Epigenetics is one of the most revolutionary scientific discoveries in the 21st century. But what exactly is epigenetics, how does the epigenetic process work, and why are epigenetics important?
How Does Epigenetics Work?
Epigenetics is a field of science that looks at how genes are modified by biological and environmental conditions or “markers.” Essentially, these “markers” tell proteins in a cell to process parts of the DNA in certain ways; thus, impacting how the cells behave and carry out various life functions, without actually changing the underlying DNA sequence.
Epigenetic modifications are a natural part of human biology, but they may also be prompted by external habits for health—if you are eating to be healthy, how often you are exercising, how well you are managing stress, and how much sleep you are getting.
Epigenetic changes stem from several biological systems, one of which is DNA methylation. DNA methylation occurs when a methyl group—a structural unit of organic compounds—attaches to a gene and changes the gene’s expression by turning it off or on and dimming it up or down. Still a little confused? Let’s back it up for a quick refresher in biochemistry and genetics so we can understand how these all work together.
- Cells are the fundamental working units of every human being. All the instructions required to direct their activities are contained within the chemical deoxyribonucleic acid, also known as DNA.1Every cell in the body with a nucleus contains a complete set of genes, which in turn, contains DNA.
- DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Like an instruction manual, it tells the cells how to make proteins.
- Proteins are large, complex molecules that play many critical roles in the body. They do most of the work in cells and are required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs.2
- Genetics is the study of heredity. It deals with how you inherit physical and behavioral characteristics—such as hair and eye color—as well as medical conditions. These traits are passed down from parents to children through the genes (hence, genetics) in your DNA. Your genetic code is a permanent set of biological instructions that do not change throughout your lifetime.
- Epigenetics is the study of gene expression modified by biological and environmental conditions. Epigenetics can cause segments of your DNA to turn off or on, resulting in changes to the way cells “read” genes.
Putting it All Together
Okay, so our cells all have the same DNA. Check. But we have many different types of cells in our bodies, from skin cells to red blood cells to nerve cells. If they all have the same DNA, how are they different? The answer is epigenetics, which tells the cell to “turn on” or “turn off” certain proteins that transform it into the various cells of our bodies.
Why is Epigenetics Important?
Epigenetics control genes, and can be influenced through a) nature, as a fetus develops into a baby and/or b) nurture: environmental stimuli that cause genes to be turned off or on. Whether or not you are practicing habits of health by eating to be healthy, exercising regularly, managing your stress, getting enough sleep, interacting with people that have a positive impact on your mental health, even how you age and how long you live—all of these can eventually cause chemical modifications around your genes that will turn those genes on or off over time.1
Think of it this way, your genetics are like a movie script and your epigenetics are the director. Each actor (cell) is reading from the same script, but the director (epigenetics) tells the actor how to, (or not to) act it out.
Epigenetics vs. Genetics
Unlike genetics, which remain fixed throughout your lifetime, epigenetic changes can occur based on a person’s environmental and lifestyle factors such as air pollution, sun exposure, sleep, diet, exercise, emotional trauma, and tobacco use.
Since epigenetic effects occur not just in the womb, but over the full course of a human life span, it’s important to understand which lifestyle choices can improve your epigenetics, and possibly, your health and longevity. For example, studies have shown that getting more exercise can impact your epigenetics to improve cognitive health at the cellular level and even be passed down to your kids as part of their epigenetic inheritance.3
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1. A Super Brief and Basic Explanation of Epigenetics for Total Beginners, What Is Epigenetics https://www.whatisepigenetics.com/what-is-epigenetics/
2. What are proteins and what do they do? https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/howgeneswork/protein
3. Physical Exercise as an Epigenetic Modulator of Brain Plasticity and Cognition https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5705447/