Medically reviewed by, Russell Braun RPH
Ever wonder why some people seem to have won the genetic lottery? Even though at times you feel like you did not even hit one number in the drawing? Well, don’t despair understanding what is epigenetics in layman’s terms is going to change your mindset. You will see how epigenetics can make you into almost whatever you want to be.
Epigenetics is a relatively new science developed in the 1970’s. It is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect how your genes work. Specifically how your DNA reacts with small messenger molecules that can activate or deactivate different genes.
Key things to remember:
- Epigenetics are reversible
- Does not change your DNA
- Can change the way your body reads DNA
1. What Is Epigenetics And How Does It Work?
Genetics is the study of genes and how they impact the heredity and inherited characteristics of an organism. They are the reason why children tend to look like their parents who gave them their genetic material. “Epi” means above or on top of, in this case genetics. Therefore epigenetics refers to things that are on top of the genes and turning them on or off.
You might be wondering, why does this matter… don’t my genes just create the things my body needs to live? The answer to that is no, your genes are just the blueprints.
The Human Genome Project and Your Genetic Fate
The Human Genome Project (HGP) was an undertaking to map our the human genome. It helped identify genes that are responsible for all the processes in our bodies. The shocking finding once the genome was completed is that humans do not have nearly as many genes as was thought. HGP found about 20,500 total genes make us up. They refer to them as the instructions for the development of a human being.
Our genome seems to be stable throughout our lifetime. So what makes up the differences between us? The answer to that question is:
The expression of the genes and how much they are produced or not in response to exposure to our environment.
Genetic control is the idea the genes control your destiny. It was thought after the HGP we would understand our genetic destiny that our genes had total control of. However, we now know that genes don’t turn themselves on and off. So what does?
The brain and central nervous system do!
Think of your brain as a contractor who controls your genes. It perceives your environment and sends signals to your cells telling them what genes to make.
The great news is we are not a victim of our genetics. In fact, we are the master of what we want to become. The picture you have in your mind drives what you will become. The signals from the brain drive the chemistry that is related to create that picture.
These thoughts, in addition to the food you eat and environment you expose your body to control the ouput of your genes. An example of this would be identical twins with the exact same DNA. How else could they grow up to be completely different if the genes were solely in control?
2. What Causes Epigenetics?
The body is comprised of 50-100 trillion cells. Every day we lose millions of cells as they naturally turn over. Then new cells are created and they come from stem cells. The body is full of stem cells that can become any type of cell such as muscle, bone, fat etc.
There are at least 200 different types of cells that have the same genome but a different epigenome. That is why stem cells either turn into liver cells instead of ear cells. The environment and chemical signals sent to the cells ultimately control what they end up becoming.
3. What Is An Epigenetic Trait?
Epigenetic traits are changes in a chromosome without alterations in the actual DNA sequence. In more basics sense the DNA is the same, but with different levers that control if a gene should be on or off. This could include:
- Regulation of how many times the genes protein blueprint gets made.
- How developed a cell becomes.
- The diversity of different types of cells.
These epigenetic traits have been discovered in almost all cells that have been studied.
There are two types of epigenome traits currently understood:
Methyl groups bind to a gene and tell it not to be turned on. They are like a chemical cap on the DNA that prevents it from being expressed.
Histones are proteins that DNA winds itself around when not being used. DNA strands would be too long to fit inside the cell if they did not wind around histones. If DNA is tightly wound then it gets expressed less and if it is lose it is expressed more.
These methylation and histone patterns help give the cell its orders.
4. How Does Epigenetics Affect Us?
Ultimately epigenetics controls how much genes get expressed. The proteins that get made as a result of a gene being expressed is what affects us. Too much or too little of any gene can make us healthy or sick.
This is all part of normal cell processes. However, when diseases appear it is normally due to these epigenetic factors. In fact, it is estimated that less than 1% of disease is controlled by genes. That means 99% is controlled by lifestyle and environment or the brains perception of it.
Your Perception of The World
Your brain sends a broadcast to the cells in your body based on your perception of the environment and things that happen to you. The nervous system then releases chemicals to pass this message along. The cell membrane collects the signal and starts signaling to our DNA to create proteins based on what that message was.
Similar to a microchip in a computer, your cell membranes interpret the messages from the brain. Your genes are the hardware that does the work. The epigenome is the software that tells the hardware what to do.
It is estimated that every gene you have can create up to 3,000 different proteins.
As an example, think about if you are anxious and worried all the time. You are going to send signals to get proteins to help deal with stress. As opposed to relax and rebuild damaged cells. Over time that can lead to health issues.
In a nutshell that is why epigenetics is so important to understand.
5. What Are 3 Factors That Affect Epigenetics?
Several factors can affect your epigenetics, the three biggest include:
The table below breaks these factors down further.
|Tobacco smoking||Alcohol consumption||Pollutant exposure|
As you can see many of the things we know we should be doing “better” at are things that affect our epigenetics. A new buzz word has come up that describes some of these factors, it is called social determinants of health.
Social Determinants of Health
A study in (JAMA) Journal of American Medical Association found that children who grew up in disadvantaged neighborhoods had epigentic alterations in their DNA even at a young age. Things such as exposure to tobacco smoke and air pollutants become evident when they were young adults. Poor nutrition by mothers was also a factor that lead to increased risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes and learning disabilities. Obesity has been associated with accelerated epigenetic aging.
There are two types of changes that can occur in the epigenome as a person ages. These can be caused by things inside and outside your body. As we age there is a possiblity for mutations to occur in our DNA. These mutations may be problematic and ultimately lead to a disease.
Social determinants of health are thought to drive DNA methylation that is part of epigenetics. This methylation is a biomarker for biological aging that preserves the memories of stresses your body was under throughout your life. As you age more and more DNA methylation occurs. These changes are thought to most often be a result of reactive oxygen species (ROS). These ROS have been shown to lead to diseases such as:
- Alzhiemer’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
ROS also damage the mitochondria inside your cells. This is bad news because the mitochondria are literally your source for generating energy in cells. Together, epigenetic methylation and ROS are thought to be the cause of the diseases listed above.
In 2015 the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) was launched to help make strides in the field of genomics. PMI is a long term research project that is being coordinated by the National Insitutes of Health (NIH). The goal is to determine how environment and lifestyle in coordination with your genetics can provide the best treatments for disease.
Epigenetics can also affect enzymes that metabolize pharmaceutical drugs. In February of 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) created a table for pharmacogenetic associations. This is where they have enough scientific evidence to indicate certain genetic traits will lead to a difference in how a drug will affect you. The table gives three different breakdowns.
- How doctors should use drugs
- Impact on safety
- Change to drug levels only
In coming years you will see more focus on understanding your genetics before your doctor writes you a prescription medication.
7. Talk to Your Doctor About Epigenetics
All of these factors will grow in importance as more research is done over time. What you can do is to embrace these ideas and talk to your doctor. These will be important in helping you achieve optimum health.
Remember your perception of the world around you has a major impact on your epigenetics. Thinking things are good can have a tremendous impact on gene expression. Conversely, thinking things are bad will also have an impact…although one you may not want.
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Yasuhiro, Oki et al. Recent clinical trials in epigenetic therapy. Review. 2006: 169-182.
Masarone. M, et al. Epidemiology and Natural History of Alcoholic Liver Disease. Rev Recent Clinical Trials. 2016;11:167–174.