Epigenetics: Avoiding the Pull of Pseudoscientific Nonsense

Separating Fact from Fiction

Epigenetics and avoiding pseudoscientific quackery

Serious concerns have been raised recently regarding the widespread misuse of the hot new term “epigenetics,” particularly by self-proclaimed gurus or, if you prefer, “legion purveyors of flapdoodle.” Some claim that, with the power of your mind, you can epigenetically cure or develop cancer, that positive thoughts can actually relax and lengthen DNA strands, or that happiness sits in reserves on your DNA eagerly waiting to spring to life at the command of your beliefs, emotions, and behavior! In general, it happens quite often – a science buzzword finds its way into the media spotlight and soon its meaning is lost in the static of its exploitation. “Quantum”, for instance, has captured the attention of many. As Adam Rutherford pointed out in his article Beware the Pseudo Gene Genies, catchy and scientifically intriguing words have been tacked on to mystical quackery and the like, forming phrases such as “quantum healing” in order to create a veil of scientific credibility as thin as the slits in the double-slit experiment. Even words such as “neuro” or “nano” are often found lending a hand in conjuring up pseudoscientific nonsense.

But epigenetics isn’t – and shouldn’t be associated with – such nonsense. This field is very real. Perhaps there are grains of truth to these exaggerations waiting to be explored, if one is keen enough to wade through the overshadowing mysticism and unearth the subtle modicum of epigenetic potential that may lie beneath. Could there be a transient epigenetic effect of meditation which, if sustained over time in conjunction with other treatment, might improve the likelihood of recovering from cancer? Perhaps. But possible truths like these are often garnished with radical absurdities, absurdities that claim you can literally “bend reality” with your mind to reverse your sickness or diet your way to a cure for cancer. The nuances of epigenetics seem near impossible to pinpoint amidst these outlandish assertions.

What intrigues many people about the study of epigenetics is the idea that environmental aspects or an individual’s lifestyle may influence these chemical tags and, therefore, impact how our genes express themselves.

So what do we know about epigenetics, an emerging field exploding in popularity and fueling profound speculation even if just in its infancy? Epigenetics explores chemical tags on DNA that have the ability to turn genes on or off. We’ve known that transcription factors, or proteins that bind to DNA and influence gene expression, and specific RNA molecules are crucial, well-established epigenetic machinery that should not be overlooked. We’ve known that certain chemical tags, such as DNA methylation, occur naturally and are implicated in numerous biological processes, such as aging or stem cell differentiation. But if the process goes awry, undesirable health consequences could occur. Various epigenetic mechanisms have been uncovered over the years, including DNA methylation, DNA hydroxymethylation, and histone modifications like acetylation, phosphorylation, and sumoylation, which play a part in controlling the expression of genes.

What intrigues many people about the study of epigenetics is the idea that environmental aspects or an individual’s lifestyle may influence these chemical tags and, therefore, impact how our genes express themselves. Not getting enough sleep? Eating sugary foods? Stressed out? In several studies, these factors have been linked to changes in epigenetic patterns, such as DNA methylation, which could impact our health and other crucial biological processes. Some studies, for example, have demonstrated that transient changes can occur to the methylation of clock genes, which regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, after just one night of sleep loss. Other studies have shown that certain genes are significantly methylated in tumor cells but not in normal cells, suggesting that epigenetics may play a role in tumorigenesis and cancer development. Now, epigenetic drugs like DNMT inhibitors are being developed to treat different types of cancer.

Perhaps even more intriguing is the discovery that certain epigenetic marks may be maintained and passed on through generations, known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. If your father suffers through a period of poor nutrition before you’re born, could it be passed down in your genes and affect your health, your children’s genes and their health, and so on? If he consumes alcohol before you’re conceived, could it impact your sensitivity and preference for alcohol later in life? These and similar questions are being investigated in humans and various animal models, but the results are interpreted with appropriate apprehension. The inheritance of these epigenetic tags varies between daughters and sons and can depend on whether the mother or father passes them down. Ultimately, the inconsistent evidence indicates to us that the molecular mechanisms by which these tags are inherited have yet to be understood. Currently, the evidence points to more questions than answers.

