Epigenics Through Diet Holds Promise For Health, Treatment For Autism, Apraxia And Other Conditions


baby-772439_1280Recently,  the journal Pediatrics published ‘Therapies for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders” three different government funded studies that analyzed autism research from 2000 to 2010 for “Pharmacologic and Complementary-Alternative Medicine”  (prescription drugs – biomedical treatments) as well as various types of early intervention therapies.   Support for the treatments and therapies used for a decade to help in many cases were found to be weak and in some cases with severe side effects.  But under key findings at the end of the 1000 page report fish oils, or essential fatty acids, were a key nutritional strategy that held promise

“A few other medical interventions show some promise for future research, including serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs),128-130 methylphenidate,131-134, 136 omega 3 fatty acids,154 and melatonin.153 Others, including secretin,137-144 are clearly not efficacious and warrant no further study.”

And then a few months later in September of 2012 there were findings that some forms of autism could be “fixed” or “treated” with the use of amino acids found in protein.  For autism “Genetic mutations in metabolic pathway could be fixed with nutritional supplement.”  All of this points to the obvious conclusion.

The use of specific nutritional strategies is an exciting and promising area of research.

Western science as well has known for years that environment, including balanced nutrition, holds much of the future answers as do genetics.  For example in the book The Genius In All Of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, And IQ Is Wrong By David Shenk, he writes: “Height can provide a terrific insight into the gene-environment dynamic.  Most of us think of height as being more or less directly genetically determined.  The reality is so much more interesting.  One of the most striking early hints of the new understanding of development as a dynamic process emerged in 1957 when Stanford School of Medicine researcher William Walter Grulich measured the heights of Japanese children raised in California and compared them to the heights of Japanese children raised in Japan dring the same time period.  The California-raised kids, with significantly better nourishment and medical care, grew and astonishing five inches taller on average.”

And today there is a growing area of research that is proving diet has a major impact on cognition.  There appears to be much hope for all with diseases and disorders such as autism, apraxia, dyspraxia, traumatic brain injury, global delays, cognitive impairments, ADHD, seizures, genetic syndromes, Alzheimers and other conditions through something as simple and healthy as essential nutrition.

Many today are aware that fish oils and algae are the best sources of essential amino acids.  But not as much focus has been put on essential amino acids and their need by the body.  Both brain serotonin and melatonin mentioned as “promising” in the 10 year metaanalysis on autism are essential neurotransmitters with distinct roles in regulating mood and health.   But drugs are not the only way to control the levels of neurotransmitters.  For example both of the essential neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin are dependent on plasma levels of the essential amino acid tryptophan which is found naturally occurring in numerous foods.  Food is the purest form of supplementation.   A  problem today is our poor diets together with the rise in metabolic dysfunction, some essential nutrients are either not being consumed, or what is may not be getting properly digested and utilized.  Essential amino acids and other essential nutrients such as essential fatty acids, are like air or water in that the body needs them daily but can’t produce them, thus needs to consume them.

For the past year in well over one thousand families from  the Cherab Foundation, a grassroots nonprofit advocacy group to support those with communication impairments, we have been feeding our communication impaired children a mixture of easily digestible  natural protein isolate and botanicals that is rich in all of the essential amino acids and nutrients from food.  Nutrition has been a paradigm shift in health and the treatment of various diagnosis.  The reasons may have to do with essential nutrition and current research supports this.

Just recently, Georgianna Gould, Ph.D., research assistant professor of physiology in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, is exploring the role that the essential neurotransmitter serotonin plays in autism spectrum disorders. Research has found thirty percent of autism cases may have a serotonin component. “Dr. Gould now plans to study the impact of a diet rich in the essential amino acid, tryptophan, on the social behavior of the mice. Tryptophan is a biochemical precursor of serotonin, which means it is converted into serotonin during the metabolic process. Foods such as turkey are rich in tryptophan.

Scientists have long known that what pregnant mothers eat affect their offspring

“We are going to supplement the diet of mice with tryptophan to see if behavior improves, and also reduce it to see if behavior worsens,” Dr. Gould said. The future study of tryptophan is funded by the Morrison Trust, a San Antonio trust that lists nutrition as one of its topics of interest.” And there are a few studies that already support that the consumption of essential amino acids in the diet to help with neural benefit and repair. “Neurology researchers have shown that feeding amino acids to brain-injured animals restores their cognitive abilities and may set the stage for the first effective treatment for cognitive impairments suffered by people with traumatic brain injuries.  We have shown in an animal model that dietary intervention can restore a proper balance of neurochemicals in the injured part of the brain, and simultaneously improves cognitive performance.”

