What is Epigenetics?
Epigenetics explores how our environment, behavior, and lifestyle, including diet, influence our genes. An exciting and relatively new field of science, epigenetics helps us understand what causes genes to turn on or off without altering our genetic blueprint material (DNA).
Until roughly two decades ago, many scientists believed that health and lifespan were primarily determined by the genetic hand we were dealt at birth. But are happiness and longevity exclusively predetermined by the genes inherited from biological parents?
That was the old paradigm. However, thanks to the nascent field of epigenetics, we now understand that nurture, that is to say, our environment and behaviors, and even our thoughts, are just as important as nature—if not more so—in determining our physical and emotional well-being.
Epigenetics means “above” genetics. In other words, there is a force greater than our genetic blueprint at work that determines our biological age—a measure of the health of your cells—and that force is epigenetics.
Our epigenetics is also influenced by our parents’ and ancestors’ life experiences. Hypothetically, suppose both of your parents suffered from depression. Is it a genetic slam dunk that you’ll also have depression?
Although your parents’ experiences are passed down to you through epigenetic tags on your DNA, thankfully, we have a fair amount of control over our epigenetic fate.
Keep reading, and you’ll learn how to influence your epigenetics more positively.
Why Is Epigenetics Important?
When it comes to genetic expression, you might think it’s all said and done physiologically. The proteins in your body determine your hair and eye color, height, and personality. That’s the end of the story, right?
But epigenetics plays a crucial role in determining how your genes express themselves well after birth. For example, epigenetics is the control mechanism that determines whether a cancer gene will turn on or whether you’ll handle stressful situations calmly or suffer from panic attacks.
In a nutshell, epigenetics either activates or suppresses genetic expression in the cells and tissues. This allows cells and organelles to perform specific functions in the body, including:
According to the journal Molecular Biology of the Cell, the human body contains approximately 40 trillion cells. Ever wonder how different cells are formed? For example, what makes an embryonic cell transform into a kidney cell? Or a liver cell, heart cell, brain cell, etc?
The short answer: epigenetics.
If our DNA serves as an architect’s blueprint for our inherited genetic traits, then epigenetic instructions facilitate cell differentiation. It’s epigenetics that miraculously transforms an embryo into a multi-trillion-celled-complex organism.
In a 2016 study published in Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, two Baylor researchers describe how in 1996, a set of identical twins carried the same genetic mutation that causes adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). This rare, debilitating condition can destroy normal brain function.
One twin developed blindness, balance problems, and loss of the brain’s protective cover, the myelin sheath. The other twin? He remained healthy during his lifetime.
Epigenetics explains why one twin’s genetic switch for ALD was turned on while the healthy twin’s genetic expression remained in the off position, so to speak.
“Some nongenetic factors may be important for different ALD phenotypes (observable traits),” the researchers in 1996 observed.
This prompted the Baylor researchers to write, “That indeed was a valid conclusion in 1996, given the focus of medical genetics on DNA sequence.” The Baylor researchers suggested, “If the DNA sequence could not explain a phenotypic variation, then environmental factors did.”
Added the researchers, “More recently, attention has focused on epigenetic changes, which are modifications of the genetic information that do not alter the DNA sequence, as a potential explanation for discordant phenotypes in [identical] twins and individuals who otherwise share similar DNA sequence alterations.”
In other words, epigenetics controls gene regulation, not gene function, and it’s the physiological raison d’etre for the development and progression of diseases. Yet, scientists have only begun to scratch the surface of how abnormal epigenetic patterns cause diseases and how they may be cured.
“Aberrant epigenetic events expand tumor progression from the earliest to latest stages, therefore, they can serve as convenient markers for detection and prognosis of cancer. The potential reversibility of epigenetic states in the tumor cell is an attractive target for cancer therapy,” says research in the Journal of Applied Genetics.
Epigenetics also control how environmental factors regulate our genetic code.
According to a trio of Taiwanese researchers in a 2019 study published in Epigenomes, “Several comprehensive studies have noted that environmental factors are closely associated with epigenetic regulations [and] such factors trigger alterations in epigenetic profiles.” Those factors include:
- Diet (highly-processed food and sugar)
- Toxicants (alcohol and drugs)
- Pollutants (synthetic chemicals)
- Irradiation (ultraviolet rays from the sun)
In addition, living a sedentary lifestyle and the inability to manage chronic stress may put one at a higher risk for developing aberrant epigenetic events.
How Do Epigenetics Work?
So what determines whether a gene becomes activated or suppressed? The answer is a chemical structure called an epigenome. You can think of epigenomes as chemical switches or tags. The epigenome attaches to proteins in the DNA, which reacts to the chemical influence.
An epigenome, explains the National Human Genome Research Institute, “modifies or marks the genome in a way that tells it what to do, where to do it, and when to do it.”
To truly understand how epigenetics, there are three mechanisms at work:
1. DNA Methylation
DNA methylation regulates gene expression by recruiting proteins involved in gene repression or inhibiting the binding of transcription factor(s) to DNA, explains research in Neuropsychopharmacology.
In other words, DNA methylation controls how genes are turned on or off. When a chemical tag called a methyl group is added to DNA, or, more succinctly, when DNA is methylated, proteins are activated that prevent a particular gene from being activated or “expressed.”