For instance, why is it that the amount of food available to a paternal grandfather seems to affect the mortality risk ratio of his grandsons but not his granddaughters? Or why is it that the food supply of a paternal grandmother is only associated with the mortality risk ratio of her granddaughters? Pressing even further, why would a reduced risk of cardiovascular death be linked to a mother’s good food supply but also to a father’s poor food supply? Right now, we just don’t know the answers to these and similarly complex epigenetic questions.

Learn more about the fundamentals of epigenetics or wrap your head around the most popular epigenetic mechanism, DNA methylation.

As detailed in the seven plagues of epigenetic epidemiology, we do know that we can’t ignore the inconsistencies in epigenetic research. Even methodological issues arise as scientists rely on imperfect technology, attempt to compare results from studies that use different platforms, and analyze tricky methylomes that vary between heterogeneous tissues and cells. Overall, the somewhat jumbled evidence and lack of an overarching consensus – even when it comes to the very definition of epigenetics – leaves doors wide open for its effortless exploitation by others.

The idea that we can epigenetically control our illnesses with thoughts alone is a particularly jarring example of epigenetics-based quackery. Pseudoscience culprits claim that “your mind can create, or cure, disease.” In an online article, the author explains, “A classic example is a woman who believes she will get breast cancer because her mother had it. Well, if you believe it for long enough, your body will make sure that it comes true.” The article, which includes a video on epigenetics that has been viewed over 170,000 times (with comments suspiciously disabled), suggests that your mind alone has the ability to regulate the expression of oncogenes, that thoughts can determine whether tumor growth is suppressed or not, that “your mind, your beliefs — not defective genes — create a ripple effect that turns on cancer cells.” Using epigenetics as a basis for thinking away your cancer can come with severe consequences.

We know that gene expression is a complex process influenced by numerous factors, many of which we are just recently discovering, but there are currently no scientific articles exploring the ability of thought processes to directly impact gene expression via epigenetic mechanisms. I’m referring to published scientific research grounded in validity, reliability, and replicability, not some quack write-up that ignores the importance of controls or fails to acknowledge any of its (numerous) limitations.

SEE ALSO:   Prenatal Maternal Stress Triggers Distinct DNA Methylation Signatures in Ice Storm Babies

Now, it may be possible that positive thinking, through some physiological byproducts that, let’s say, reduce stress or lower blood pressure levels, could impact gene expression over a long period of time which may decrease the chance of developing disease. In one study, for example, researchers measured telomere length in recovering breast cancer patients who participated in mindfulness-based cancer recovery, supportive-expressive group therapy, or minimal treatment. Telomeres, implicated in epigenetics, are the protective end caps on chromosomes. Shorter telomeres have been linked to tumor growth and disruptive changes in gene expression. The researchers found that those who participated in the mindfulness-based therapy maintained their telomere length, as did those in the supportive-expressive group therapy. A trend of decreased telomere length was found in those in the control group. This might suggest an effect of mindfulness thinking or other therapies on the reduction of tumor growth via telomere length maintenance. However, the overall lack of statistical significance and observation of preliminary trends demonstrates the potential for further exploration and certainly does not guarantee that positive thinking will cure cancer.

Experiments like these should be seen as stepping stones to larger studies to further investigate any possible epigenetic mechanisms that might arise from, for instance, positive thinking or mindfulness therapies. Their results may bolster the intrigue of epigenetics and its potential, but they should not be used as “proof” to advance quack agendas or advise others’ major lifestyle changes, lest the consequences lead to a tragic case of death by quackery.

The purveyors of misinformation seem to fail to consider the interplay of behavior and molecular alterations over periods of time. They paint a glorious picture of epigenetics as the Holy Grail, the fountain of youth, the immediate answer to what many previously thought to be irreversible genetic destiny. But advising others despite a lack of solid evidence is a dangerous, irresponsible, and scientifically unsound route to pursue.

