With the best skiing in the country only a short drive away and lakes and beautiful hiking trails within walking distance of my front door, Utah is the most beautiful and outdoor-friendly area I have ever lived in. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it also has the worst air quality in the nation. But us Beehive state residents aren’t alone, not by a long shot. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 92% of the world’s population lives in areas where acute exposure to fine particles is a legitimate health concern. Fascinating new epigenetic research suggests that nutrition may be one of the most important factors in attenuating the effects of that Utah inversion.
According to WHO, air quality is a significant factor in a countless number of chronic health conditions. Just examine the data and you will see that poor air quality is estimated to be a principal factor in over 3 million premature deaths every year. Ambient pollution is believed to be the root cause of millions of cases of ischaemic heart disease, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer. When the air quality index begins to run into the red zone, it is best to follow the EPA’s warnings and ditch your plans for a day hike and stay indoors.
In a recently published study, an international team of researchers examined the epigenetic effects of air pollution and how B vitamin supplementation may influence these effects. Specifically, they were looking for methylation of T-helper cells, those circulating white blood cells involved in the inflammatory response. Methylation is one of the primary mechanisms which controls gene expression, the turning on and off our genes. Through genetic signaling, methylation plays a role in the biological aging process and may influence chronic disease risk by acting on T-helper cells. Recent epigenetic research investigating the influence of maternal dietary habits on the health of newborn children had provided some evidence that B vitamins may be involved in the DNA methylation process, warranting research into its possible role in the immune response. Ten healthy adult participants took part in the three-stage study. In the first stage, all participants were given a daily placebo and exposed to filtered air for two hours each day for two weeks. Stage two lasted four weeks, and all participants were provided the placebo and exposed to air containing particles from vehicle exhaust via an oxygen-type mask for two hours a day. In the final stage, participants followed the same protocol as in stage two, but were provided a daily B vitamin supplement. Prior to the start of the trial and in between each stage, participants took part in a series of blood tests to analyze alterations in the genes of CD4+ T-helper cells. Although no alterations to the T-helper cells were seen following the first trial when participants were exposed to filtered air, the exposure to exhaust particles in the second study resulted in significant methylation activity in the T-cells, confirming the strongly-supported hypothesis that exposure to fine particles results in epigenetic changes that promote biological aging and chronic disease. Surprisingly, there were no observed genetic changes to the T-helper cells in the final stage, which was when participants took the daily B vitamin supplement.
Despite the success of this study, I have a lot of questions. Obviously, larger and more long-term studies are needed to validate the findings of this small trial. According to United States Department of Agriculture, as many as 40% of adults may be deficient in vitamin B12 and deficiencies in other B-complex vitamins may be as high as 25%. Pre-trial tests did not determine whether participants were deficient in B-complex vitamins, so we don’t know if there is a benefit to consuming more than the recommended dietary allowances (RDA). Finally, is B vitamin supplementation somehow superior to a whole food, B vitamin rich diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in mediating the DNA methylation damage caused by exposure to air pollution? These are all questions that only further research can answer. What this study does provide is some insight into the physiological mechanisms that are influenced by air pollution, which may help to guide future prevention. Most of all, at least to me, it is further evidence of the importance of a healthy, balanced, whole food diet. What we eat can literally alter our genetic code. As epigenetic research continues to progress, it is amazing to learn how vital what we eat is to our health, and that of our children, at the most fundamental level.
To support lifelong health and vitality, along with heeding the EPA’s air quality warnings, focus on a whole food diet and supplement with a multivitamin and mineral complex rich in B vitamins.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.