An excerpt from the “Pillar One: DNA” chapter of the new book, The Firefly Theory – A Child Health & Development Literacy Guide for Parents, by Alda Smith, founder of Kinderfli & author of The Firefly Theory.
We know that most of our traits are inherited from our ancestors through DNA*. Our genomes are like family recipe book collections, passed down from generation to generation – each generation updating the collection by adding or culling books and scribbling their own footnotes and adaptations to the remaining recipes. But what is the role of DNA in health and development and is this molecule our children’s only destiny?
A Personal Note of Encouragement
For many obvious reasons, genetics can be a thorny and emotionally charged topic – for some more so than others. Within them lies the gift of diversity, the potential for incredible joy, but also the possibility of gut-wrenching pain.
We want our children to be happy – not to suffer. This means that things that seem out of our control, like DNA, scare us. As a parent of 14 years I have, however, discovered that if you can’t learn to parent from a place of humility – understanding that you can’t control everything – you can become a hot mess of stress, worry and anguish. Don’t even get me started on the (mostly self-inflicted) guilt trips! Too much destructive stress does not do anyone or anything any favours – least of all DNA. Learning how to do what you can, and embrace what you can’t, is a journey in loving your children for who they are, whilst helping them grow into who they are meant to be. As parents, we are the gardeners – we can support our sprouting seedlings, but we can’t control the weather or turn a tomato plant into kale. Besides – do we really want to?
The Firefly Theory intends to help you with the ‘what you can do’ and the ‘helping them reach their full potential’ parts. Still, I would be amiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that there are aspects of our children’s health and development that are beyond our control as parents. Coming to terms with that reality looks different for different people. I’m not going to be as presumptuous as to try and give advice. All I will say is this: I see you, my fellow gardener.
In writing this chapter and trying to scientifically explain concepts that will empower you to support your child, words like ‘mutation’, ‘damage’ and ‘faulty’ were inevitable. Don’t let these words be hurtful or scary – they are linear – not dynamic. As a mother of three vastly different children – one with learning and developmental challenges – I can tell you that, with the exception of a handful of devastating genetic conditions, it is often the ‘mutated’ gene that leaves you belly-laughing with your child. Sometimes it is the ‘faulty’ gene that renders you speechless as it offers you a new window with a magnificent view and sharp perspective. It can be the ‘damaged’ gene or extra chromosome that, in fact, makes you whole and gives you courage and compassion you never knew you had.
I think Dr. Seuss had the perfect take on genetics when he wrote:
“Today you are you,Dr. Seuss
that is truer than true.
There is no one alive
Who is more youer than you”
With that in mind, let’s get gardening!
Nature vs. Nurture
The “Nature or Nurture” debate is one of the oldest discussions in psychology. It refers to whether how we behave and who we become is determined by our genome or our experiences and environments. We can also apply this to our mental and physical health and abilities.
In his book, Disconnected Kids, Dr. Robert Melillo writes about two studies on the cause of autism in children. The first study from 1997 involved eleven identical and ten fraternal twins, in which one sibling of each twin had autism. The second Stanford University School of Medicine study was conducted in 2011 on 192 pairs of identical and fraternal twins, of which at least one in each pair had autism.
The first study found that the probability of the second sibling developing autism was significantly higher in identical twins, than in fraternal twins, concluding that autism and other neurobehavioural disorders are caused by genetics. However, the second study provided convincing evidence that environmental factors are actually more at play than genetics in determining whether a child will actually develop autism. Prior studies had estimated an autism risk contribution ratio of 90/10 (90 being genetics and 10 being environmental factors). However, the Stanford University School study shows that genes only account for 38 percent of autism risk, compared to 62 percent for environmental factors.
So which is it – nature or nurture? The answer is nearly almost both. Yes, a child will probably not get autism if the ‘recipes’ or genes for its ‘creation’ are not present. Still, it is also possible that a child who carries the recipes for the structural or energy-creating metabolic processes* needed to ‘express’ autism, never ends up having autism.
“Learning how to do what you can, and embrace what you can’t, is a journey in loving your children for who they are, whilst helping them grow into who they are meant to be.”– Alda Smith, The Firefly Theory
If Health is Co-Created, then so is Dysfunction
You might have noticed that I wrote in the plural form when referring to the genes that cause autism. That is because many disorders are not single-gene disorders. There is, for example, no one gene mutation that causes autism. Researchers have instead found that there are hundreds of different gene mutations that, if expressed, can manifest as autism. That is also why, like many other developmental disorders, autism is hard to diagnose and treat, and why it is classified as a spectrum disorder – meaning that there is variation in the type and severity of the symptoms children with this disorder experience.
