What if reincarnation was framed as the fusion of one’s soul with another down their family line, or if a haunting was framed as one’s death and despair having a reverberating effect on their bloodline for generations to come?
We are learning that trauma and lifestyle – the things that define a person’s life and death – may become the ghostly burdens their post-tragedy offspring must carry.
What Are Epigenetics?
Put simply, epigenetics is the study of inheritable changes to the DNA that alter the way our genes are expressed, experienced, and presented without permanently altering our core DNA sequence. These superficial, and sometimes temporary, epigenetic changes essentially turn parts of our existent core coding on and off so we experience them differently. These changes occur when proteins (like microRNA strands), biochemical (like CpG methylation and histone/acetylation), and other non-genetic components attach onto and manipulate our genetics, repressing/muting and amplifying certain traits.
The study of epigenetics also focuses on how our outside world or our parents can trigger these changes to our genes’ functionality/how our body interprets our genes.
In the cases of epigenetic cell memory, it’s believed the cell’s properties and behavioral modifications are handed down intergenerationally from birth by the parent(s). If a parent had an experience that tagged their genes to turn a mechanism off, it’s possible their child could be born with that part of their gene ‘turned off’. This likely happens as a rushed evolutionary/adaptability function for self-preservation that doesn’t permanently affect the genomes, since some elements of our environment are fluid. These superficial alterations/blockers could prevail through 4 or more generations.
What Causes Epigenetic Modifications to Gene Expression?
A variety of lifestyle choices and impactful situations can cause chemical caps, like DNA methylation, to block and interfere with the proteins that read and translate our genes to our behaviors and patterns.
Things that could alter our DNA’s readability include:
- Exercise habits
- Prenatal care
- Healthy relationships
- Intellectual pursuits
- Inconsistent sleep/circadian cycle
- Trauma (war, genocide, abuse, oppression, etc)
- Or inherited epigenetics.
It’s pretty wild to think that the way our parents eat, even if we are adopted out from birth, could affect the way we choose to eat or our weight. It’s even wilder to think that the traumas our grandparents endured could be affecting our behaviors (such as impulsive, self-destructive behaviors or depressive thought patterns).
It’s also scary to think that some modifications, to be passed on to our descendants, start with us and our choices/experiences, no matter how we choose to parent (it is nature, in this case, vs nurture). There is, however, the chance to undo/change the modifications through our own healing, changes, and closure. The epigenetic effects are not necessarily permanent and not necessarily passed down.
It seems that when these genetic traits are passed down, they tend to present a bit differently (perhaps diluted) from the parent’s version of the expression; it does not mirror it exactly. What may have been a phobia in the parent may just be a sensitivity in the child. The passing down of these modifications also varies between the sexes, seeming more prominent and frequent in males, though it may only appear that way because sperm epigenetics are easier to study/observe than eggs. There’s still work to do.
Many will argue that the behaviour of the affected parent is what would cause a change in the child, not physically inherited epigenetic traits. While this is certainly true in some cases (abuse can certainly breed abusive behavior directly), the effects of epigenetics are observed even in cases of isolation from the parent (like adoption). The child can also create their own modifications from things outside of the parent, like abuse from a teacher or smoking at school.
What Are the Results of Epigenetics?
Epigenetic changes exist as a way to adapt to our changing environment in a way that isn’t permanent to evolution. Our body has a chemical response to stressors, toxins, and habits since they communicate things to the body about our environment and how we (and our kids) can be better protected.
This could mean we could theoretically (temporarily) experience these direct or passed down traits:
- Mental health issues
- Hormonal deviations from the norm
- Rapid aging
- Weight retention
- Migration patterns
- Physical ailments/death (cancer, infection, diabetes)
- Weakened immune system
- Pathogen avoidance
- Disordered eating
- Irregular sleeping
- Metabolic changes
- Personality features
- Circadian changes
- Sexual health, etc.
The ways that our genes and pathology express themselves vary as widely as our individuality does.
Examples of Epigenetic Cases
While there’s still tons to be studied in terms of epigenetics and its causes and effects, here are a few cases that have compelled researchers to study further.
Sons of War
A study found that the sons of those who fought in the US Civil War had a higher mortality rate by 11% than their counterparts who didn’t have army families. This study is compelling for 3 reasons:
- It mainly only affected sons, not daughters, suggesting an epigenetic modification to the Y chromosome.