The question now is how confidently and how far can we draw the conclusions outlined in various epigenetic publications? And, perhaps more importantly, how will the presentation of this information impact others? Gross exaggerations have no place in science; creatively speculating where it could take us, while staying in line with what the scientific data present to us, gives hope to maintain the integrity of the field. Avoiding the distortion or embellishment of the evidence is of utmost importance so as not to misguide the public. With nearly all scientists pressing for further research on the underlying molecular mechanisms, we should be wary of using the term epigenetics loosely and assuming we have actionable information from animal or association studies, especially without a disclaimer or acknowledgement of the vast mysteries that still surround the field (and likely will for some time). Certainly, we should be wary of individuals asserting that simply changing your diet or your thoughts could epigenetically ensure the prevention of breast cancer.

Because certain “sciencey” terms like epigenetics may be unfamiliar to most folk, their meaning can be easily lost in translation. A prime example is the popular DHMO hoax that called for a ban on the ubiquitous chemical “dihydrogen monoxide” after warnings of its terrifying ability to spread pesticides, cause severe burns, and even cause death. Convincingly-spun stories sprinkled with a bit of jargon can fall on ears of the scientifically illiterate, instilling misplaced fear and persuading many unsuspecting individuals to behave in ways that, in hindsight, can seem rather unfounded. Dihydrogen monoxide is water, after all.

In the same vein, it is imperative to present information reliably and accurately to the public without misleading those who may not be as up-to-date on the scientific details of a field like epigenetics. Social media and similar online outlets are notorious for spreading misinformation. Many rely on “clickbait” to entice readers as opposed to scientific substance, as the promise of exposure is too tempting to avoid for those who wish to spread hype and have no issue disregarding science. Fortunately, the scientific community seems to be pushing back against the assumptions many reporters, “experts”, and others are making about epigenetics. They are refusing to allow oversimplifications and evidence stripped of its context to provide the public with a basis to blame mothers for a child’s poor health or give rise to Lamarck’s revenge.

Peeling back the outer layers of mystical nonsense and digging down to that innermost little nugget of epigenetic possibility is a difficult task.

Just as there may be hidden gems of scientific inquiry nestled somewhere within these exaggerated claims, we may also find some benefit to how widespread this flimflam truly is. Increasing awareness of this up-and-coming field through the proliferation of epigenetic-related articles can pave the way for the future success of epigenetic research and public acceptance. If it’s not entirely shrouded in nonsensical inferences, exposing epigenetics to the public may help advance research and sustain interest in the field over time. Thinking economically in the research community, it might even increase the likelihood of receiving grants for research on the new “hot” topic of epigenetics. But how can you gain any sort of valuable information or pluck the underlying epigenetic thread of truth from this swirling accumulation of misleading refuse?

Peeling back the outer layers of mystical nonsense and digging down to that innermost little nugget of epigenetic possibility is a difficult task. It’s difficult for those with a strong scientific background, let alone a layperson. For those looking to distinguish between quackery and science, it can help to review the scientific article from which the article-in-question cites (assuming it cites a scientific paper at all). If you were able to find the article, perusing the methods may be a good place to start to get a feel for the soundness of the study, or the rigor of the scientific method. Have other studies cited this one? This can be a decent metric for assessing the validity of the claims, though it is never a guarantee. An individual’s background or experience in the field can also help to gauge how reliable the information may be. Ultimately, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If we could really will our bodies to be free of cancer, then couldn’t we will our bodies to stay young? Approaching these articles with some skepticism and attempting to read the actual research article may help you wade through the nonsense. When approaching these articles, one way to orient yourself is to keep in mind how much further epigenetic research must advance, the methodological limitations that may exist, and the relative newness of the field and its transforming definition. A mindset of curious skepticism should be a standard lens through which these articles are interpreted.

