, you have the ability to reduce your risk by providing your genes the information it needs via lifestyle choices (such as food, exercise, social interactions, environment, and even emotions). This phenomena is called Epigenetics and is starting to change the way healthcare is practiced around the world.

A lecture I attended by Dr. J Bland, really drove this home. Take for instance, the BRCA gene that is causing women to opt for a preventative mastectomy in fear of developing breast cancer. In 1940, the incidence of this genetic mutation was 24%. By 2013, it had increased to over 85%. What changed? Since the gene itself cannot change, it must be environment influencing its expression. Turns out that greater than 70% of genes that code for health and longevity are under epigenetic control.

A couple of more important points. Genes can be expressed via lifestyle so your lifestyle choices today may be passed down for generations to come…So there is motivation to think twice about the must have food choices or being too tired to go to the gym! And, secondly, keep in mind that epigenetic expression affect function throughout the body, not just our brain.

Common Brain Epigenetics

One scan of epigenetic markers in the brain identified about 60 genes that were different between psychiatric patients and healthy people. Many of these genes code for proteins that support signaling between brain cells. We are going to focus on just three important brain genetic issues: creation of new brain cells, communication between these cells, and protection of the brain cells we have.

BDNF — Create New Brain Cells

Do you believe that every alcoholic drink you consume kills your brain cells? Maybe so, but unlike genes, we have the ability to grow new brain cells as well as strengthen the ones we have. The question is, how do we optimize this process? By controlling our DNA expression.

Turns out there is a specific gene whose job is to create new neurons by producing a protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF for short. BDNF is busy creating, protecting, and encouraging communication between brain cells. BDNF is basically a growth hormone for the brain!

Studies verify decreased BDNF activity in those with Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, anorexia, depression, schizophrenia, OCD, etc.. The good news is that BDNF may be controlled by a ketogenic diet, physical exercise, anti-inflammatory nutrients such as curcumin and DHA, and a positive outlook. Everyone of my clients is on a gene/brain protocol, they just don’t know it!

nRF2 — Protecting Brain Cells

Our bodies are constantly undergoing assault from free radicals from both environmental as well as ones generated internally during normal metabolic activities. In terms of brain function, these rascals affect cognitive function and have been shown to be an early trigger for serious brain issues like Alzheimer’s and inflammatory disease throughout the body. Considering the risk for developing Alzheimer’s is now 50% for those over 85, it is important to be proactive.

Many folks are aware of antioxidant need and take high doses of supplements to support their body. The problem is, there is just no way to keep up since our mitochondria alone produce 100’s of free radicals daily (combined with the fact we have over 10 million billion mitochondria!). But our bodies will not be outsmarted and genetically increase antioxidant production on demand by turning up production of a protein called nRF2 which regulates the production of glutathione. Glutathione is designed to protect against high oxidative stress. 

Again, diet and anti-inflammatory substances such as fish oil, glutathione support, curcumin, ashwaganda, milk thistle, green tea, coffee, etc. may effective at up-regulating production of this important protein.

Methylation — Improve Communication Between Brain Cells

Methylation is critical for brain function, repairing DNA, turning on and off genes, fighting infections, removing toxins, etc. More than 40% of folks now have a genetic defect or SNP (such as MTHFR, MTR, MTRR, etc.) that affects the body’s ability to methylate. Brain-wise, methylation issues have been linked to addiction, insomnia, autism, bipolar or manic depression, ADD or ADHD, dementia, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, anxiety, neuropathy, etc.

Nerve cells communicate via a combination of electrical and chemical signals called neurotransmitters. Methylation plays a role in making and breaking down of excess neurotransmitters. Most people are concerned with low neurotransmitter levels, but high levels due to the inability to methylate, can also lead to issues such as seizures, insomnia, panic attacks, rage, etc.. The inability to methylate may also lead to low levels of glutathione, which severely compromise your ability to detoxify.

Once again diet and directed supplementation are your friends and the appropriate form of folate/B12/B6 and cofactor vitamins/minerals may potentially be used to support the defect. Please work with a practitioner as to not overmethylate which can lead to its own problems.

In addition, TMG, and good brain fats such as phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylcholine may support weakened pathways depending on which is gene is affected.

How does lifestyle affect gene expression?

A ketogenic diet, physical exercise, and anti-inflammatory supplements have all been shown to affect genetic expression and improve brain health. A diet full of fiber with polyphenols and short chained fatty acids are great for gut/brain health. Magnesium and vitamin D are also key players.


Nutrigenomics is the study of how selected foods and supplements can interact with particular genes to decrease the risk of disease. According to Dr. Perlmutter, it’s all about nutrition. Mitochondria tend to function better when they are burning fat as a fuel as opposed to carbohydrates. He feels that we should be eating about 70% of our calories from fat, since that it how we have eaten for 2.6 million years. “Our collective genome has not evolved to handle carbohydrates, so the best and most therapeutic diet from an integrative and complementary medicine perspective for brain cells is a higher fat diet that reduces carbohydrate.”

Food intolerances and sensitivities will also cause inflammation leading to brain dysfunction. Ask anyone who is gluten or dairy sensitive!


A recent study demonstrated an increase in the size in the part of our brain known as the hippocampus in elderly individuals who engaged in 20 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise 3 days a week for 1 year. They also experienced a corresponding increase in memory function and an increase in BDNF. However, the control group assigned to just stretching and toning experienced a decrease in hippocampal size over the same time period. These findings are important since as we age, we may lose 1%–2% of hippocampal cells every single year.  Also, don’t forget to exercise your brain as well.


Stress plays a very powerful role in our ability to preserve memory and function. Long term stress has been proven to lead to atrophy of the hippocampus. Laughter on the other hand, plays a positive role in genetic health. One interesting study showed the increase in 27 different genes after viewing a funny video! :)) Meditation such as Kundalini Alternate Nostril Breathing are great forms of stress reduction.

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