We always thought that health was just “something you're born with.” How long we’d live, whether we get a certain illness, the quality of our life, and everything else “predestined” by our genes was completely out of our control. The last few decades of medical research have shown that this assumption isn't true, and that we're actually in the driver’s seat of our health.
Epigenetics is the school of medical science that unravels the impact our lifestyle, diet, and environment play on our health. Through epigenetics, we are discovering that while genetics play a role in some aspects of our health, the vast majority of our mental, physical, and emotional outcomes are more heavily influenced by epigenetic changes within our control. What we eat, how much we exercise, the quality of our sleep, and our stress levels all have a significant impact on our epigenetics, and in turn our health.
What makes epigenetics so exciting is finally understanding what specifically we can do to foster near and long-term health, while allowing us to understand the reasoning behind why certain life choices are healthy for us. Here at Happy Being we’re all about diving into the scientific literature to give you a simple, fact-based view into the world of health. Join our mailing list and stay up-to-date with all of our journal entries.
Detailed Entry (with studies)
We have all heard the saying that our health problems “run in the family,” or simply “it’s just genetics.” Those sayings are true, but lifestyle and diet play a huge factor in it as well. Take for example a set of twins; one smokes and eats fast food every day, and the other exercises weekly eating mostly a plant-based diet. Which twin do you think is going to be healthier “in both the near and long term?”
We all intuitively know that the latter twin would be healthier, but it wasn’t until recently that we understood why. It turns out that while genetics play a part, most of our health is determined by epigenetics. Your diet, lifestyle, and environment all influence your genes and overall health. This influence is epigenetics. One of the best demonstrations of this can be found in a 2005 study published by researchers at the Spanish National Cancer Center in Madrid. In that study, 40 sets of twins ranging in age from 3-74 were tested. They found that as we age the differences in how we eat, sleep, manage stress, and stay active literally reprograms the way our cells function. When comparing the epigenomes of the twins, they found that by age 50 twins could have 4 times more epigenetic differences than the 3 year olds. These lifestyle changes can radically change risk levels for many of the health complications we all face. When we see one twin is healthy well into their eighties, while the other is suffering from a chronic disease in their sixties, we can rest assured that epigenetics are involved.
Unlike the genes we were born with, our epigenetics were designed to be changed. If you can focus on doing your best in four key areas: nutrition, sleep, exercise, and stress management; then you will be able to change the way your cells work
What you consume can actually cause epigenetic changes that influence how your body works. Take green tea for example, you probably know it as a little caffeine, some antioxidants, and other things that are “good for you.” What you probably didn’t know is that it also contains a polyphenol called EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate). In a 2003 study it was discovered that EGCG actually has the capacity to regulate one of the most important epigenetic enzymes. In that very same study, it was found to turn on genes that are used to silence cancer cells. The epigenetics effects of nutrition extend well beyond cancer cells, and into every other part of your body. Compounds like resveratrol or curcumin can even affect fat cells and benefit your brain cells.
Outside of nutrition, getting good sleep is one of the best things you can do to improve your health. Our body operates based on a circadian rhythm, or daily cycle, that helps dictate metabolic functions like when we eat,and most importantly when and how long we sleep. The quality and length of that sleep ultimately affects how everything in our body operates. What is critical to understand is that the circadian rhythm can be influenced by epigenetic changes. Some studies (here and here) suggest that even one night of total sleep deprivation can radically alter the epigenetic landscape of our cells, potentially leading to increased disease risk if the deprivation becomes constant.
A 2014 study out of MIT and the Howard Hughes Medical Center suggests that epigenetic changes in neurons are partially involved in memory formation and retention. A 2017 study helped verify the role of epigenetic changes in memory formation and recall. When you consider that a large chunk of neuron firing (the cause of these epigenetic changes) occurs during sleep then you see how consistent, high quality sleep is essential for creating the structures that lead to an agile, healthy mind.
If we take a look at exercise again, we can see that a lot of the long term benefits are controlled by epigenetic changes. Take for example the role of exercise and antioxidant activity. When we work out we generate a bunch of damage, and create stress in our body. This stress triggers epigenetic changes that cause your body to produce more antioxidants, and in turn make you more prepared to handle the next stressor you encounter. Whether that’s your next workout, or your next presentation at work; making positive epigenetic changes will give you the advantage.
A 2012 study found that exercise improved mitochondrial function in the body. Mitochondrial function impacts our overall energy levels and quality of life, by improving protein production by the cells. That same study found that the level of change is determined by the intensity of the exercise - so the harder the workout, the more pronounced the epigenetic change.
Further support for exercises positive effects on epigenetics came from a 2014 study out of the University College London. They found that the benefits of exercise can be realized, even if participants don’t start exercising until later in life. Another study published in 2015 showed that both acute and consistent exercise creates significant epigenetic changes; meaning that even if you haven't exercised your entire life there are still benefits to starting, and those benefits will be quickly realized.
Outside of the overall cellular benefit, exercise has also been shown to promote big epigenetic changes in the brain that play a direct role in memory and learning. A 2011 study found that regular exercise changes the epigenetic structure of neurons such that they produce more brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule that plays a direct role in cognitive functions like learning and memory.
Understanding how behavior affects your health is something that we really care about here at Happy Being. If you are interested in learning more, sign up to our mailing list and stay up-to-date on all of our journal entries.