Using Epigenetic Modifications to Improve Your Overall Health
By Dr. Ron Hunninghake, MD
We are all born with a DNA sequence, which is set for us through our lives. While the DNA sequence does not change, epigenetics can influence how our bodies use and read our individual DNA. Epigenetics are changes to gene activity that do not change a person’s underlying DNA or its associated proteins.
Epigenetics can change how your body reads a DNA sequence and influences gene expression and the functioning of cells and tissues, diseases, and conditions.
However, epigenetic changes are also reversible and can help reverse or improve impacts from metabolic dysfunction, autoimmune issues, and other conditions.
Link to Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar that together can raise the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
There are five widely-accepted characteristics of metabolic dysfunction, and having three or more indicates metabolic syndrome. They are obesity or excess abdominal fat, elevated blood pressure, abnormal lipid levels in the blood (such as high triglycerides or abnormal cholesterol), and high blood sugar or insulin resistance.
According to a study published in March in Nature Journal, epigenetic regulation can play a crucial role in the occurrence and progression of diverse metabolic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Epigenetics can influence gene expression patterns associated with metabolism and inflammation, both key components in metabolic dysfunction. 
In addition to metabolic syndrome and conditions typically associated with it, epigenetic modifications can also contribute to other chronic illnesses including cancer, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, autoimmune disease, respiratory conditions such as asthma and COPD, and mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
The Computer Analogy
When we buy a computer, it is pre-programmed with specific coding necessary to run properly. Typically, different brands of computers will have small variations in the coding and will be loaded with various programs that are also coded to do specific functions. Interestingly, the precise coding for these functions can vary widely from one brand to another. And each brand will require ongoing updates in order to continue performing well.
When humans are born, our cells are “programmed” with their own unique genetic DNA coding. This coding varies considerably between life forms and species but is very similar in all humans. However, it is not identical. Like various computer brands, humans vary in stature, facial characteristics, skin colors, nationalities, cultural background, childhood education, and their complex array of life experiences.
Look What Can Happen to Identical Twins
Identical twins have exactly the same DNA coding at the time of their conception. They are like two computers of the same brand, model, and new software. But it doesn’t take long for those two “perfectly alike” computers to change dramatically in the hands of two active users.
The uterine environment of our twins’ mother, while very similar, could be slightly different for each twin baby – for example, the size of the placenta. So while even when they are developing in their mother’s womb, their coding begins to show distinct differences.
After delivery, one twin might get sick while the other stays well. Even as young children, they will begin showing unique traits and propensities.
One maintains a healthy weight, eats a nutritious and balanced diet, gets regular exercise, and limits exposure to environmental toxins as much as possible. While the other eats a highly-processed diet, gets little or no exercise, is indifferent to toxin exposure, and begins showing signs of metabolic dysfunction. Over time, they no longer look alike, and their health is likely very different.
In summary, genetically identical twins will epigenetically evolve differently in response to different environments and experiences.
How Epigenetics Work
The good news is that you have some control over your epigenetic changes and can use them to your advantage. Lifestyle choices and environment play a role in epigenetic changes. Improvements in those areas can result in improvements to your health.
Essentially, epigenetic changes can turn genes “on” and “off,” which can potentially have both positive and negative results. Epigenetics can affect gene expression in different ways. Two common ways are DNA methylation and histone modification.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that DNA methylation works by adding a chemical group to DNA, usually in specific places, where it blocks proteins that attach to DNA to “read” the gene, which usually turns the gene “off.” A gene can be turned back “on” when the chemical group is removed. 
In histone modification, DNA wraps around the histone proteins. When histones are packed together, the proteins that read the genes can’t easily access the DNA, and the gene is turned “off.” Loosely packed histone allows proteins to read the genes, which turns them “on.” 
Using Epigenetics for Health Advantages
While epigenetics can contribute to making you sick, it can also contribute to making you well and reversing metabolic dysfunctions.
Epigenetic profiles can vary among individuals, contributing to variations in disease susceptibility and treatment responses. Knowing your unique epigenetic profile can help personalize your approach to using epigenetics to your benefit.
Epigenetics can contribute to controlling metabolic dysfunction by allowing for early detection of potential problems and serve as biomarkers for risk assessment and identifying people at high risk for developing metabolic syndrome.
An epigenetic profile can help guide early intervention and targeted preventative strategies, including lifestyle and nutritional choices. Diet plays a crucial role in epigenetic modifications, and a balanced, nutrient-rich diet can support healthy epigenetic regulation. Eating foods rich in methyl donors, such as folate, vitamin B12, and choline, can support healthy DNA methylation, and foods with anti-inflammatory properties, such as fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids, may help reduce the inflammation associated with metabolic syndrome.
