Before we can discuss how genes are expressed we need to first establish the difference between Genetics and Epigenetic. Genetics refers to the study of genes and their inheritance from one generation to the next, while epigenetic refers to the study of changes in gene expression that occur without changes to the underlying DNA sequence.

In other words, Epigenetic are the changes in gene expression caused by non-genetic factors such as environmental exposures and lifestyle factors like diet, stress, smoking, and aging

Epigenetic can be compared to a dimmer switch on a light. Just like how a dimmer switch can control the brightness of a light, epigenetic marks can control how strongly a gene is expressed. They can turn a gene up to full brightness or dial it down to a dimmer level, and this can affect how our cells develop and function.

What powers the epigenetic dimmer? One powerful force driving the changes to gene expression is Methylations.

Methylation is a chemical process that occurs in the DNA molecule, where a group of atoms called a methyl group is added to one of the DNA building blocks, called a cytosine. This process can change the way the DNA molecule is packaged in the cell and can affect how genes are expressed.

When a gene is methylated, the methyl group can act like a block to prevent the gene from being “read” and turned into a protein. This means that the gene is effectively turned off, or silenced. On the other hand, when a gene is not methylated, it is more likely to be read and turned into a protein, which means it is expressed.

Methylation is a key mechanism in epigenetics that helps regulate gene expression, which is important for many biological processes, such as cell differentiation and development. The pattern of methylation in a cell can also change over time in response to environmental factors, such as diet or exposure to toxins, which can affect the expression of genes and ultimately impact an individual’s health and disease risk.

In the metaphor of epigenetics as a dimmer switch, methylation can be thought of as a way of adjusting the level of gene expression. For example, when a gene is heavily methylated, it’s like the dimmer switch has been turned down, resulting in less gene expression. Conversely, when a gene is lightly methylated or not methylated at all, it’s like the dimmer switch has been turned up, resulting in more gene expression.

Just as a dimmer switch can be adjusted to find the right level of brightness, the degree of methylation on a gene can also be adjusted to find the right level of gene expression. This is important because different genes need to be expressed at different levels in different cell types and at different stages of development.

Epigenetics shows us that we have the power to impact our health and wellbeing beyond our genetic makeup. Environmental exposures and lifestyle factors like diet, stress, and exercise can change the expression of our genes through epigenetic marks like methylation. By understanding and harnessing the power of epigenetics, we can optimize our gene expression for proper cellular function and development, ultimately improving our health and reducing our risk of disease. This gives us hope and inspiration to take control of our health and make positive changes in our lives.

For many years, despite ample proof against genetic determinism, the notion that our genes were malleable was considered untenable. The predominant belief was that our genetic blueprint predetermined our fate and that we were powerless to effect change. However, a series of breakthroughs in the field of Epigenetics have shown that we can profoundly influence our genes through our choices, environment, behavior, and even our thoughts and emotions. 

In the book “Identically Different,” author Tim Spector expounds on how our genes interact with our environment, suggesting that “Genes are not a preordained fate, but rather, a set of instructions that interplay with our environment to shape who we are.” This implies that while we may inherit certain genes from our parents that predisposition us to certain health conditions, we are far from locked into a predetermined outcome. Instead, our choices and environment play a significant role in determining how those genes are expressed.

Lifestyle choices provide one way that we can impact our genes. Studies have demonstrated that regular exercise can activate genes associated with improved metabolism and cardiovascular health. Similarly, a diet that’s right for you, can upregulate genes responsible for preventing chronic diseases. The lifestyle choices we make can actively modify the way our genes express themselves.

Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes

Our environment, both physical and social, can also affect our genes. One example is the temperature we expose the body to. Research has suggested that cold exposure, such as dipping in ice water, can impact gene expression. In a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism, researchers found that exposing participants to cold temperatures resulted in an increase in the activity of certain genes related to brown fat metabolism, a type of fat that burns energy to produce heat. This increase in gene activity has beneficial effects on metabolism and weight loss. Another environmental example is Exposure to pollutants and toxins.These stressors can trigger alterations in gene expression linked to cancer and heart disease. Conversely, beneficial social factors like supportive relationships can offer a protective effect on our genes.

Our behaviors and habits play a crucial role in gene expression. Smoking, for example, has been shown to induce changes in gene expression that increase the risk of lung cancer. Similarly, chronic stress can activate genes associated with inflammation and accelerated aging. 

Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

Perhaps the most surprising means of influencing our genes is through our thoughts and emotions. This is because our thoughts and emotions produce chemicals in our body that can either bolster our health or lead to disease. For example, gratitude and love can activate genes associated with immune function and stress resilience, while fear and anger can activate genes linked to inflammation and other adverse health outcomes.

We have the power to influence how our genes are expressed through the choices we make each day. As Tim Spector notes in “Identically Different,” “We are not passive recipients of our genes but active participants in shaping our biology.” By embracing this concept and assuming responsibility for our health, we can unlock our full potential and live lives brimming with vitality and wellbeing.

We tend to think about lifestyle factors as what you eat and how often you work out. But we now know the quality of your social life plays a big role in longevity too.

I’ve seen up close and personal the horrific effects social isolation can do. And as we go into another lockdown, I remind myself to make it a daily habit to connect with the people in my life who will be spending it alone.

The Italian island of Sardinia has more than six times as many centenarians as the mainland and ten times as many as North America. Why? According to psychologist Susan Pinker, it’s not a sunny disposition or a low-fat, gluten-free diet that keeps the islanders healthy — it’s their emphasis on close personal relationships and face-to-face interactions.

Genes account for 25% of healthspan. The other 75%? The answer Susan Pinker suggests may surprise you, and COVID-19 makes this insight relevant than ever.

This talk is highly recommended as pre-lockdown entertainment:

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