Understanding Epigenetics: How Lifestyle Choices Affect Cellular Health

September 7, 2023

Consider your DNA to be a beautiful musical piece, with each note representing a gene responsible for a certain attribute or quality. But here's the hook: the melody isn't fixed. You can mix and match different notes to create several melodies. Just like that, your DNA is a living symphony that changes its tune in response to life experiences, environmental stimuli, and lifestyle choices. Your DNA has an on-off switch and your gene expression is programmable! 

This is the fascinating world of Epigenetics. It may appear to be something reserved for academics and researchers in white lab coats. But don’t worry, we are here to demystify genetics for you and make it a cakewalk!

Gene and DNA are two terms used mainly in the field of genetics. In general, a gene is a subdivision of DNA and DNA - Deoxyribonucleic acid is a molecule which carries the genetic instructions or the hereditary materials.

Epigenetics functions as the conductor of the genetic symphony, modifying how genes are expressed without changing their actual DNA sequences. It's why identical twins with the same DNA might have somewhat different looks or susceptibility to specific diseases. It is also why you might have missed out on the artistic gene from your parents, but inherited your grandfather’s musical talent!

Understanding Epigenetics: An Introduction.

Epigenetics, derived from the Greek word ‘epi’ which means ‘above’ or ‘beyond,’ is a branch of molecular and genetic research. It investigates how environmental influences and lifestyle decisions might impact gene activity and alter our cellular health. 

Epigenetic changes act as switches that turn our genes on and off. They are important in a variety of biological processes such as development, ageing, and illness. The most common example is DNA methylation.

First, let’s understand the process through which genes manifest into qualities. DNA transcription is the process by which the genetic information contained within DNA is rewritten into messenger RNA (mRNA). This mRNA then exits the nucleus of the cell, where it acts as the basis for the translation of DNA. By controlling the production of mRNA within the nucleus, the cell regulates the rate of gene expression. 

When a gene changes how it is expressed without changing its underlying DNA sequence, it can be called epigenetics. These modifications can affect how genes are activated or deactivated, affecting an organism's characteristics and development.

Figure 1: Central dogma of molecular biology and Epigenetics 

Gene expression: DNA methylation and Histone modification.

There are several ways in which gene expression can be influenced during transcription, DNA methylation is the most common one. DNA methylation works by adding a chemical group to DNA — to specific places on the DNA, where it blocks the proteins that attach to DNA to ‘read’ the gene. Demethylation is the process of removing that chemical group. Generally, methylation turns genes “off” and demethylation turns genes ‘on’.

DNA methylation can control gene expression by blocking transcription factors or other regulatory proteins from attaching to the DNA, effectively suppressing gene activity. It is crucial for many cellular processes such as embryonic development, gene suppression, carcinogenesis and chromosome stability. Researchers have linked abnormal DNA methylation to several adverse outcomes such as autoimmunity and type II diabetes. 

Another important one is histone modification, DNA is wrapped around proteins called histones. These histones can be tightly or loosely packed around the DNA, by adding or removing chemical groups from histones. When the histones are loosely packed the gene is turned on, whereas when it is tightly packed the genes are turned ‘off’. Histone modification is essential for activities such as DNA repair, cell differentiation, and responding to environmental signals. 

Figure 2: Epigenetic Modifications  

The Importance of Lifestyle and Nutrition in Epigenetics.

A wide range of environmental factors and lifestyle decisions can cause epigenetic alterations. Exposure to certain substances, such as cigarette smoke or pollution, for example, can result in DNA methylation alterations that raise the risk of lung cancer. Chronic stress has also been demonstrated to alter DNA methylation patterns in genes involved in stress response and mental health. These examples demonstrate how our environment and behaviours can leave epigenetic imprints on our health and well-being. 

Our nutrition is critical to maintaining good cellular health, and epigenetics provides an explanation for this link. Certain nutrients, such as folate and vitamin B12, can function as methyl donors or cofactors for DNA methylation enzymes. A diet deficient in critical nutrients can cause epigenetic dysregulation, raising the risk of a variety of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and neurodegenerative ailments. Therefore, eating a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet is critical for sustaining good epigenetic health.

Impacting future generations!

While our genes serve as the blueprint for life, our environment and behaviours can influence how those genes are expressed. We may favourably affect our epigenetic landscape and promote optimum cellular health by making mindful decisions. 

A new study also showed that the lifestyle choices you make today can have an influence on your future generations! This includes nutrition, exercise, stress levels and even exposure to toxins. The possibility of transgenerational inheritance is one of the most fascinating features of epigenetics. Scientists once thought that only recorded genetic information can be passed down to future generations. However, now we know that even epigenetic markers can be inherited! 

The Exciting Potential of Epigenetics for Improving Health and Well-being.

Our understanding of how genes and the environment interact to impact our health and well-being has been transformed by epigenetics. It provides an intriguing look into the complex regulatory systems that affect cellular function and disease development. We can discover novel therapeutic targets, establish personalised treatment regimens, and ultimately improve health outcomes for people and groups by deciphering the epigenetic code. Embracing epigenetic principles and living a lifestyle that promotes good epigenetic regulation can pave the path to a healthier future!


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  1. DNA Methylation and complex human diseases- Science Direct
  1. Histone modification patterns and epigenetic codes- Science Direct
  1. Diet induced epigenetic changes and their implications for health- Acta Physiologica
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Chandra Biswas

She is specialized in Cell and Molecular biology and is an enthusiastic researcher. She believes in sharing practices which are scientifically researched and proven.

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