“If the results in mice can be reproduced in people, patients with traumatic brain injuries could receive the BCAAs in a drink.”~ Akiva S. Cohen, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

And as far as the Omega 3s go Cherab Foundation has been a champion in this area for over a decade with thousands of anecdotal reports the benefits of these essential fatty acids that led to a landmark conference to discuss the therapeutic  use of essential fatty acids for apraxia, autism and similar conditions. “A simple fish oil supplement may be the key to dramatically unlock the voices of children with speech and language disorders.  That’s the conclusion of a group of scientists who reviewed a study of nineteen youngsters suffering from various speech problems. The children, ranging in age from two years to eight years, were given a fish oil supplement containing a mixture of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFAs). Speech-language pathologists who monitored the children reported significant improvements within just a few weeks. The improvements were noted not only in the children’s ability to talk, but also in their behavior, ability to focus, and in maintaining eye contact. Now the scientists, brought together by the Cherab Foundation, a major nonprofit group for those that are growing up with or grew up with communication impairments, are calling for a large-scale clinical trial to validate these initial findings. The panel of experts who reviewed the study included scientists from the NIH, Johns Hopkins University, Kennedy Krieger Institute, University of Kansas, and Oxford University, England. They join a growing group of researchers who are heralding the benefits of essential fatty acid supplementation for a wide range of brain-related problems including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and even Alzheimer’s disease and autism.”

Scientists have long known that what pregnant mothers eat — whether they are mice, fruit flies or humans — can profoundly affect the susceptibility of their offspring to disease.  But can this knowledge answer a question like “Why do complex diseases like autism turn up in more boys than girls?”

As we search to unlock the door to understanding, preventions, triggers, treatments and cures for various diagnosis like autism, Alzheimer’s, cancer, the emerging field of epigenics may hold the key.   The three major epigenetic mechanisms—DNA methylation, histone modification, and microRNA (miRNA) expression.   Epigeneticists are looking at biological mechanisms other than mutation that affect how genes function. Scientific discoveries illuminate the emerging field of epigenics, in which environmental exposures of any sort including nutrients from diet, toxins, stress, physical activity, behaviors, and even thoughts and belief can silence or activate a gene without altering its genetic code in any way.

Frequently identical twins are increasingly different over time

Identical twins provide much insight into epigenics. During fertilization one set of genes from mom and dad combine to form an embryo.   Identical twins are exact carbon copies and their DNA sequences are exactly the same because they are from the same embryo that split in half.  Most epigenetic tags from the parents erased but on some genes tags remain and that’s called an imprinted genes. For most identical twins early environment exposures are  similar and so are the epigenics, however this changes as they grow older.  Frequently identical twins are increasingly different over time.  What this means is that if one identical twin is diagnosed with cancer, the other twin may never be diagnosed with cancer. Unlike behavior, stress and some of the others, diet is one of the more easily studied, and therefore better understood, environmental factors in epigenetic change.  The nutrients we extract from food enter metabolic pathways where they are manipulated, modified and molded into molecules the body can use. One such pathway is responsible for making methyl groups – important epigenetic tags.  Methylation acts like a gas pedal or brake to silence or wake up genes. It can turn gene expression up or down, on or off, depending on how much of it is around and what part of the genetic machinery it affects.

“Nutrition isn’t a fleeting affair, we are, quite literally, what we eat as well as what our parents and even grandparents ate.” Randy L. Jirtle, Ph.D. Director of the Epigenetics and Imprinting Laboratory Duke University

Genetics are a blueprint that provides instructions for the development and maintenance of the body, however this emerging field of epigentics can mean even genetic predispositions to a disease is optional, not pre-determined by genetics, nor an unavoidable fact.  The epigenone interacts with DNA to activate or suppress expression of particular genes.  So in brief, epigenetic tags turn genes off or on without changing the underlying genetic code. Experiments in mice show just how important a mother’s diet is in shaping the epigenome of her offspring.  In one study, Dr. Jirtle showed that four common nutritional supplements found in foods like vegetables, B12, folic acid, choline and betaine, fed to pregnant mice actually altered their offspring.  The supplements lowered the offspring’s adult susceptibility to obesity, diabetes and cancer as compared to the unsupplemented offspring.  These results indicate that an individual’s adult health is heavily influenced by prenatal factors. “Researchers found early diet seemed to affect the child’s later verbal skills.  There is evidence that a poor diet associated with high fat, sugar and processed food content in early childhood may be associated with small reductions in IQ in later childhood, while a healthy diet, associated with high intakes of nutrient rich foods may be associated with small increases in IQ.

