Epigenetics: Can We Control our Health?

By Lucy Stitzer February 4, 2020 | 7 MIN READ

The Dirt

Is your DNA your destiny? Maybe not. Your lifestyle can be the determining factor on how your genes express themselves to live a healthy life. Epigenetics is the study of how our DNA can be triggered by our food, sleep, stress, and even love. Can we really change our genetic predispositions that affect our health?


Epigenetics: Can We Control our Health?

Health and Nutrition

By Lucy Stitzer February 4, 2020 | 7 MIN READ

The Dirt

Is your DNA your destiny? Maybe not. Your lifestyle can be the determining factor on how your genes express themselves to live a healthy life. Epigenetics is the study of how our DNA can be triggered by our food, sleep, stress, and even love. Can we really change our genetic predispositions that affect our health?

Genetic testing is great. But it has also given into the fear of inheriting a disease-causing gene. I have debated the test myself. Will my health decisions be different based on the results of the test? My parents and grandparents all died prematurely. Both of my parents passed away from cancer: my mother and her mother of colon cancer, and my father of melanoma complications. Both my grandfathers died fairly early from heart disease. Am I at risk, too? What do the statistics say?

We are not victims of our DNA

Looking at the four leading health issues affecting us today, all can be influenced by how you choose to live your life.

  • Cancer: There’s close to a 40% chance of getting cancer, but only 5-10% of cancers are from an inherited genetic mutation
  • Alzheimer’s: About 10% of people over the age of 65, and 30% of those over 85 get Alzheimer’s, yet only 1% of Alzheimer’s patients get the disease from a deterministic gene
  • Diabetes: 4% of the population lives with diabetes. Type 1 and 2 are known to be both genetic and environmental, and diet can overrule the genetic, especially with type 2
  • Heart Disease: Almost 50% of people have some type of heart disease, which has several genetic implications. However the American Heart Association has a checklist called Life’s Simple 7, which can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke so you can be proactive about your heart health.

When I heard about Epigenetics, I thought – perfect, if I eat a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep well, I will be safe. “Well, not so fast” said some of my research. While epigenetics is a promising field, there is still much to learn. However, there are still some key takeaways from scientific research on how our lifestyle can affect our DNA.

What is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the study of how your lifestyle can affect how your genes are expressed. ‘Epi’ literally means ‘above’ or ‘on top of’ genetics. Epigenetics has shown that our DNA is affected by the nutrients and chemicals in our food, as well as the cortisol of stress, the endorphins of exercise, and the happiness of love. Let’s focus on food and its influence on our genes.

Our DNA is not our destiny and we can certainly influence it to a large degree by our diet. There are countless studies that show certain foods positively or negatively influence our DNA.

Comparing identical twins is a great example of how the environment can affect one’s health. Even though their DNA is the same, their lifestyle can alter how their genes express themselves. Think of two different people playing the same piano piece. The notes are the same, but the sound, tune, and enjoyment can be completely different.

genetics, Epigenetics: Can We Control our Health?This was true for my stepmother’s father and uncle who were identical twins – obviously with the same DNA. Both Paul and Uncle Art have/had a gene that made them prone to heart disease. In 1998, they both had open-heart surgery. Afterwards, Paul has continued to take care of himself with diet and exercise. He also has a lot of love in his life with two adoring daughters, grandchildren, and a girlfriend (after his wife passed away). Art, on the other hand, was not quite as zealous about a healthy lifestyle. Uncle Art died in 2010. Meanwhile, Paul is steadily smiling, living, and dating his girlfriend at 101 years old!

How does DNA expression work?

Nessa Cary explains in her book, The Epigenetics Revolution, that “our DNA is smothered in special proteins and small chemicals. Adding or removing them to the DNA can change the gene expression, the function of these cells and the very nature of the cells themselves.”

Your DNA is the blueprint for your body. Each one of your cells holds this six-foot-long strand tightly wrapped and folded within the nucleus. Think of your DNA as a long ladder – each rung holds ‘letters’ or nucleotides which serve as the bases for the rungs. There are about 23,000 combinations of these rungs – which are the genes (just like the company, 23andMe!).

