One concept we learn about early in school is DNA. It’s what makes you, you. Sequences of different molecules in a long double helix make up the blueprint of what makes you human and determines your unique characteristics. Something we don’t often hear about, though, is that the nucleotide sequences that make up your genes aren’t the only thing that determines the way you are. This concept is at the heart of a rapidly-developing field of research called epigenetics. The field opens up new grounds for understanding how disease is passed down through generations and, perhaps most importantly, how we can stop it.
How is it that our genes aren’t the only determining factor of our characteristics? We have to first understand that DNA binds with a collection of enzymes that transcribe it into RNA, which carries this “recipe” away to be made into proteins, that will enact the function of the gene. The key here is that enzymes have to bind to the gene in the first place in order for it to be expressed. If this binding doesn’t happen, the gene will remain “silent.” Every one of your cells has all of your DNA, yet which genes are expressed determines the type of cell it will be and what it does.
Your characteristics are a result of the genes in your body that are expressed in various cells. Even if you have a gene for something bad, it won’t necessarily affect you unless it is expressed. Whether or not genes are expressed is determined by many factors, including the way these sequences are packaged in the cell and whether certain molecules are attached to them.1 Even though each cell’s DNA could stretch out over six feet end-to-end, it is very tightly folded into structures inside of the nucleus of the cell, which is only about six microns in diameter.2
The various ways the DNA is packaged in the cell are controlled by what proteins are attached to the DNA and, therefore, how the DNA folds. This has a major impact on which parts of the DNA, or genes, are expressed or kept silent. The two other major factors affecting gene expression include the presence of molecules called methyl groups added to a cytosine base and certain RNA molecules not involved in coding for proteins, both of which may increase or decrease expression.3
Decades of epidemiological, clinical and animal studies demonstrate the extensive effect the parental lifestyle, especially the maternal lifestyle during pregnancy, has on the long-term health of the offspring.4 This effect is most likely due to epigenetic markers changed in response to the environment to which the developing fetus is exposed.5 The choices your mother made during pregnancy and your choices early on in life are likely the most influential factors for creating epigenetic markers; however, epigenetic markers continue to be changed throughout adulthood, often in response to our environment.6 This is one of the most exciting aspects of epigenetics, as changing our environment may give us the opportunity to change our gene expression.
What aspects of our environment can influence epigenetic markers? Everything from stress levels to environmental pollutants, and even seasonal changes. However, one of the most influential environmental factors which we have complete control over is what we eat. 7
One study conducted by researchers at the University of California in San Francisco had 31 participants with low-grade prostate cancer adopt a diet strictly emphasizing whole plant-based foods and other healthy lifestyle behaviors. After three months following the protocol, significant alterations had occurred in gene expression. Specifically, 458 cancer-related tumor growth genes were downregulated, resulting in some prostate tumor regression.8 This same group was found to have significantly more expression of telomerase-producing genes as well as longer telomeres when compared to a control group after a 5-year follow up with those who maintained the protocol.9
Yes, you are stuck with your genes. However, the way that these genes are expressed is controlled by epigenetic markers, which are dynamic and influenced by the choices you make day-to-day. For future generations, it is vital that our mothers maintain a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy and that our children are raised in an environment where healthy choices are the default. However, if you were not raised this way, or if you have a genetic predisposition to disease, developing a healthy lifestyle, including eating more whole plant-foods, may help to silence these genes and alter epigenetic markers in your favor.