Quite often, disease or dissatisfaction with one’s physical appearance and capabilities is blamed on genetics. And this is true — to an extent. Diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis are largely hereditary, based on the genes inherited from the parents. Similarly, many of the factors that influence our physical traits are generally beyond our control.
But this doesn’t tell the whole story …
As Alexy Goldstein, founder of whole-body health supplements brand New U Life explains, epigenetic modifications enable everyone to make changes to their health and well-being, regardless of any genetic factors they may have inherited. Such health changes are entirely within your control, and could be easier to apply than you might expect.
What Is Epigenetics?
“Epigenetics is a wide-ranging field of study that explores how our behaviors and environment can change the way your body’s genes express themselves,” Goldstein explains.
“We’re not talking about changing your DNA sequence — instead, this is how your lifestyle can create reversible changes in how your body reads your DNA sequences. An epigenetic change essentially tells your body to turn certain genes on or off, which in turn may have a significant impact on your overall health.”
There are three primary types of epigenetic changes.
DNA methylation adds a chemical group to turn genes off or on by blocking or unblocking the proteins that attach to your DNA. Histone modification applies or removes chemical groups to change how DNA wraps around naturally-occurring proteins called histones. Finally, non-coding RNA can attach to coding RNA to break it down and prevent the creation of new proteins.
The way your body reads and processes genes occurs automatically. As a result, your lifestyle or environment could actually enact epigenetic change without your even realizing it. Of course, this also means that conscious decisions can have an equal or even greater impact on overall health.
Implications of Epigenetic Factors
“Epigenetic changes have major implications for your whole-body health,” Goldstein says.
“For example, germs can ‘attack’ your genes in a way that weakens your immune system and makes you more susceptible to illness and infection. The food you eat can change your body’s sensitivity to insulin and fat buildup. Some cell mutations can even put you at greater risk for cancer.”
The study of epigenetics has even allowed medical professionals to find certain types of cancer while the disease is still in its early stages. For example, BRCA1 mutations are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, while high methylation levels on the SEPT9 gene are associated with colorectal cancer.
In these instances, knowledge of epigenetics can save lives through early intervention and cancer treatment. This is because epigenetic changes are reversible. For example, quitting smoking can increase DNA methylation of the AHRR gene, allowing former smokers to achieve similar genetic methylation levels as non-smokers in as little as a year.
While certain aspects of these gene modifications are outside of an individual’s control, Goldstein is quick to note that people have greater power over their health than they might think.
“Epigenetic change may sound like something that only takes place in a lab, but it’s a completely natural part of maintaining our health and well-being. This means that quite often, you can take more control of how your body reads your genetic code. In reality, you have the key to unlock greater health outcomes.”
How Can You Create Epigenetic Changes in Your Body?
“As cliche as diet and exercise may sound, it is clear that tailoring such programs to your body’s specific needs is the best way to alter your body’s genome expression,” Goldstein says.
“Understanding why these changes can have such an impact — as well as which nutrients are most important for achieving epigenetic change — is crucial for improving your overall health and wellness. While this may require a committed lifestyle change, you can’t argue with the results.”
In fact, one notable study found that breast cancer patients who participated in 150 minutes of treadmill walking per week over a six-month period were able to greatly improve their body’s regulation of tumor suppression genes, subsequently improving survival outcomes.
“The nutrients we put into our bodies are crucial for unlocking epigenetic change that we might try to achieve through exercise,” Goldstein adds. “The problem, of course, is that many of us have a hard time getting the needed nutrients to enact positive epigenetic change in our regular diets.”
For example, research has indicated that foods and spices such as garlic, citrus fruit, broccoli, turmeric, and soybeans are important supporters of epigenetic change. And while 75 percent of Americans claim that they eat a healthy diet, the reality is that over one-third of Americans are obese, with roughly 80 percent failing to eat the recommended daily serving of fruits and vegetables.
While you may not be thinking of epigenetic change when you start exercising more or taking a health supplement filled with vitamins and minerals, such actions will have a direct impact on how your body activates certain genes. Understanding your body’s unique dietary needs can help you achieve significant epigenetic change that completely transforms your health for the better.