Epigenetics is the study of the mechanisms which change the expression of genes without changing the underlying genetic code.
Does this sound complicated? It does not have to be.
Epigenetics is a science contributing to the personalization of health.
Now, imagine being able to make lifestyle changes to turn off or enhance these genes.
This is epigenetics.
This article provides an easy-to-understand overview of:
Epigenetics explains the state of a person’s health. It also explains how life choices may have left them more open to disease.
An understanding of epigenetics can help us understand some of the root causes of health issues.
When you take steps to improve through lifestyle modification, gene expression changes leading to better results.
Genetics is the song. Epigenetics is how the song is sung.
If you paid attention to pop culture in the past 50-years, you heard of The Rolling Stones.
The lyrics to the beginning “Start Me Up” are:
“If you start me up
If you start me up I’ll never stop”
When you read the words, an image of Mick Jagger appears in your head. Arms up in a power pose, singing to a crowd. You can imagine Mick Jagger singing it similar to the “Tattoo You” album version.
Imagine if Michael Jackson filled in for Mick Jagger. Same lyrics. Same Keith Richards guitar. How would the song sound? Different, right? The same would be true if John Denver filled in for Mick.
The changes to the singer result in a new version of the song. Similar, a person can alter the expression of their genes without altering the underlying DNA (for now, altering DNA requires radiation).
Madonna is onto something. If who sings the song changes the tune, histone modification and DNA methylation are two ways to change the expression our genes but not the DNA.
What is the expression? This requires some science.
You are born with around 23,000 genes (numbers differ depending on the article you read). Each of these genes is made up of base pairs. When referring to base pairs, this is Adenine, Guanine, Tyrosine (which is Uracil in mRNA), and Cytosine. Through transcription, the genes code for amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.
Transcription starts with the RNA polymerase. The RNA polymerase enters the double-helix of the DNA at the promoter region. Like a snake, the Messenger RNA makes its way through the DNA copying the gene to the messenger RNA. The Messenger RNA becomes an amino acid. The amino acid becomes a protein.
For all the scientists, yes, this is oversimplified.
When the Messenger RNA makes its way through the double helix, certain genes are accessed and others are not. Why?
The genes are silenced or activated through epigenetic mechanisms. Two I will speak of today are Histone Modification and DNA Methylation.
Histone Modification influences the accessibility of a gene.
But first, what is a histone?
Histone proteins which help condense genetic information into the chromatin structure. Histone proteins group together in groups of eight (histone octamer). The DNA wraps around the histone octamer. This is the chromatin. The tighter the chromatin, the harder it is to code for a protein.
How does this work in practice?
Broad generalization – an open chromatin is easier to express and a tight chromatin is silenced.
Think of this as trying to get athlete’s autograph. The tighter his security, the harder it is to get the autograph.
Histone Modification occurs when an acetyl or methyl group attaches to the histone.
There are other modifications. But let’s stick to basics.
When an acetyl group attaches, the gene is switched on. Histone acetylation is involved in a variety of tasks: from DNA repair to DNA replication, to apoptosis (cell death).
When a methyl group attaches, the gene is silenced. The addition of the methyl group causes heterochromatin formation (when the chromosome is denser than normal). Histone Modification through methyl addition is involved in some forms of cancer.
The other epigenetic mechanism I will mention today is DNA Methylation.
DNA Methylation is the best known epigenetic mechanism because it is easiest to study.
Don’t know it? You will in a second.
DNA Methylation / Demethylation refers to the addition or subtraction of a methyl group (CH3) to DNA. In somatic cells (all cells in a living organism other than reproductive cells), this occurs at CpG sites.
Remember the base pairs? CpG sites are where cytosine is found next to guanine. A group of CpG sites is referred to as a CpG island. When the methyl group attaches to a CpG island found in the promoter region (the area which controls transcription and expression) of the gene, the gene is passed over in transcription (methylated) and silenced.
Regulation of methylation is essential for cognitive function. Methylation patterns are also altered by environmental factors.
Why is this important? Why should you care?
You can alter the expression of these genes through lifestyle modifications.
