Can leading a healthy lifestyle affect our cells at a genetic level?
Epigenetics involves the control of our genes by factors other than our individual DNA sequence(1). We’re all made up of a series of DNA – this cannot fundamentally change but the gene activity within our DNA can be altered. The study of epigenetics recognises that there are factors that can determine when certain genes are ‘switched on’ (or off) and how much, or whether certain genes are expressed in your body(2).
The three ways our genes are silenced
We know that genes cannot disappear, but they can become silenced, or ‘turned off’. Within our cells there are three systems at play that can trigger this.
1. DNA Methylation is a chemical process that adds a methyl group to DNA. This changes the appearance and structure of DNA and changes how the gene interacts with the cell’s nucleus
2. Histones are the proteins within your DNA that make up your chromosomes. DNA can wind around these proteins tightly or loosely, which can determine how the gene is expressed
3. Ribonucleic acid (RNA)-associated silencing can turn genes off through interfering
How epigenetics influences our health & wellbeing
The environment we live in and the way we choose to live our lives can actually influence the way that our genes behave. When it comes to nutrition for example, the nutrients we consume will enter metabolic pathways that are responsible for making certain methyl groups.
Particular nutrients like folic acid and B vitamins are key components in this process, so diets high in these nutrients can rapidly alter the way these genes are expressed(3). A diet rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids could generate free radicals and oxidative stress, which has been directly linked to epigenetic alterations(4). By eating a poor diet, we can literally affect our genes at a cellular level. The good news of course, is that the opposite is also true and following a healthy diet can have positive effects.
Dr. Deepak Chopra wrote in his book Super Genes: Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being, that “only 5% of disease-related gene mutations are fully deterministic, while 95% can be influenced by diet, behaviour, and other environmental conditions.”
Scientists from the Human Evolutionary Genetics Unit have proven that the habit and lifestyle that we live in can have an epigenetic impact by bringing about changes that modify our gene expression(5). Never has the statement ‘we are what we eat’ been more true – we can literally impact our genes positively by living our lives in a better, more healthy way and we actually have a great deal of control over our health, no matter what genes we have been born with!