As a result, the genetic instruction in the gene is not read by the cell. In addition, DNA methylation can be triggered by preventing the binding of proteins called transcription factors. You can think of transcription factors as mini photocopiers of DNA instructions.
Thus, DNA methylation can activate proteins to stop gene expression or directly prevent the activation of genes by blocking critical protein interactions. Both hyper- (too much) and hypo (too little)-methylation can cause harmful changes in genetic expression, potentially leading to disease. To feel biologically younger than your actual age, you need the Goldilocks zone of DNA methylation: just right.
2. Histone Modification
Histones are proteins that package DNA. When these proteins are modified, chemical tags are added or removed. You can think of these tags as light switches that control which genes are turned on or off.
Histone modification can help keep cancer genes from being expressed (turned on), but the opposite is true. And due to chronic stress, environmental factors, and even the epigenetics inherited from our ancestors, abnormal histone modification can result in diseases like cancer.
“Increasing evidence shows that abnormal patterns of histone [modification] are associated with many human disorders, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and autoimmune diseases, says a 2021 study in Molecular & Cellular Proteomics.
3. Non-coding RNA.
Non-coding RNA is like an employee at a small company that wears many hats. However, instead of carrying protein-making instructions, which is the role of RNA molecules, non-coding RNA has different roles in the cell, including cellular communication (signaling) and influencing genetic expression by interacting with DNA or RNA.
Like histone modification and DNA methylation, dysregulation in non-coding RNA can occur.
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Epigenetics and Your Health
Let’s examine a few examples of how environmental or physiological factors may lead to unfavorable epigenetic expression.
The health habits of an expecting mother not only impact a baby’s health and development immediately post-utero, but maternal health can also influence the baby’s epigenetics well into the child’s adulthood.
For example, studies have shown that maternal diet during pregnancy can affect the epigenetic marks of the offspring and potentially impact their health later in life.
“Maternal diets … contribute to the establishment of the epigenetic profiles in the fetus that have a profound impact on individual susceptibility to certain diseases or disorders [such as obesity] in the offspring later in life,” says a study in Frontiers in Genetics.
Abnormal DNA methylation and histone modifications are the two main epigenetic mechanisms that lead to cancer. With the former, genes that suppress tumors are silenced, while in the latter, a battle ensues between genes that promote cell growth and those that suppress it. This cellular Yin/Yang imbalance favors cancer development. The good news is that these epigenetic influences are potentially reversible.
Infections can impact epigenetics by altering gene expression patterns in immune cells. Unresolved, chronic infections can lead to abnormal DNA methylation and histone modifications, which can change the response of genes tied to the immune system. As a result, harmful antigens aren’t recognized, and the immune system fails to produce antibodies for protection.
Can Your Epigenetics Change?
How much are we in control of our epigenetics? While we can’t change our chronological age (50 is 50), can we do anything to alter our biological age so that our cells mirror that of a 40-year-old, even though you might be in your 50s or older?
Epigenetics & Age
As we age, alterations in DNA methylation patterns and histone modifications produce changes in gene expression and cellular function. Every person has a theoretical epigenetic clock that reflects age-related epigenetic changes. The extent to which an individual’s genetic expression has been impacted by DNA methylation and histone modification provides an estimated biological age. Your biological age can be younger or older than your chronological age (or the same age).
From birth to old age, developmental processes play a critical role in our epigenetics. For example, epigenetic reprogramming occurs before an embryo develops into a fetus. Like a thumb drive being erased, epigenetic reprogramming wipes out much of the existing epigenetic marks, such as DNA methylation patterns. This occurs so that cells can reach their full potential and differentiate into various types of cells.
Behavior and Environment
Adverse life experiences have been shown to affect epigenetics negatively. For instance, childhood abuse and maternal separation are linked to aberrant DNA methylation profiles in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) stress response axis, says the previously-mentioned study in Epigenomes. This dysregulation of the HPA axis stress response, the researchers suggest, can lead to an increased risk of suicide.
Epigenetic factors influenced by life experience have led to the emerging field of “behavioral epigenetics.” Originally, epigenetic changes were believed to occur only during fetal development, says science writer Dan Hurley in Discover. But now we know that traumatic experiences in our past, or our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars that stick to our DNA, Hurley explains.
Epigenetic Therapy + Reversal
So how can we target disease-associated epigenetic changes and restore normal gene expression patterns? There are two distinct concepts within the field of epigenetics:
Epigenetic therapy involves medications or other interventions that target and modify specific epigenetic marks to treat diseases, including cancer. According to the journal Anticancer Research, two widely-used epigenetic therapies include two DNA methylation inhibitors: azacytidine, and decitabine. In addition, histone deacetylase inhibitors may also reverse abnormal epigenetic modifications.
Is there another option for reversing our biological/epigenetic age? Yes, several lifestyle interventions have been shown to positively influence epigenomic expression, including:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Intermittent fasting
- Regular exercise
- Reciting affirmations
- Opt Health Longevity Medicine
Opt Health and Epigenetics
Want to turn back the time on your epigenetic clock and look and feel younger? Opt Health offers cutting-edge technology and medical protocols for optimizing your health and regulating gene expression. Opt Health is at the forefront of longevity medicine through personalized labs, real-time methylation data, doctor-supervised treatment plans, wearable devices, and more.