- It only affected the behaviors and lifespan of sons born after the parent was back from war.
- The same phenomenon has been observed in descendents of parents/survivors involved in other large scale traumas (the Holocaust for example).
If the effects were only caused by environmental factors such as poor parenting due to PTSD, it would surely affect all the children, not just the post-tragedy males.
In a similar study, children of Holocaust survivors with PTSD had lower cortisol levels, like their parent. The same is observed in the children of women who had PTSD from the 9/11 attacks in contrast to kids not born to a parent in the vicinity of that attack. The Dutch who experienced starvation and famine at the hands of the Nazis also had children that were much heavier than average. They were found to carry a chemical marker on their genes related to conserving fat/fuel, leading to a life of higher rates of obesity, diabetes, schizophrenia, and bad cholesterol levels.
Often children of parents who are abused are found to have higher anxiety and startle responses, even when they’re not abused.
Mice That Smell Nice
Some scientists introduced the lovely smell of cherry blossoms to some adult male mice. Each time they blew this smell into the cage, they’d shock their little feet with an electrical zap. Mean right? Well, luckily it wasn’t in vain, since they learned a lot from this study.
Eventually, once the mice associated the pain with the smell consistently, they were bred. Their babies and grandbabies were all kept separately, so there was no communication, or ‘teaching’ of this pain warning. When the offspring were introduced to the smell, they also reacted with a startle. It was a milder reaction than that of the parents, but still undeniable. They did not react this way to any other scents. It would seem the ‘phobia’ was passed on through epigenetics of their ancestors, only to result in a milder sensitivity. Perhaps an evolutionary warning.
Something similar is observed in worms who accidentally eat bad bacterias and begin dying. They instinctively lay eggs while dying and those offspring know to avoid the bad bacteria.
The theory that certain migration directional and timing patterns are the result of epigenetic changes is highlighted in this study featuring monarchs and blackcap birds. This study’s observation of quick adaptation to temperatures and modifications to migratory routes is tied into a really compelling case of ancient monarch butterfly cell memory. It goes like this…
There once was a massive mountain. Over the millenia, it disappeared as the climate changed. When it did exist, it sat right in the middle of the route of the monarch butterflies headed south. Their only option, aside from scaling over it, was to detour to the east side of it and recalibrate south after.
The interesting thing is that the lifespan of the monarch never lasts the entire trip south. Multiple generations are born throughout the journey while the older ones die out. Somehow, even with the mountain long gone, mass migrations of monarchs still curve east when they could now easily go directly south and conserve energy. Could this engrained memory live imprinted within their cells, now a leftover instinct passed on physically from ancestors of millenia past? Evidence suggests it could be.
While many of these studies are not fully developed, needing larger samples, and concrete evidence of epigenetics in humans is sparse, there are many reasons to believe that epigenetics plays a factor in the things that haunt us. The good news is the effects are reversible, they’re sometimes beneficial to us, and they connect us to the mysteries of our ancestors.
There are many other wonderful ways we can still honor our ancestors and their ghosts, while breaking the cycles that plague us. Those protective barriers and responses are likely no longer needed in our current situations. They existed as an experimental evolutionary response (and a quick adaptation at that), and while they may have served a purpose to earlier offspring, it’s possible it’s time to take control of your own patterns. Your body belongs to you.
Breaking the cycle of trauma isn’t easy, but it’s not complicated either. Certain nutrients like folates, biotin, b12, and curcumin have been associated with healthy cells and the reversal of the chemical components (like methylation) that manipulate our gene expression. Bioactive foods, like sulforaphane, can also be incorporated into your diet to help in protecting the DNA’s default expression by blocking epigenetic mutations. Exercise, stress management, sobriety, habit/routine/association changes, psychotherapy/CBT, regular sleep, and caloric restriction can also reverse the effects of epigenetic changes, so your children don’t experience the effects of your (or your grandpa’s) impressions.
It’s interesting to wonder how something like Covid-19 could affect our genes and what types of side effects may get passed down. I know I’ll be a lot more conscious of the ways I’m processing and internalizing my environment. Sometimes people are products of their environment and sometimes they’re victims of biology. And sometimes our spirits can live on through blood and bone, haunting the ones we want to protect most.