Clearly, the field will continue to advance. As researchers work to uncover the countless mysteries of epigenetics and the fascinating orchestration of molecular events within us, we need to cautiously protect the integrity of the field while appreciating the possibilities it may hold for the future.


What do you think about the use of the term ‘epigenetics’ and its implications for the future? Tell us in the comments below!


About Bailey Kirkpatrick 123 Articles
Bailey Kirkpatrick is a science writer with a background in epigenetics and psychology and a passion for conveying scientific concepts to the wider community. She enjoys speculating about the implications of epigenetics and how it might impact our perception of wellbeing and the development of novel preventative strategies. When she’s not combing through research articles, she also enjoys discovering new foods, taking nighttime strolls, and discussing current events over a hoppy IPA or cold-brewed coffee.
  • Pingback: How Positive Thinking Works … and Doesn’t – Jim Hull SOLUTIONS()

  • Amy Sarah Marshall

    Excellent! A very thorough and articulate map of how terms get misused and prey on ignorance… we need more of this in our society!

    • Greg Minton

      Good points, I was expecting a debate by those who stand to gain financially from duping innocent and uneducated consumers. The article does an excellent job of rightfully explaining the infancy of the science so that people don’t get false hopes about spending money with unscrupulous snake oil and spoon bending prophets. It is a great new area of science with alot of potential and we should encourage thought provoking, cutting edge approaches that are backed by reliable scientific evidence. The truth is that science simply has not yet caught up with all the hopes people have for self-directing their own health. Everyone should do their research on solicitation of money for products and services that jump the gun, but at the same time, keep abreast of developments in the field. Personally, as one who has struggled with addiction issues in the past, I am watching carefully. My kids and grandkids stand to gain alot of useful information, but I have no financial incentive, other than potentially saving money on their rehab in the future.

  • Pingback: Book Review – Super Genes: Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being | What is Epigenetics?()

  • Pingback: Epigenetics: Lamarck’s Revenge? | American Council on Science and Health()

  • Pingback: A Super Brief and Basic Explanation of Epigenetics for Total Beginners | What is Epigenetics?()

  • Andrew Matsen

    Great article. I agree with your thoughts to a degree. I think from my experience it is important to do your research from both sides of the fence. Science has not always been right, and serious mistakes have been made that have also cased thousands of deaths over the years. There is no denying this as we all know.

    We need to keep our minds open to all kinds of ideas. It was once believed that an electron could not exist in two paces at once but two scientists Drs. S. Haroche and D. Wineland won a Nobel Prize in Physics for proving this exact thing. Einstein himself hated this idea but it is now proven correct.

    All I am saying is, we must keep out minds open to all ideas, the proof of quantum mechanics is leading to the development of quantum computers once thought impossible. The everyday electronics we use like mobile phones, lasers, the internet would not exists without this.

    In my mind using the term quackery or nonsense is risky for an intelligent person. This to me is a very closed way of thinking. Mindfulness meditation for example, is in its essence, a way to tune your mind to the energy waves which is what everything is actually made of. Don’t believe me, do your own research and study and proof me wrong. Quantum physics is proving this. Quantum healing for instance, I know nothing about it, but logic would tell me it is possible. Why? Well everything we know at it’s most basic level happens at the quantum level. It is just at we don’t have an understanding of it at this stage to either prove or disprove it.

    Open your minds to the possibilities that you may just be able to learn something new and exciting. As Buddha taught us 2500 years ago, (and I am not a Buddhist) accept nothing as fact, question everything. I am not a fan of knocking anyone for their ideas, it is in fact just their opinion and everyone has the right to their own opinion. If something spikes your interest just give things a go, and if it’s not for you that’s ok. Don’t discount anything by listening to some else’s opinion who may not have even tried it or know anything about it.

    Have a great day, happy and abundant life.

