One of the most satisfying - and frustrating - aspects of health and wellness is the thing many of us know but don't really acknowledge - we are all unique.
Satisfying because I believe it's validating - each one of us has a purpose and a role to play in this world. If that weren't true, we could all be the same and it wouldn't make any difference at all.
And then frustrating because as someone who helps individuals find and create their best health, it's not easy! What works for three people won't work for the next five folks. We have to start from scratch in most situations. And that takes time and energy.
And when we're talking food sensitivities, it gets even more complicated!! That's why we look for the choices we can make to support and improve the foundations of our health.
Genetics and Epigenetics
We all learned the basics of genetics in school (but who really remembers that stuff?!) and how we are made up of chromosomes and DNA patterns. We each have a unique DNA code. But even identical twins who share that DNA code are different from each other. How?
Because even more than "just" DNA - we are unique in our life experiences. Where we grew up, our siblings, our friends, access to foods, education, the hobbies and work which interest us, etc. - there is nothing about your time on this planet that is exactly the same as someone else's.
And all of that creates the person you are today. Including your health.
This is where epigenetics becomes part of the conversation. Yes, your genetics are permanent. But how some of those genes are expressed is impacted by your life experiences and the choices you make.
Ultimately, it's all self-care. The stuff we do to take care of ourselves. It's our opportunity to have a say and make an impact in our own health, without a licensed healthcare provider. Which is good because no one else can change your health for you. And now you have an idea of one reason why that's true - your decisions literally impact your genetics and how your body functions on a molecular level.
The Four Cornerstones of Epigenetics
When I'm coaching clients and patients, I always come back to what I call the Four Cornerstones of Epigenetics. Please know, we could talk for days and still not cover all of the details of epigenetics. In fact, science is still always learning about the stuff that affects our health in this manner. But these four items are the ones I find have the most foundational impact - sleep, stress management, environmental exposures and food choices.
Before we dive in, I want to be really clear that each of these is intimately related to the other. Just like everything in your body is connected and related, everything we do to create wellness is also going to be connected. That's how small changes make big impacts in our health. Look for the connections and how you can use one choice to impact more than just one of the cornerstones - it simplifies things greatly!
The First Cornerstone of Epigenetics - Sleep
Sleep. Getting somewhere between 7-9 hours of sleep a night is the mantra, although each individual may need more or less, depending on life situation and health status.
The time we spend asleep is the time our body does some of its most important recovery work. (Because who doesn't need some recovery time from life these days!) This is when our brains detox. It's when our brains process the day and create long term memories. And, for many of us, this is when our sympathetic nervous system calms down. When it doesn't, we have a hard time staying asleep.
For those of us with histamine intolerance and food sensitivities, sleep is crucial. Not enough sleep will actually increase the amount of histamine in your body as well as how responsive your body is to that histamine.
There are a ton of sleep aids out there but my favorite is one which may be new to you - phosphatidylserine (PS). If you are a member of the 3AM Wake Up Club, PS can help get you back to sleep more easily without making you overly drowsy in the morning. It's a phospholipid (fat) component of cell walls with a ton of jobs, including reducing the amount of cortisol, a primary stress hormone, floating around in the body. Consider asking your healthcare provider about it even though it is an over-the-counter supplement.
The Second Cornerstone of Epigenetics - Stress Management
Let's just go ahead and say it - not all stress is bad! Even some bad stressors can do good things like build community and push us to seek out relationships and support. In fact, our body works well under stressful situations for the short-term. It's when we carry some of this heavy stuff for extended periods like weeks or months that can really affect our overall health, including impacts on our biochemistry.
There is a lot of talk out there about adrenal fatigue. For some time, the generally accepted explanation was that the adrenal glands became overtaxed and literally got tired, so they stopped doing their jobs, including cortisol production.
Newer research has changed our perspective here. Cortisol is toxic to the brain. It has a job, but when your brain is chronically exposed to high levels of cortisol, like when you're chronically stressed, your brain will choose self-preservation and turn down the messaging to your adrenals to decrease cortisol production. It's not that your body got tired. Your body is doing some of its own self-care!