Despite the important role DNA plays in our children’s energy system,* and therefore overall health and development, it is clear that a gene rarely acts on its own – other genes, nutrition and stimulants almost always play a role. It is in this accumulative reality, expressed by The Firefly Theory.
ESH-Triangle (Energy System Health Triangle), that parents’ power to prevent and support dysfunction and disease lies – and not only because DNA is not the only pillar in the triangle, but also because the two other pillars – nutrients and stimulation – can be applied to prevent inherited DNA damage and influence which genes will be counted in as part of the ESH-Triangle in a child.
Epigenetics: Our Golden Ticket (or Stencil) to DNA Modulation
Not so long ago, scientists believed that our genes were set in stone – that they were the ball-and-chain that every person inherited – something that could not be influenced or changed. This meant that our DNA provided a forecast of our health destiny and that we had little control over the diseases and dysfunction that might befall us or our children.
A new area of scientific research called epigenetics is, however, disproving this theory. Epigenetics refers to DNA modifications that do not affect the DNA sequence, but rather which genes in the DNA are ‘on’ or ‘of ’ – expressed or not expressed.
Remember the exam scoring stencils teachers used to mark multiple question answers before everything became digital? The stencils had small window sequences that would only show the correct answers when placed over the answer sheet. Epigenetics work in much the same way with nutrition and stimulation determining the ‘stencil sequence’ known as the cell’s
“epigenome” (meaning ‘upon genome’).
During development and later on in life, a child’s DNA accumulates chemical marks that, like the scoring stencil, determine which genes are open or closed off. These epigenomes determine gene expression and can change whether a gene releases its recipe instructions and how it is interpreted.
Not to be confused with DNA mutation or damage, epigenome governs the expression or silencing of DNA – both healthy and faulty. This explains why a child may have the genes associated with autism, but never develop autism. Recent research shows ways to reverse the closing or opening of unfavourable windows in the epigenome. Still, the very best strategy is prevention through genetic modulation and regulation.
Dr. Bruce Lipton, an American biologist and the author of the Biology of Belief, summarises epigenetics as follows:
“Epigenetics doesn’t change the genetic code, it changes how that’s read. Perfectly normal genes can result in cancer. Vice-versa, in the right environment, mutant genes won’t be expressed. Genes are equivalent to blueprints; epigenetics is the contractor.”
DNA Modulation & Regulation
DNA faults, whether damaged or mutated, can be inherited – from either or both parents. This means that both the genetic and lifestyle health of the mother and the father come into play when a baby is conceived. The epigenome (the DNA stencil) of a human is fluid and is constantly changed by factors relating to nutrition and stimulation. These changes can last from hours to a lifetime. This fluid quality of epigenetics allows us to say that our children’s DNA is not their only health and developmental destiny.
When a cell divides (like when a child grows), its epigenetics are passed on to the next group of cells. This does, however, not happen within reproductive cells – almost giving the cell a ‘clean epigenome slate’ during reproduction. The parents’ ‘stencils’, guide the first epigenetic changes of the fertilised egg. As the embryo develops, it will take over this role. The ‘environment’ of an embryo to a large extend determines the epigenetics of a baby at birth. That is why a pregnant woman’s environment and behaviour during pregnancy play such an important role.
Examples of negative stimulation and nutritional influences;
- Environmental toxins
- Pathogens like certain viruses and bacteria
- Food with high sugar contents
- Stressful events like emotional trauma or surgery
Positive stimulation and nutritional influences include;
- Positive experiences
- Healthy lifestyle choices
- Targeted therapies
IGNITE! The Firefly Theory provides a universal model for optimal nervous system development and immune priming in children. It aims to guide parents towards:
- Improved health literacy for sound decisions in supporting developing children.
- Discovering why genetics are not a child’s only developmental and health destiny.
- Developing functional, integrated and collaborative strategies to prevent and counter adverse developmental and health events before and after birth.
- Understanding different therapies like sound, light, electro and occupational therapy.
- Supporting all children in reaching their full potential, but those with behavioural, learning, emotional and immune challenges in particular.
Disclaimer: For general information and educational purposes only. Not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or medical treatment. Information should always be applied in the context and under the guidance of medical supervision. Nothing in this excerpt should be interpreted as a claim of treatment or cure of any medical condition. Readers should not only rely on information provided in this excerpt. All specific medical questions should be presented to a qualified healthcare provider.
*concepts explained in IGNITE! The Firefly Theory