This means, “it’s my genetics” is no longer a valid excuse. Sorry.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at a few cases.
Meditation is all the rage.
If there’s a mobile app for it, you know it is popular.
It is popular for good reason. Meditation is a fantastic for increasing focus, regulating stress, and unlocking greater presence.
Just how good is meditation for you?
Epigenetics allows us to quantify these benefits.
In a 2008 study published in PLoS One, researchers demonstrated 2209 genes were expressed differently in long-term meditators. Of the 2209 genes, 1275 were up-regulated (increased activity) and 934 were down-regulated (decreased activity).
The same study demonstrated epigenetic changes in meditators who only practiced for 8 weeks. 1561 genes were expressed differently in meditators with 8 weeks of experience.
One of the areas meditation is known to affect is inflammation. A 2014 study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology showed a decrease in the expression of pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 with expert meditators. This study demonstrates the potential benefits of using meditation to treat chronic inflammation.
In other words, a thought alters the expression of our genes.
Exercise leads to weight control. It can also enhance focus, decrease resting heart rate, help in insulin regulation, and create unicorns.
Maybe not the last one.
One of the primary genes associated with obesity is FTO (side note: the gene was originally named because it was found in fused-toes in mice). A common lifestyle modification for someone carrying the risk variant of the FTO gene is to exercise.
How effective is exercise? This can be measured in the expression of our genes.
While exercise immediately creates a proinflammatory environment, long-term gym goers benefit from activation of anti-inflammatory pathways post workout.
But that’s not all. No, not even close.
A 2016 research paper from the University of Oregon indicates exercise results in a change in expression of over 3,000 genes!
Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is referenced often in pop culture. Whether it’s Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” or the countless number of bars and restaurants around the world which bear the same name, the book made an impact. A less referenced character is the Red Queen (from the movie and television versions).
The Red Queen is the dictator-queen of the Underland. She was harsh. Those who opposed her rule were hunted and executed. If she perceived you as more beautiful than her, you were punished. Her followers would change and deform themselves to avoid punishment for being more attractive than the Red Queen.
In epigenetics, Red Queen Theory is represented in lactose intolerance.
65% of the world is lactose intolerant. For most of the world, the enzyme which processes dairy (Lactase) disappears after breast feeding. This results in discomfort and potential inflammation later in life from consuming dairy (damn, no cheese).
There are exceptions. 35% of the world can process lactose. Most of this population resides in Northern Europe and North America. This cause is believed to be a genetic adaptation.
When the America’s were explored, visitors endured harsh winters. During these harsh winters, dairy was one of the few sources of nutrition available. The belief is those who could not process dairy would get ill and struggle to survive. Those who could process dairy likely picked up the genetic variant of MCM6 which allows you to digest milk.
If you are like me, you find the science of epigenetics amazing!
Advances in bioinformatics allow an individual to understand their genetic propensity for not only diseases but also opportunities.
Epigenetics allows us to create precision health programs on an individual level. No more one-size-fits-all diets. No more exercise programs for the masses. Epigenetics is the blueprint for your health future. Based on this blueprint, lifestyle modifications are tailored to your genetics.
Imagine being able to focus for longer, stress less, and sleep better. This is what epigenetics can do for you.
If you want to learn more about our systems approach to health, click here.
If you are ready to get started in precision health, schedule a free 30-minute consultation to see if Decoding Superhuman is right for you.
Brouwer, Judith. “A Crash Course in Epigenetics. Part 1. An Introduction to Epigenetics.” Bitesize Bio.
Dusek, Jeffrey et al. “Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response.” PLoS One. July 2008.
Riddihough and Zahn. “What is Epigenetics?” Science. Vol. 330, Issue 6004, pp. 611. October 2010.
Romero, Steven et al. “Evidence of a broad histamine footprint on the human exercise transcriptome.” The Journal of Physiology. May 2016.
Sakai, Jill. “Study reveals gene expression changes with meditation.” University of Wisconsin at Madison. December 2013.
Weinhold, Bob. “Epigenetics: The Science of Change.” Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume 114 Number 3. March 2006.
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