Your genetics play a pivotal role in your health, as do behaviors and environmental influences. Epigenetics refers to heritable changes in gene expression patterns without altering DNA sequence. Reversible epigenetic changes determine which genes turn “on” and off at specific times during life.
Certain colorectal cancer screening tests cause epigenetic changes that linger in your body for decades after taking the test.
What is Epigenetics?
Scientists have long understood how individuals’ genes (collectively known as their genome) can be determined. What was unknown until recently was how early experiences can actually alter how these genes are expressed.
Scientists have recently learned that certain patterns of gene expression can be altered through epigenetic processes, including DNA methylation and histone modification. These biochemical mechanisms affect how tightly DNA wraps around proteins, ultimately impacting whether or not its coded message can be read and activated by our bodies.
Scientists are still trying to understand how these changes in chromatin occur and are maintained through multiple cell divisions. Some evidence indicates that these chromatin changes may be passed along through transgenerational epigenetic inheritance; one such example being those born shortly after severe famine in the Netherlands showing increased risks for schizophrenia and type 2 diabetes as researchers suspect DNA methylation patterns from their mother during famine may have played a part in these increased risks.
How Does Epigenetics Work?
Epigenetics examines the extra layer that lies on top of DNA. It studies how chemical tags attached to various parts of DNA and associated proteins can alter whether certain genes are turned “on” or “off.” Such changes do not alter genetic code itself.
These changes influence protein synthesis within cells. Over time, they can become permanent features that are passed along from generation to generation. Studies on animals suggest that early exposure to nutrients during early development can have lasting consequences in terms of disease risk factors like heroin addiction.
Researchers studying epigenetics employ various methodologies to analyze various aspects of gene regulation, such as DNA methylation, histone modification and microRNA expression. While no single factor constitutes an epigenetic signature or mechanism is responsible for nutritionally-mediated changes in gene expression.
What are Epigenetic Lifestyle Modifications?
Epigenetic changes alter gene expression without altering their genetic code directly, through methods like DNA methylation or posttranslational modifications of histone proteins post translation or noncoding RNA actions in the nucleus (1).
Epigenetic changes typically involve adding small chemical groups (methyl and acetyl) to DNA building blocks, altering how tightly genes wrap around histone proteins and therefore whether they become activated or inactive (2).
Epigenetic lifestyle modifications include diet changes, exercise, sleep, yoga, meditation and exposure to nature. According to research findings, such activities alter DNA methylation levels, histone modifications or noncoding RNA actions that influence gene expression (3).
These changes can help prevent or delay chronic diseases from developing, as evidenced by research indicating regular exercise has an energizing effect on certain genes found in skeletal muscle that methylate favorably and help reverse obesity and type-2 diabetes effects (4).
How Can Epigenetic Lifestyle Modifications Help Me?
Positively influencing gene expression to achieve optimal health & wellbeing and potentially pass along beneficial genetic changes to our children can be achieved with lifestyle modifications that utilize epigenetic principles, such as regular exercise, healthy nutrition, stress management strategies, and sufficient restful sleep.
DNA methylation is one of the most prevalent epigenetic modifications, adding chemical groups (one carbon, three hydrogen and one oxygen) to genes or histone proteins that surround them that alter how tightly their DNA coils, ultimately dictating whether or not a gene will turn on or off.
Studies have revealed that exercise has the ability to alter DNA methylation patterns and significantly lower risk for chronic conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, nutrition-rich foods can have beneficial epigenetic effects in our bodies known as “nutriepigenomics.”