What is Epigenetics?
Scientists until recently believed that our DNA determined our future. That thinking may be changing with the science of Epigenetics. This new field of science is the study of changes in our gene activity that do not involve changes to our DNA.
Our genes can be turned on or turned off by a type of "marker" called the epigenome. It sits on top of the genome, just outside it.
Researchers are discovering that our “markers” or epigenomes on our DNA determine whether our genes are expressed – for good traits or negative traits. In other words, our markers can turn on and off our genes. These markers can be influenced by environmental factors such as our diet, exercise, stress and chemicals in the environment.
Why Is It Important?
Think of our DNA as the hard drive and our markers as the software that tells the hard drive (our DNA) what to do. If the software (the markers) are influenced to express good genes, then we will be healthier. If the software (the markers) are influenced to express genes negatively, then we are more prone to health problems.
That means that we have control over whether our good genes are activated or our bad genes are activated! With the right diet, exercise and control of the stress in our lives, we can ensure that our good genes are turned on and the bad ones turned off!
The science of Epigenetics gets even more interesting. Studies are showing that young people that go through poor environmental influences, can set their markers to not only express their own genes negatively, but can also influence their future children’s markers as well.
Dr. Lars Olov Bygren, a preventive-health specialist who is now at the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and other scientists have now found historical evidence suggesting that powerful environmental conditions (near death from starvation, as an example) can somehow leave an imprint on the genetic material in eggs and sperm.
Scientists are learning to develop drugs that manipulate our epigenomes or markers to express our genes for the better. We can also positively influence our epigenomes with a healthy diet and exercise. We can further help our genetic expression by refraining from smoking and eliminating our exposure to harmful chemicals.
Remember that none of this gene expression actually changes our DNA. Our DNA is only being influenced by environmental factors. This may be the answer to nature vs. the environment. We may be born with “good” or “bad” genes, but we are able to influence whether these genes are turned on or turned off by the choices that we make in our diet, exercise and stress levels.
Genetic Markers Passed On
An interesting study occurred with a group of pregnant women in the Netherlands. They were living under terrible conditions due to a hard winter and a food embargo. Because of that food was scarce. They gave birth to small babies. When their children grew up, even though the children were in much more prosperous conditions, the children’s offspring were also small.
The theory was that the effects of poor nutrition were carried through to their grandchildren. Scientists now know that this effect was because of changes to epigenetic markers on their DNA. The changes in the markers were caused by a deficiency of crucial molecules in the diets of the Dutch women.
Methylation and Epigenetics
Researchers have found that it takes only the addition of a methyl group to change an epigenome or marker. A methyl group is a basic unit in organic chemistry: one carbon atom attached to three hydrogen atoms. When a methyl group attaches to a specific spot on a gene — a process called DNA methylation — it can change the gene's expression, or in other words, turn the gene off or on.
If we remove our methyl groups or don't replenish them, we leave our genes unprotected and good genes can be turned off.
Each time a cell divides, new methyl groups are put onto newly copied DNA. This maintains the correct patterns of methylation. This process requires a constant supply of new methyl groups. This supply can be provided from our food, particularly from methionine, betaine and choline. We can also make methyl groups from precursor chemicals such as folic acid.
Other molecules are needed to move the methyl groups within the body and attach them to our DNA. An example is vitamin B-12 and zinc. Studies on rats and people have shown that if we are deficient in these molecules, it can have an effect on the levels of DNA methylation in the body.
Dr. Stanislaw Burnzynski, the famed cancer doctor, has been conducting research in the area of epigenetics and says that a lack of sleep or a poor diet can turn off cancer protecting genes.
Royal Jelly Switches On Good Genes
Dr. Burnzynski's research on the effects of royal jelly (from bees) on the expression of our genes is very interesting. He has found that royal jelly has the capacity to turn on our good genes because it contains molecular switches that turn on the good genes. Dr. Burnzynski also says that royal jelly has the ability to turn on our telomeres. Long telomeres are believed to increase our lifespan.
Dr. Burnzynski's Recommendations
Dr. Burnzynski says that there are a number of things that we can do to keep our good genes turned on and the unhealthy genes turned off:
Epigenetics: What We Can Do
The bottom line is that a good diet with minimal toxins and exercise can cause our DNA markers to turn on and off the genes that keep us healthy and youthful. Adequate amounts of methionine, betaine, choline, zinc, royal jelly and B vitamins may be crucial to the methylation process. This may be as close as we can get to the fountain of youth for now.
Stay tuned for more information on epigenetics as it becomes available in this exciting area of research!