    • Daniel Stickler

      Very thoughtful response Andrew. I do agree that the authors stance is somewhat closed minded. Epigenetics is a fascinating world that we are really only just starting to understand. I feel like thoughts have a profound influence on our health and that influence is gradually being shown to be epigenetic expression. We have been working in my medical practice on human potential optimization and we work with sleep, stress, hormones, nutrition, movement, environment, and yes thoughts. All aspects are in some way shifting gene expression. Keep that open mind, thats how we change the world.

      • http://www.whatisepigenetics.com B. Kirkpatrick

        Daniel and Andrew, you both bring up excellent points and it’s wonderful to see insightful discussion on such a fascinating topic. It may be too often that we are stifled by our inability to think or imagine beyond what we “know” or believe to be true or sound. And it does happen that what we may have previously thought to be unimaginable, over time, actually becomes the norm. This article was in no way intending to discourage open discussion, novel hypotheses, or scientific innovation.

        Epigenetics is most certainly a relatively nascent field and it would be closedminded and downright incorrect to say it is completely understood. To my knowledge, we know very little regarding the influence of thoughts on epigenetic changes, but hopefully, with rigorous scientific studies, we may be able to uncover more, as you both suggest. A major focus of the article warns against making finite health claims about the power of epigenetics when we have so much more to learn. It also emphasizes the need for research that abides by the scientific method and peer-review process.

        “Epigenetics: Avoiding the Pull of Pseudoscientific Nonsense“ is in support of Adam Rutherford’s piece titled, “Beware the pseudo gene genies”, which was published in The Guardian, July 2015. If you’re interested, you can find it here: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jul/19/epigenetics-dna–darwin-adam-rutherford. It very openly acknowledges the need for further research.

        Our article pushes back against the conclusions that seem to be touted as fact by certain influential individuals, which may mislead others and perhaps overshadow high efficacy treatments that have been researched extensively. As mentioned in this piece, “we need to cautiously protect the integrity of the field while appreciating the possibilities it may hold for the future.” It is a very fine line indeed, and discussions like these will help us to avoid misleading others while also being open-minded for future possibilities and further research.

        Thank you both for your incredibly thoughtful comments!

  • Jack Elmore

    It is attitudes such as you are displaying here that keeps the scientific community stuck in the rut it has been in for decades. It is the dismissal of the potential power locked up in the perceived lowly minds and consciousness of humans by the sciences that have led them far astray.

    I mean you have no problem believing in dark energy/matter … you know, that stuff that can not be seen, touched, or measured (it’s effects can, so they say) but is being added to physics because Einstein’s theory came up short, and they had to have SOMETHING to explain the discrepancies … kind of like believing in a bearded man sitting on a throne in heaven, eh?

    Instead of thinking, hmmm maybe we should rethink this from the beginning and see if we missed something, they just chug along inventing energy, matter, or mathematics as needed to make their “theories” work.

    Doctors KNOW that the placebo effect is real, and they know that it is because the patient BELIEVES the medicine will improve their health, that their health does indeed improve.

    And what about spontaneous remission/regression … you know, “the partial or complete disappearance of a malignant tumor in the absence of all treatment, or in the presence of therapy which is considered inadequate to exert significant influence on neoplastic disease.” … those inadequate therapies being those the scientific community regards as “Pseudoscientific Nonsense”.

    Isn’t it strange you never hear about that … I wonder why spontaneous remission/regression isn’t plastered all over the main-stream-media outlets every time it happens … could it be that it just may begin to open people’s eyes about how little the scientific community really understands about the human body/miind? That they would rather pump you full of poison and radiation ( a brilliant idea you guys came up with by the way … smh) than to admit they are full of shit and are in it just to make money?

    From the outside looking in, that is exactly what it appears to be. It is not only the government, and the main-stream-media people no longer believe … it is the scientific community as well, you would do well to keep that in mind.

  • Pingback: Episode 64: Epigenetics 101 with Bailey Kirkpatrick | Phoenix Helix()

More in Educationally Entertaining
Could Epigenetics Help Feed the World?

If you were a teenager in 1985, like I was, you probably remember spending an entire day in July plopped...