How a gene expresses itself is based on many factors, but it is the chemical reaction around the DNA and how tightly the DNA is wrapped that regulates the genes in our bodies. These processes are called DNA methylation and histone modification, and they are the two predominant ways our genes are expressed.

DNA methylation is the chemical reaction around a gene. For instance, sometimes there is more – or less – of the methylation chemical. This will either turn the gene off or on – like a light switch. This can be either good or bad, depending on the gene.

Methylation is a naturally-occurring and important event. Each cell has its own function, even though the entire strand of DNA is located in every single cell. In an extreme example, you certainly don’t want the hair gene turned on in your heart gene! Or, take for instance, estrogen. As a young woman, your estrogen gene is turned on to create babies and as an older woman, the estrogen is turned off as now one is now waiting for grandchildren.

But if you don’t have the right methylation, then you are subject to a variety of issues such as heart attack, stroke, dementia, cancer, and others.

genetics, Epigenetics: Can We Control our Health?The M is the methylation that attaches itself to the cytosine one of the four bases, or ‘letters’ on the DNA ladder.

genetics, Epigenetics: Can We Control our Health?The other way genes are expressed is histone modification. Very simply, think of this complicated structure as a yo-yo. If the string is wrapped too tightly, then the yo-yo doesn’t move. If it is too loose, then you can’t ‘walk the dog’ or ‘shoot the moon’. Chemical reactions alter the histone wrap in the same way. If the DNA is wrapped too tightly, then the genes cannot be expressed. If it’s too loose, then certain genes you want to remain dormant get activated.

Can you eat your way to good DNA health?

We all benefit from listening to our mothers who have told us to eat our fruits and vegetables. Various studies have shown that a diet with more than 5-7 servings a day will positively alter your gene expression and help to prevent age-related diseases.

Certain chemicals in foods (yes, all foods consist of naturally producing chemicals) can positively affect the genes. The chemicals in the food affect the chemicals around the gene, which then affects its expression.

Here are some examples of foods that positively influence your DNA:

genetics, Epigenetics: Can We Control our Health?

We all know that smoking is detrimental to your health. Scientists in Norway gave 102 male smokers a diet rich in antioxidants such as green java tea, bilberry jam, blackberries, and various berry juices. They found that the gene expression in their blood changed for the better. They had improved DNA repair, removal of dead, pre-cancerous, and virus-infected cells, and their overall immune system was enhanced.

In my search for cancer prevention, I learned that nutrition is second to quitting tobacco as a means to prevent cancer. For instance, green tea can suppress tumor growth by changing the DNA of that tumor.

The vegetables that no one likes as a child – broccoli, brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables – have a sulforaphane compound that helps to restore proper balance surrounding the DNA.

Research has shown it can prevent cancer and heart disease development.

Then I heard about the spice turmeric; which has curcumin as its main compound and is known to reduce inflammation. In addition to cancers, its epigenetic ability has been studied for its relation to neurological disorders, inflammation, and diabetes. It is specifically tied to the Cox-2 gene that makes inflammatory compounds. In addition, it is known to decrease tumors. By taking turmeric for the long-term, one could help ward off breast cancer, colon cancer and Alzheimer’s. Yet, it is a double-edged sword, as too much can be toxic.

The American Diabetes Association held a research symposium to understand the role of epigenetics in diabetes and obesity. There is continuing epigenetic research to understand diabetes. They are not only looking at how diet can influence diabetes in an individual but how environmental influences can pass it to the next generation.

Caution: One size does not fit all

There is still so much we don’t know about our DNA. While all DNA is 99.9% similar to each other, what is different is how we live our lives. The foods we eat determine how we methylate, how our DNA is wrapped around the histone (protein), and all the various chemical reactions that uniquely affect us. But remember, we are all unique and what might work for you might not be beneficial for me.

genetics, Epigenetics: Can We Control our Health?

But what we do know is that a diet full of fruits and vegetables will help inhibit age-related diseases.

The Bottom Line

While epigenetics is an emerging field, the research coming out of the early studies is thought provoking. Major takeaways include understanding how your body can benefit from certain foods as it relates to your DNA. Although much is still unknown about how our genes express themselves, what we do know is that your inherited DNA doesn’t have to be your destiny.