Bio-Active Compounds and the Epigenetics of Osteoporosis
Updated: Nov 24, 2019
Dr. Linus Pauling was a great American biochemist and peace activist. He was declared one of the greatest scientists of all time (as of 2000 he was ranked 16th most important scientist in history) having won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. He is the only person to have ever been awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes.
Dr. Pauling's work in the study of biological molecules provided inspiration to Watson and Crick in their discovery of DNA's double helix structure. Dr. Pauling also had a profound impact on my life...totally by accident.
I will never forget that day. It was in the early spring of 1977. I was a junior at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California studying Human Biology and just finishing up a class in genetics. The famous biologist Dr. Paul Ehrlich was a guest lecturer and he was talking about a butterfly study up on Jasper Ridge close to where I took my daily runs. Genetics is a tough subject, at least it was for me, but it also piqued my interest and for the rest of the day I had butterflies flying around in my head.
I don't remember why I ended my run with a loop down through Palo Alto that day but sometimes life just leads us to good things. While running down El Camino Real, by chance I saw a flyer plastered on a bulletin board and it read something like: Dr. Linus Pauling...speaking....tonight! No...REALLY! Wow! I couldn't believe it. I knew what I would be doing that night.
I thought the talk would be at some huge auditorium on the Stanford campus, but it wasn't. It was at a small book store in Menlo Park, the next town over from Palo Alto. As I walked into the store, there he was. I recognized Dr. Pauling right away; his wife, Ava, a renowned human rights activist was also there. Amazingly, there couldn't have been more than a dozen people in the room. I essentially had Dr. Pauling all to myself.
After his talk, I lagged behind and found myself face to face with Dr. Pauling. He explained to me that genetics wasn't just about the hard wiring of the DNA...but it was also about something more. He explained to me that nutrients, like vitamin C, could turn DNA on or off! That night Dr. Pauling gave me a glimpse into the world of genetics that the scientific world was only just beginning to explore. I learned that there was much more to the study of genetics than what was being taught in my class at Stanford.
Forty years later I finally understand what Dr. Pauling was talking about. I don't remember if he actually used the word "epigenetics" that evening, but I do know that he was telling me that the mysteries of DNA were much more complex than two strands of nucleotides strung together like words in a story book of life. What Dr. Pauling was saying was that those words could be bolded, or made bigger or smaller, by nutrients such as vitamin C! What he was saying was that there was more to life form and function than just genetics--there was epigenetics.
From my studies of osteoporosis over the past twenty years--how nutrition affects cell metabolism, and how human physiology is not always written in stone by a person's DNA but that genetic expression can actually be optimized/enhanced with proper food and quality supplements--I now see how futuristic Dr. Pauling's words were in my private lesson on epigenetics.
When it comes to understanding how we can improve bone health with bioactive compounds such as vitamin C, and the berberine, milk thistle, and taurine found in OsteoNaturals' OsteoStim, we first need to understand the epigenetics of nutrigenomics (how nutrition affects our genetics).
DNA is a biological map of how we are put together and what makes us who we are…what makes us unique. But what about epigenetics, what is this mysterious "more" that Dr. Pauling was referring to? (To read more about vitamin C and skeletal health, and the epigentics of this vitamin, check out Dr. Kara Fitzgerald's article on the Science of Vitamin C: Benefits Beyond the Common Cold )
Epigenetics refers to external modifications to DNA (not actual changes to DNA sequencing) that turn genes “on” or “off”. A good example of this is methylation. Methyl groups are molecules consisting of one carbon and 3 hydrogen atoms. When a methyl group is added to other molecules it is called methylation, and when a methyl group is taken away it is called demethylation (this is what vitamin C does).
When adding or detaching methyl groups to molecules, it has the effect of ‘turning on” or “turning off” a biochemical reaction. It’s like turning a light on or off with a switch...a "methyl switch". This is epigenetics at work. In epigenetics, the DNA sequence has not changed, only how that DNA is being read. The modifications caused by methylation only affect how that genetic information is going to be used: for example how the DNA will or won’t write the amino acid sequence in the formation of proteins.
When it comes to nutrigenomics and bone health, DNA methylation is extremely important. (Too much is not good and too little is not good…both can lead to osteoporosis and other chronic diseases.) Methyl switches work to control just about everything in the body, including how bone forms and how it is broken down.
We know that when bone remodeling gets out of balance, it leads to osteoporosis. Bone cells (the osteoclasts and osteoblasts) must stay balanced in their activity for bone to stay healthy. A person may have genes for strong bones, but the regulators of how those genes manifest may not turn on or off correctly and then bone strength is not realized.
Good nutrition (for example cruciferous vegetables like broccoli sprouts supply one of the best methylators, sulforaphane) encourages a person’s genetic makeup to be expressed fully. It allows the epigenetics to engage and bring that person’s genetic potential to its optimal expression. But poor nutrition may lead to an under-expression of the genetic code and result in physiological dysfunction and disease.
DNA methylation also plays a major part in the immune system’s response. It is therefore a major factor in the regulation of inflammation and helps calm the chronic systemic inflammation we see in accelerated bone loss.
Fruits and vegetables are a great source of bio-active compounds that provide methyl switches and have anti-inflammatory properties. This is also why we put several bone-specific bioactive compounds in our OsteoStim formula. Berberine, milk thistle (silymarin), and taurine are all active compounds involved in either the promotion or reduction of methylation and the regulation of skeletal epigenetics. I believe Dr. Pauling would approve.