It might be helpful to begin with what Epigenetics actually is; it’s the study of changes in gene expression that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence itself. The changes are heritable (passed down through generations) BUT reversible and can be brought about by chemical modifications to DNA or to the proteins that DNA is wound around. These modifications can turn genes on or off, or change the degree to which they are expressed. It is the study of how our behaviour and environment impact the way our genes work.
Epigenetic changes have been linked to a variety of diseases, including cancer, neurological disorders, and autoimmune disorders – all of which are pretty prevalent in todays society.
What types of Epigenetic changes are there?
DNA Methylation: A process by which a molecule called a methyl group is added to a specific nucleotide base in the DNA molecule. DNA methylation can cause genes to be turned off or “silenced” which can have a variety of effects on cellular functions including: DNA production, neurotransmitter production, detoxification, histamine metabolism, etrogen metabolism, cellular energy and liver health (to name but a few).
Methylation is a simple biological process – the transfer of 4 atoms – one carbon and 3 hydrogen, from one substance to another. The addition of this ‘methyl group’ can affect how some molecules act in the body.
For methylation to run efficiently, there needs to be enough of a B vitamin known as 5-MTHF aka folate/methylfolate. Folic acid from the diet, or supplements must be converted to this active form of 5-MTHF.
To improve the methylation cycle you can aim to include whole foods such as asparagus, avocado, broccoli, brussels, leafy veggies, legumes and rice.
Histone Modifications: Histones are proteins that help package DNA into a compact structure called chromatin. Modifications to histones can alter the structure of chromatin and affect the accessibility of genes to the cellular machinery that regulates their expression.
One of the most well-known modifications is called acetylation. This involves the addition of an acetyl group to a specific amino acid in the histone protein. This modification can change the charge of the histone, leading to a more relaxed, open structure of chromatin and increased accessibility of genes for transcription factors and other regulatory proteins, basically leading to a change in gene expression.
In reference to both the modifications above: some types of cancer are caused by mutations in genes that control cell growth, such as tumor suppressor genes and oncogenes. One way in which epigenetic changes can contribute to cancer is by altering the expression of genes involved in controlling cell growth and division. DNA methylation and histone modifications can silence the expression of tumor suppressor genes that normally keep cell growth in check.
Much like the BRCA2 gene, which is a well-known tumor suppressor gene that plays a critical role in repairing DNA damage in cells. Mutations in this gene are linked to an increased risk of breast, ovarian, and other types of cancer – BUT as this is the study of epigenetics, we know that the EXPRESSION of this gene can be influenced by our behaviour, lifestyle factors and environment – the power is in our hands!
So what does all of this mean?
Our genes control everything in our body, they are the code or the blueprint for our health and functionality but only in recent decades has the study of Epigenetics become more popular.
This is such an exciting field of study as it suggests that we have much more control over our health than we previously thought (and that is in relation to things like cancer, neurological disorders, and autoimmune disorders as mentioned above). While we can’t change our genetic code, we can influence the expression of our genes through environmental factors and lifestyle choices. By understanding the role of epigenetics in health and disease, we can take steps to optimize our epigenetic regulation and reduce our risk of developing a wide range of diseases.
The reason why I get so excited about this, is because of how empowering this topic is. This is real ‘root cause’ health stuff – gene expression! The phrase ‘we are a product of our choices and not a victim to our circumstances’ is really fitting here because we may have something that ‘runs in the family’ (i.e. BRCA2 gene mentioned above), but we can potentially have quite a lot of influence over whether that continues with us!
The way I like to think about it is that our genes are like switches. They can be turned on or off and their expression can be increased or decreased in response to various factors that we are exposed to. Every choice we make has the power to switch on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ genes, and that is a thought I often try to keep in my head when I am trying to adopt healthier lifestyle and eating habits (which is always a struggle when I walk past a shop with all the delicious cake).
I’ve spoken about behavioural and environmental factors quite a bit, so below are some examples that you can consider in your own life:
- Diet: certain nutrients and bioactive compounds in food have been found to influence epigenetic modifications. For example, folate and other B vitamins are required for the methylation of DNA, and deficiencies in these nutrients have been linked to changes in methylation patterns. Other compounds, such as polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables, can also affect histone modifications and gene expression.
- Stress: Chronic stress has been linked to changes in DNA methylation and histone modifications, which can alter gene expression patterns in ways that contribute to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. In addition, early life stress has been found to have long-lasting effects on the epigenetic regulation of stress response genes (cue reference to The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk).
- Toxins: Exposure to environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke, air pollutions, and pesticides has been linked to changes in DNA methylation and histone modifications, which can increase the risk of diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease.
- Other environmental exposures: Exposure to other factors such as radiation, viruses, and drugs can also affect modifications and contribute to disease risk.
It is important to note that epigenetic changes induced by environmental factors are often reversible and can be modified by lifestyle changes. For example, adopting a healthy diet, managing stress, and avoiding exposure to toxins can help promote healthy epigenetic regulation and reduce disease risk.
Ultimately, the knowledge of Epigenetics allows us to switch the power of responsibility from our genes to us by reimagining the idea that genes determine our lives, our destiny, our fate, and giving us the ability to determine our own fate by the way we lead our lives. And this doesn’t just affect us, it may actually influence the lives and health of the children and even our children’s children – and that is enough of a reason for me!
This is why I am a big supporter and promoter of pre-conception work. Do the work so your children don’t have to. Join us on The Fertility Formula by emailing us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or are you ready to influence your gene expression to resolve your chronic health issues? This is what we do for our clients, day after day, at The Wellness Programme. Full info here: The Wellness Programme | The Wellness Programme
To your good health!