How to Unlock Your DNA to Live Longer and Feel Better!
Nature versus nurture. What makes us who we are? This has been a long-standing debate in the scientific community: are we more influenced by our genetic predispositions (nature) or the environment that we grow up in (nurture)? In most circumstances, researchers agree that it is probably a combination of both. However, what if the two were intertwined?
What if the lifestyle choices we make could influence our genetic expression?
Back in March 2000, the Human Genome Project successfully identified and sequenced the 25,000 genes that make up human DNA. This project was a huge leap forward in the field of genetic research. However, since that time, the research that has attempted to identify specific genes that are associated with chronic disease has fallen short.
The rate of increase in most chronic diseases is astronomical: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, autism, cancer (and many more!) are all on the rise. We know that there is a familial connection with most of the chronic diseases; however, specific genes associated with each cannot be identified. In addition to that, how do you explain one of a pair of identical twins (who have the exact same DNA) who has cancer and the other does not?
When taking into account the Darwinian theory of evolution, it takes thousands of years to modify our genetic code. The changes we are seeing in our society are happening within a few generations.
What is the connection? EPIGENETICS.
Epigenetics, quite literally, translates to “above” the genes. The field of epigenetics studies the reactions and factors that orchestrate different chemical reactions that turn on and off our genes at strategic times and locations.
The structure of our DNA consists of chains that are tightly coiled around proteins called histones. These histones provide the framework that gives our DNA shape. In addition, the histones contain binding sites for various molecules including acetyl groups and methyl groups (among others), which affect how tightly or loosely coiled the DNA is. The shape that the histones provide regulates the expression of our DNA, making iteither available or unavailable for gene transcription. Through this mechanism, factors can affect our DNA expression without changing the actual DNA itself.
A great example of epigenetics at work is the queen honeybee. The larvae that differentiate into worker bees and queen bees are exactly the same. However, worker bees are sterile and the queen bee has functional ovaries and larger abdomen to accommodate egg laying. What gives the queen bee this advantage? The difference lies in the queen bee’s diet. The larva that is ordained as the queen bee is fed large quantities of royal jelly from her conception throughout her lifetime. This protein-rich substance is secreted from the glands of worker bees and plays an important role in the queen bee’s genetic expression. There is a default ”silencing” gene that is present in all of the larvae (Dnmt3). The royal jelly, given to the queen bee, turns off the Dnmt3 gene, allowing other genes that have been silenced to come into action and turn the lucky larva into a queen bee. So the royal jelly helped “bring to life” certain genes that stay dormant in the worker bees.
Just like the honeybee, our diet and lifestyle are extremely important when it comes to gene expression. We now have evidence that lifestyle choices, such as stress and over-eating, can affect what binds to your histones and change the conformation of your DNA allowing it to be expressed too strongly or weakly. This can result in the genes for longevity to be “turned off” and the genes for obesity to be “turned on” too strongly. Chemicals in our environment can also have an impact on the ability of our histones to bind and express DNA correctly.
A great example is vinclozolin, a fungicide commonly used on grape plants. In one study, pregnant rats were fed vinclozolin in their normal food diet. The offspring of these rats, as adults, had low sperm counts, poor fertility, and a number of diseases including prostate and kidney disease. Within one generation, this toxin had significant repercussions on the rats’ health and well-being! Even more alarming was the fact that the great-grandsons of the exposed rats that were never fed the fungicide still had low sperm counts.
Most of us know that we should get to the gym more, eat less sugar, lose weight and overall make better lifestyle decisions. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we can rationalize our bad behavior because we assume that it only affects our own well-being. However, with more studies supporting the idea of “epigenetic inheritance,” we now know that the genetic slate will NOT be wiped clean for our children and the choices we make are clues to our offspring of what type of world they will be encountering. The stress we put on our bodies gets communicated epigenetically to our children and can predispose them to disease and early death before they are even conceived!
Okay, so now for some good news: the epigenetic patterns you inherited from your parents are not inevitable … and, in fact, are reversible! Just as easily as you can affect your gene expression in a negative way, you can also put actions into place to feed your genes correctly to reverse familial trends, live longer, and live healthier.
For more information, please join us Thursday, April 11 for “Epigenetics: Modern Day Lifestyle and Your DNA.”