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.

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!


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About Bailey Kirkpatrick 164 Articles
Bailey Kirkpatrick is a science writer with a background in epigenetics and psychology with 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 barrel-aged sour beer or cold-brewed coffee.


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