Understanding Epigenetics: Unlocking the Secrets of Gene Expression

Two young boys playing under a large beach umbrella on a sunny beach, emphasizing sun safety and skin protection for children.

By Dr. Ron Hunninghake, MD

What is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the study of how changes in gene activity can occur without any change in one’s inherited DNA. In other words, epigenetics plays a pivotal role in how our genes are expressed and how this expression can be influenced by lifestyle choices and environmental factors[1].

Interestingly, epigenetic lifestyle modifications can be dynamic and reversible, offering each of us exciting opportunities to improve our health in spite of our parent’s health history. Simply put, epigenetics says that we can start fresh every day, creating new opportunities for better health outcomes [2].

The Importance of Our Lifestyle Choices

Epigenetics shows how environmental factors such as diet, stress, and exposure to toxins can alter gene expression. For instance, a nutrient-rich diet might promote genes that protect against diseases, while chronic stress might activate genes linked to health problems such as a greater propensity for heart disease [3]. While we might worry about disease patterns in our family, it’s nice to know that if our parents made good lifestyle choices, we can, epigenetically, inherit good effects in our own health [4].

Epigenetics and Chronic Illnesses

Epigenetic lifestyle changes can play a crucial role in our risks for the development of cancer [5].

Diet, sleep, exercise patterns and certain key supplements can trigger beneficial methylation effects that turn on tumor suppressor genes or deactivate oncogenes [6]. Similarly, diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular conditions are influenced by epigenetic modifications. Even mental health may have epigenetics roots with many studies showing that trauma and stress can lead to changes in gene expression that can affect brain functioning and our behaviors [7].

The “Identical Twins Example”

Identical twins have the same exact genetics. They grow up together, eating the same foods, living in the same environment, sleeping and exercising in the same way. And they look “identical”.

But, as adults, one leaves home, travels abroad, and adopts horrible lifestyle habits! The “good twin” stays home and takes really good care of their health.

10 years later, when they finally get back together, they look, act, and feel very different! Same genes, but completely different epigenetic expression [8].

Personalized Medicine

Understanding an individual’s epigenetic profile could lead to more personalized and effective treatment plans, tailored to how their genes are expressed rather than just their genetic code [9].

As we age, our epigenome changes, leading to altered gene expression that can contribute to age-related diseases. Research in this area could unlock ways to promote healthier aging and better longevity. Even the way our mothers took care of us, how she fed us, and the lifestyle values she helped to engrain in us…can have long-lasting effects on our epigenome and subsequent health outcomes [10].


Epigenetics bridges the gap between our genes and the environment, providing profound insights into how our lifestyles, experiences, and chosen environments influence our genetic expression and overall health. Its implications span medicine, psychology, development, and beyond, offering new strategies for disease prevention, treatment, and the understanding of human biology [11].

National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI): https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Epigenetics
Nature Publishing Group: https://www.nature.com/subjects/epigenetics
National Cancer Institute (NCI): https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/epigenetics
NIH News: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/epigenetics-disease