The Power of Girls in Repairing Health
Shirley Gutkowski, RDH, BSDH
In exploring strategies to solve oral health problems in the United States, one exciting idea emerges from an understanding of histones. Sometime during the last five generations, our approach to well-being shifted from healthcare to sick care-and changes to histones are likely an underlying cause.
Let's begin with a basic strand of human DNA. These double helix two sugar phosphate strands run parallel to one another with bars of nitrogenous bases between them. The double helix is wrapped around nucleotides comprised of proteins called histones. The histone informs the DNA segment, the gene, on how to act. Epigenetics is the study of these histone modifications.
For example, in a laboratory experiment, mice are allowed to smell rotting fruit and given a jolt each time. Quickly they became distressed by that smell. Interestingly, even though they've never been jolted, the offspring of these mice also become distressed by that smell. The histones in the original mouse changed the gene, resulting in a reaction in the offspring.1
In humans, this process has been studied through the descendants of populations who lived during famines of World War I and II. Those who lived through famine (fasted) had healthy offspring, and the grandchildren lived over twice as long as the famine survivors. Epigenetic changes can boost or interfere with DNA transcription of specific genes, altering certain human traits.
Epigenetics is not only related to food. Mice pups who were not licked by their mothers become unable to handle stress as adult mice. The genes that were in charge of stress management were methylated (turned off). This methylated gene was then passed on to the subsequent generations.2
Fortunately for all, epigenetic changes can be reversed: They are persistent, not permanent. We can make improvements to our environment and food choices to alter these modifications. However, we don't know how long it will take. because these changes occur in reproductive cells.3
Imagine a baby girl born in the 1970s, when it was considered acceptable for pregnant women to smoke and drink. Even before a woman became pregnant, factors such as contraception, alcohol, and drug use were marked on the histone (methylation) on the DNA of every egg she carried.
When a fertilized egg produces a female child, the eggs of that female child also carry the quieted gene. In turn, that child would make choices on her own affecting that gene, subsequently influencing the granddaughter of the first woman.
Unfortunately, since the 1970s we've seen a marked increase in the availability of ultraprocessed and less nutritious foods. In addition, Americans were advised to avoid animal fats in exchange for plant-based oils that go through long processing procedures. These processed oils fill human cells with improper lipids. This shift has taken a toll on humans from a cellular level, as evidenced by the rise of certain illnesses.
Considering the study of epigenetics, theoretically a health initiative emphasis may best be focused on preteen girls.4 These days, adult women are more conscious of following a healthy diet during pregnancy, which is important, if not a little late. Looking further back to our ancestors' habits, we may not be able to adopt their "Paleo diet" (currently co-opted by companies hoping to capitalize on the trend). Paleolithic ancestors often went a day or longer without food. Therapeutic fasting has been shown to increase telomere length, an indicator of longevity.5
Other ways to increase longevity may include improving the gene expressions that affect craniofacial respiratory complex growth. An epigenetic focus elevating food selection, along with more infrequent consumption, will certainly improve caries rates, as the teeth will have ample time to recover regardless of the foods chosen.
How are we educating girls about their oral health in our dental practice? Do they need to learn the importance of flossing, or do they need to learn how to make choices that can affect their future? We are the only animals in the world who have a concept of the future; that is what needs to be leveraged. We can help give power to girls to improve the lives of future generations and fundamentally change our "sick care" system. We cannot rely only on the science that got us here to get us to the next level.
About the Author
Shirley Gutkowski, RDH, BSDH
Orofacial Myofunctional Therapist
Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
1. MinuteEarth. Epigenetics: why inheritance is weirder than we thought. November 15, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvB0q3mg4sQ. Accessed July 31, 2020
2. Guerrero-Bosagna C. What is epigenetics? TEDx-Ed. June 27, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aAhcNjmvhc Accessed July 30, 2020.
3. Sauce B, Goes CP, Forti I, et al. A link between thrifty phenotype and maternal care across two generations of intercrossed mice. PLoS One. 2017;12(5):e0177954.
4. Hjort L, Vryer R, Grunnet LG, et al. Telomere length is reduced in 9- to 16-year-old girls exposed to gestational diabetes in utero. Diabetologia. 2018;61(4):870-880.
5. Shetty AK, Kodali M, Upadhya R, Madhu LN. Emerging anti-aging strategies - scientific basis and efficacy. Aging Dis. 2018;9(6):1165-1184.