Halloween marks the joyous time to carve pumpkins, dress up in frightening garb, and – most importantly – gorge ourselves on sugary candies that seem to be in never-ending supply. It seems harmless enough to snack on some candy corn and taffy and Milk Duds and Twizzlers and… well, you get the idea. Treating yourself to “just a little” candy on Halloween doesn’t seem very harmless, but do you know the epigenetic power that might be lurking in your Halloween candy?
Epigenetics is a fast-growing field that attempts to explain why some genes are turned on and some are turned off, altering the phenotype without altering the genetic code, or genotype. Certain factors that affect epigenetic changes include age, the environment, and yes, even your diet!
Take a look at these three things you probably didn’t know about sugar and epigenetics and uncover the possible epigenetic power that may lie within the sugary goodness of your Halloween candy.
1. Your genes remember a sugar hit
You might forget about that momentary Halloween candy binge a couple days later (or try to), but your genes might not! Research suggests that short-term high glucose in the body causes epigenetic changes that may persist over time and may even be a risk factor for diabetic complications. In a study in which scientists used aortic endothelial cells of mice, researchers found that transient hyperglycemia lasting six hours induced long-term activation of epigenetic changes in the promoter of the NF-κB subunit p65 both in vitro and in nondiabetic mice, which led to increased p65 gene expression. The research also suggested this momentary sugar hit could induce long-lasting changes in chromatin remodeling and recruitment of the histone methyltransferase Set7. These changes even lasted six days after a normal glucose diet was established.
Early studies on metabolic memory have shown that early glycemic environment is remembered in target organs, such as the kidney, heart, and eye. This concept was first investigated in the retina of diabetic dogs who were switched to a proper glucose diet after either two months or two and a half years of poor glucose control. During analysis five years later, they found diabetic retinopathy was prominent for the dogs that were switched to a normal glucose diet after two and a half years of poor glucose control but not for the dogs that were switched after two months.
Even though that quick indulgence seems far too fleeting, it’s possible it persists in your genes in the form of metabolic memory, which might increase the risk of developing diabetes. But have no fear- the research also shows there’s a possibility to reverse these damaging effects if a normal diet is established within a certain amount of time.
2. Low-sugar diet could stave off cancer
Even though that tempting bucket of Halloween candy seems to be the only thing that could ever possibly satisfy your sweet tooth, research shows that a low-glucose diet could have health benefits that stave off cancer. Scientists found that glucose restriction decreases telomerase activity and enhances the inhibitor response of BIBR 1532 on breast cancer cells. In an in vitro study, they showed that cell glucose deprivation radically decreased the expression and activity of telomerase mRNA and cell proliferation. Restricting the amount of glucose reduced the spread of cancer cells and even promoted their transformation to normal cells, likely because glucose metabolism is considered a hallmark of cancer cells.
Another team of researchers found that glucose restriction not only could extend the normal lifespan of a cell, but also impair precancerous cell growth through epigenetic control of telomerase subunit and expression of p16, a tumor suppressor gene. They found that epigenetic mechanisms of histone modification and DNA methylation were involved in changing the hTERT and p16 promoters as a result of restricted glucose.
Previous studies have also shown a correlation between caloric restriction and cancer prevention and treatment, indicating that caloric restriction might be helpful in preventing the growth of tumors. Based on this association, it’s possible that lowering your sugar intake and, in general, caloric consumption could help reduce your chances of developing cancer.
Instead of opting to eat that five-pound bag of leftover Trick-or-Treater candy because you “can’t possibly let it all go to waste,” perhaps consider swapping it with something a little healthier. A candied apple should work, right?
3. Sugar intake could affect your kids
You may think that moment of candy-induced bliss and the unfortunate aftermath only affects you, but research hints that binging on candy may actually affect your future children. Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is the persistence of epigenetic marks over generations. Still undergoing rigorous research, this concept is a hot topic in the field of epigenetics. Early research on the Dutch famine indicated that mothers who experienced a lack of food during the famine actually epigenetically affected the body weight and metabolism of their children, which persisted over time. In this case, the children who were prenatally exposed to the famine had less DNA methylation of the imprinted IGF2 gene than their same-sex siblings who were unexposed. The persistence of certain epigenetic marks over generations could also be true of glucose consumption.
Even though right now dressing up as Halloween candy sounds like it could win you first place in a scariest costume contest, epigenetics is still a developing field and the exact mechanisms and effects of glucose consumption in humans have yet to be entirely understood. There is evidence that some epigenetic marks are not permanent and can be reversed over time, so until there’s definitive research on the intricacies of eating too much Halloween candy, it seems the popular maxim can be applied: all things in moderation.
*Disclaimer: The points made herein represent a speculative opinion of the author based on related scholarly publications on animal and human studies.
- Ceriello, A., Ihnat, M. A., & Thorpe, J. E. (2009). The “metabolic memory”: is more than just tight glucose control necessary to prevent diabetic complications? The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 94(2), 410-415.
- El-Osta, A et al. “Transient high glucose causes persistent epigenetic changes and altered gene expression during subsequent normoglycemia” J. Exp. Med. 205 (10) 2409-2417.
- Heijmans, B. T., Tobi, E. W., Stein, A. D., Putter, H., Blauw, G. J., Susser, E. S., … & Lumey, L. H. (2008). Persistent epigenetic differences associated with prenatal exposure to famine in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(44), 17046-17049.
- Hursting, S. D., Dunlap, S. M., Ford, N. A., Hursting, M. J., & Lashinger, L. M. (2013). Calorie restriction and cancer prevention: a mechanistic perspective. Cancer & metabolism, 1(10).
- Li, Y., Liu, L., & Tollefsbol, T. O. (2010). Glucose restriction can extend normal cell lifespan and impair precancerous cell growth through epigenetic control of hTERT and p16 expression. The FASEB Journal, 24(5), 1442-1453.
- Wardi, L., Alaaeddine, N., Raad, I., Sarkis, R., Serhal, R., Khalil, C., & Hilal, G. (2014). Glucose restriction decreases telomerase activity and enhances its inhibitor response on breast cancer cells: possible extra-telomerase role of BIBR 1532. Cancer cell international, 14(1), 60.