For those of us with food sensitivities, adrenal fatigue can be a bigger issue because cortisol is anti-inflammatory. If our body isn't making what we need on a daily basis because our brain is in self-preservation mode, we can see an increase in inflammation…which will aggravate food sensitivities.
Consider the stressors in your life and see what can be addressed or removed to allow your body to recover and thrive. And don't forget stress is more than the pressure of a job, worrying about paying a bill or a change in a relationship. Chronic illness, chronic pain, and infections are all stressors, too. Not getting enough sleep is a stressor. Over-exercising is a stressor!
While this Cornerstone is, I believe, one of the easier ones to impact it does take effort. For some more ideas on how to manage stress, take a peek at this post.
The Third Cornerstone of Epigenetics - Environmental Exposures
Like any of the cornerstones, this one can get really big really quickly. Environmental exposures include all of the chemicals in our homes, workplaces, and yards. There are a few different ways to attack this one, but In this post I'm going to focus on mold exposures.
I have personal experience with chronic fatigue, histamine intolerance, allergies and food sensitivities. And of all the stuff I have done and tried over the years to improve my symptoms, identifying and treating mold and mycotoxin exposure has been the most impactful.
If you can think back and identify a potential exposure to mold - in a bathroom, in a basement, outside your home, under wallpaper or paint, etc - you have the potential to still have those organisms or their toxins in your body. They increase the histamine response in your body and can be a primary cause of food sensitivities.
Remember, histamine has a ton of jobs to help keep your body safe and in balance. For those of us with sensitivities and allergies, histamine is getting amplified for some reason. Some of us have a genetic predisposition, e.g. histamine intolerance, and some of us have a trigger. Mold affects all aspects of histamine in your body and the genetics involved in mood, energy and histamine. It's a big deal.
While you can do mold and mycotoxin testing on your own, I highly recommend working with an experienced healthcare provider on this one.
I know this section didn't have quite the same self-care focus as the rest of this article, but I wanted to be sure you had the information. For more of the self-care solutions for environmental exposures, check out this post.
The Fourth Cornerstone of Epigenetics - Food Choices
This is the $25million dollar question for those of us with food sensitivities - what can I eat?! The goal here is not to make food choices more complicated. Ultimately, it's all about making better food choices.
Please notice I did not say "the best choice". The goal is always to do better today than we did yesterday or last month…and when things don't go that way, we have grace for ourselves. We're all doing the best we can!
When it comes to food choices, the most fundamental element is asking yourself if a food will cause inflammation or decrease inflammation. Inflammation changes your genetics.
For everyone, regardless of food sensitivities, eliminating high fructose corn syrup and highly processed foods is the place to start. If you only do that, you will see a difference in how your body feels.
For those of us with food sensitivities, I recommend doing allergy testing (food and environmental) as a first step to improving your situation. Allergies typically stick with us for a lifetime. They cause inflammation. They junk up genetics. Learn about your big triggers first and eliminate these from your food choices. It will clear things up a bit so you can piece together your food sensitivity puzzle.
One way to improve both the Cornerstones of food choices and environmental exposures in one step is to learn about the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen foods. Check out this post with so much more info, including a bit about the app!
Remember - You Are in Control of Your Health
Regardless of where you are in your health and wellness journey or your food sensitivity journey, epigenetics is going to play a role. Self-care is the foundation of feeling better and finding out what is really going on in your body. And it puts the control back in your hands - right where it should be!
The big challenge is remembering you are a unique person with a unique story…and all of it together creates who you are today. If you try a new approach to food sensitivities, like a new elimination diet or a new supplement, and it doesn't work the way you thought it should, don't give up and don't blame yourself. Learn to listen to and trust your body. And don't ever let anyone make you believe your symptoms don't matter.
I talked a bit about doing allergy testing as one of the places to start with food sensitivities. If you would like a little more info about food sensitivity and allergy testing, request my FREE resource, Food Sensitivity Testing: Which Test is Right for You?.