Put simply, epigenetics is the study of how environmental influences can switch genes on and off. Epigenetics is shedding light on the age-old nature versus nurture debate by showing how our environment, relationships, and lifestyle choices change our gene activity.
Learning that genes are not set in stone has raised exciting possibilities, like preventing or even reversing disease, mental illness, and behavioral problems. Child development experts are especially intrigued, because epigenetics underscores the important role of nurture, especially during the first years of life.
How Gene Activity Can Change
Children are born with about 23,000 genes inherited by their parents. Each gene has an underlying DNA sequence that never changes. Layered over those sequences are genetic markers, which are like dimmer switches that control how much influence a gene has. Any environmental factor that the body can detect can potentially modify these markers, which in turn affects development, physical and mental health, abilities, and behavior.
How Does Epigenetics Affect Children?
Epigenetics is a relatively new (yet rapidly evolving) field of study, and the complex interplay between genes and environment is still not fully understood. What we have learned, however, is compelling enough that renowned experts, like those at the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, are using epigenetic research to inform their recommendations for optimal child development.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways epigenetics can affect child development:
The idea that a child’s home life affects him isn’t new. What is new is the understanding of why: A child’s early experiences cause epigenetic changes in his brain. Compared to children who grow up with stress, abuse and/or neglect, children who grow up in warm, supportive environments with plenty of positive stimulation have better outcomes in all areas of life. The role of parents and caregivers in shaping a child’s brain is so critical that we wrote an entire in-depth article about it, which you can find here.
Chemicals such as bisphenol A (or BPA, found in some plastics) and phthalates (used widely, especially in cleaning and personal care products) were found to be “genetically toxic” by this study, especially during fetal and infant development. Many companies have removed these chemicals from their products.
Heavy metals (like lead, nickel, and cadmium) and alcohol and drugs (including some prescription medications) also have the potential to alter gene markers, especially during the critical fetal/infant timeframe.
A mother not having access to adequate calories can alter genetic markers in her unborn baby, predisposing him to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. What’s more, these changes can be passed on to future generations. You can read more about this here.
Both too little and too much of vitamins like folic acid, choline and B12 can cause health-related epigenetic changes. This highlights the importance of correct dosage of these and other supplements, especially for pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and children.
Although more research is needed to better understand the relationship between food and gene function, initial studies suggest that food plays an epigenetic role. It’s a good reason to optimize your child’s nutrition, which you can read about here.
Childhood stress related to abuse or neglect not only affects brain development, it can also have epigenetic consequences on metabolic and immune function, putting children at high risk for chronic health, mental health, and behavioral problems.
Children born to mothers who experienced trauma have been found to have genetic markers that predispose them to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) themselves, which you can read more about here.
Studies have linked exercise to epigenetic modifications in muscle and fatty tissue, which in turn affects metabolism. That’s a good reason to nurture the motor skills that are linked to higher rates of lifelong exercise!
What This Means for You
Discoveries about gene-environment interaction highlight the essential role parents and caregivers play in shaping children’s futures. If you’re using BabySparks, keep it up; our activities are aimed at shaping your child’s future by ensuring you interact with her in meaningful ways each day.