Exposure to toxins in utero can also affect the epigenome

Exposure to toxins can also affect the epigenome.  For example when pregnant mice mothers were fed BPA, more yellow, unhealthy babies were born than normal. Exposure to BPA during early development had caused decreased methylation of the agouti gene.   Even the lowest detectable limits of a chemical can have dire effects on a living organism, says William Schlesinger, Ph.D., Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke. “In a study that came out through a team at UC San Francisco it was found that there was the presence of a wide range of toxins which may be carried in pregnant women along with their fetuses.”

There are numerous studies of how environmental toxins negatively affect health.  For example even low levels of lead exposure can lower IQ, affect academic performance, and damage the brain and the kidneys, while higher levels of lead exposure can cause seizures, even death

Atrizine is another prime example. Less than one part per billion of this widely used corn herbicide de-masculinizes developing frogs or causes dual male-female genitalia. Yet often the Environmental Protection Agency’s instrumentation doesn’t record such minute levels of chemical exposure, he said. “If Atrizine is having this effect in animals, we question its effects on humans,” said Schlesinger.   However the good news is that in one study when BPA-exposed, pregnant yellow mice were fed a nutritious diet of methyl-rich foods, the offspring were predominantly healthy and stayed that way for life.

These findings appear to demonstrate that a healthy maternal nutrient supplementation has the ability to counteract the negative effects of toxin exposure.

The following 2 videos document the startling epigenic research led by Randy L. Jirtle, Ph.D. Director of the Epigenetics and Imprinting Laboratory Duke University

An important environmental connection to epigenetics is that the source of methyl groups in this reaction is methionine,  which like tryptophan, is another essential amino acid that can be found in food.   Methionine is converted to a biologically active methyl donor state through a well-understood pathway that involves folic acid.

DNA methylation depends on dietary methionine and folate, both of which are affected by nutritional state. Studies in mice have shown that reduction of dietary methionine can affect coat color by altering DNA methylation of the agouti gene.  Simply feeding rats a low-methionine diet causes them to develop liver cancer at high frequency through hypomethylation of their DNA.” The purest form of supplementation is through food.  The essential amino acid methionine is found naturally through foods and is another essential nutrient found in a protein powder our group has been using.  This is important to note because we have seen such dramatic surges with nutritional strategies that the area of epigenics should be explored.  By knowing the mechanism by which nutrition affects gene expression and ultimately phenotype we’ll be able to understand why this food which contains all of the essential amino acids and nutrients per serving  (including methionine and typtophan) is having such remarkable affects many times from a day to three days of starting consumption.

“We can no longer argue whether genes or environment has a greater impact on our health and development, because both are inextricably linked.” Randy L. Jirtle, Ph.D. Director of the Epigenetics and Imprinting Laboratory Duke University.

With the strong focus on diet, there is an emerging field called nutrigenomics, so what is nutrigenomics? “Nutrigenomics is the science that examines the response of individuals to food compounds using post-genomic and related technologies (e.g. genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabol/nomic etc.). The long-term aim of nutrigenomics is to understand how the whole body responds to real foods using an integrated approach termed ‘systems biology’. The huge advantage in this approach is that the studies can examine people (i.e. populations, sub-populations – based on genes or disease – and individuals), food, life-stage and life-style without preconceived ideas.” “Defective genes are damaged for life; however, there is emerging evidence from animal models that genes can be demethylated or remethylated, which may open the opportunity for reprogramming, possibly using nutritional means.” And while a good diet just makes sense and is easy to try, thoughts too are now known as being part of the epigenics in their abilties to influence brain functioning and neuroplasticity! Dr. Rudolph Tanzi ,Professor of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital

“Mind, Brain, Genes, Neuroplasticity and Enlightenment”

So since we are learning we are what we eat, think and do…live healthy and do something good for yourself and your child today!




Written by Lisa Geng, mother to two boys that were both “late talkers” who are doing great today. President and Founder of the Cherab Foundation, and Co Author of The Late Talker book St Martin’s Press

One Response to “Epigenics Through Diet Holds Promise For Health, Treatment For Autism, Apraxia And Other Conditions”
  1. Red Bottom Loafers says:

    Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the great work!

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