Regular exercise has been shown to have beneficial effects on DNA methylation patterns and gene expression related to metabolism. Aerobic exercise, strength training, or ideally, a combination of both, can positively impact metabolic syndrome by influencing epigenetic processes.
Be mindful of your weight. Maintaining a healthy weight or reducing excess weight can positively influence genetic markers linked to DNA methylation that are related to metabolism and insulin sensitivity.
Stress reduction and sleep quality are also important factors in positive epigenetic modifications. I recommend activities such as meditation, mindful practices, and relaxation techniques as well as prioritizing good sleep hygiene and adequate duration.
Exposure to air pollution, heavy metals, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals can influence epigenetic markers associated with metabolic health. You can minimize your exposure through proper ventilation, water filtration, and reducing the use of chemical-laden products. The website EWG.org offers a variety of consumer guides with information about everything from chemicals on food to cleaning and beauty products.
Epigenetic modifications can also influence other generations. Fetal development and early childhood are two important times when epigenetic alterations occur. Early life interventions, such as maternal nutrition and reduced exposure to harmful environmental factors, may help prevent epigenetic changes associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome later in life. Epigenetic markers can also have intergenerational impacts, as epigenetic modifications can influence future generations. Improving your metabolic health may benefit you and your family for generations to come. 
Metabolic Syndrome and Niacin
With metabolic syndrome and epigenetics so intertwined, improvements in one area can benefit the other. Niacin (vitamin B3) can be beneficial in improving metabolic syndrome. It plays a key role in energy metabolism by helping convert carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into usable energy forms. It also can significantly impact lipid metabolism, especially in regulating cholesterol.
Emerging information also shows that niacin may have beneficial effects on glycemic control and insulin sensitivity. High doses may improve glucose tolerance, reduce insulin resistance, and lower fasting blood glucose levels. It also exhibits anti-inflammatory properties by inhibiting the production of excess pro-inflammatory cytokines and promoting the release of anti-inflammatory substances. Niacin can also help widen blood vessels, which can improve blood flow and has beneficial implications for cardiovascular health, a key concern with metabolic syndrome. 
In addition to metabolic syndrome, niacin supplementation may benefit other conditions, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, stress, anxiety, fatigue, cancer, addictions, and cardiovascular disease.
I recommend nutrient testing before starting a supplement regimen. Testing is always better than guessing. I do guide co-learners to what I call the “trifecta” of three key nutrients: vitamin C, niacin, and D3/K2. Dosages should be tailored to each individual’s nutrient needs.
Global Trends in Metabolic Health and Epigenetics
Metabolic syndrome, and the associated changes in epigenetics, has become a significant public health concern not just in the United States, but also worldwide. Metabolic syndrome has been on the rise for the past few decades, which can be attributed to factors such as sedentary lifestyles, poor dietary patterns, and the growing prevalence of obesity. It is estimated that in most countries between 20 and 30 percent of all adults have metabolic syndrome, which accounts for an increasing portion of the cardiovascular risk worldwide. 
This growing prevalence is not limited to developed countries. It affects populations across different regions, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds in low- and middle-income countries as well, often coexisting with undernutrition and infectious disease. It can, however, point to socioeconomic disparities, as limited access to nutritious foods, lower physical activity levels, and increased stress in disadvantaged populations can contribute to metabolic dysfunction. 
The strong association between metabolic syndrome and obesity is growing as the global population’s waistlines grow. Excess body weight, particularly around the abdomen, is a major contributing factor to the development of metabolic syndrome and changes in epigenetic markers.
Epigenetics can influence multiple aspects of your health, in both positive and negative ways. Lifestyle changes are not always easy, but paying attention to the things we can control – such as food choices and physical exercise – can help prevent conditions from occurring or reverse or lessen the impact of those you may already be experiencing.
- “What Is Epigenetics?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 Aug. 2022, www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/epigenetics.htm#:~:text=Epigenetics%20is%20the%20study%20of,body%20reads%20a%20DNA%20sequence.
- Wu, Yan-Lin, et al. “Epigenetic Regulation in Metabolic Diseases: Mechanisms and Advances in Clinical Study.” Nature News, 2 Mar. 2023, www.nature.com/articles/s41392-023-01333-7.
- Bohacek, Johannes, and Isabelle M Mansuy. “Epigenetic Inheritance of Disease and Disease Risk.” Neuropsychopharmacology : Official Publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, Jan. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3521963/.
- Jennings, Kerri-Ann. “5 Benefits of Niacin (Vitamin B3) That You May Not Know.” Healthline, 23 Feb. 2023, www.healthline.com/nutrition/niacin-benefits#TOC_TITLE_HDR_5.
- Metabolic Syndrome Pandemic – AHA/ASA Journals, www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/atvbaha.107.151092. Accessed 30 June 2023.