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What is epigenetics and why is it important?

April 21, 2022

One of the most revolutionary scientific discoveries of the 21st century has been epigenetics. If you’re not exactly sure what epigenetics is, you’re not alone. So, let’s take a closer look at what epigenetics is, how the process works, and why it’s important to those wanting to live longer, healthier lives.

How does epigenetics work?

The study of epigenetics examines how genes are modified by biological and environmental conditions, or “markers.” Essentially, these markers prompt proteins within a cell to process parts of the DNA in specific ways. This leaves an impact on how cells behave and carry out various life functions without changing the underlying DNA sequence.

Epigenetic modifications are a natural part of human biology, but they may also be prompted by external health habits — if you’re eating healthy, how frequently you are exercising, how well you manage stress, and how much sleep you are getting. 

Epigenetic changes stem from several biological systems, one of which is DNA methylation. DNA methylation occurs when a methyl group—a structural unit of organic compounds—attaches to a gene and changes the gene’s expression by turning it off or on and dimming it up or down.

Still a bit confused? Let’s back up for a quick refresher in biochemistry and genetics, so we have a clearer understanding about how it all works together.

  • Cells are the fundamental working units of every human being. All instructions required to direct their activities are contained within the chemical deoxyribonucleic acid, also known as DNA1. Every cell in the body with a nucleus contains a complete set of genes which, in turn, contains DNA.
  • DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Like an instruction manual, it directs the cells on how to make proteins.
  • Proteins are large, complex molecules that play many critical roles in the body. They do most of the work within cells and are required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs2.
  • Genetics is the study of heredity. We inherit our physical and behavioral characteristics—such as hair and eye color—as well as medical conditions . These traits are passed on from parents to children through the genes in your DNA. Your genetic code is a permanent set of biological instructions that do not change throughout your lifetime.
  • Epigenetics is the study of gene expression that’s modified by biological and environmental conditions. Epigenetics can cause segments of your DNA to turn off or on, resulting in changes to the way cells “read” genes.

Putting it all together

So, our cells all have the same DNA, right? They do, but we have many different types of cells in our bodies, from skin cells to red blood cells to nerve cells. If they all have the same DNA, how are they different? The answer is epigenetics, which tells the cell to “turn on” or “turn off” certain proteins that transform it into the various cells of our bodies.

Why is epigenetics important?

Epigenetics can control genes, which is influenced through a) nature, as a fetus develops into a baby and/or b) nurture, as environmental stimuli cause genes to turn on or off. Whether or not you’re practicing healthy habits by eating healthy, exercising regularly, managing stress, getting enough sleep, interacting with people that have a positive impact on your mental health, even how you age and how long you live—eventually causing chemical modifications around your genes that turn them on or off over time.1

Think of it this way:  Your genetics are the movie script and your epigenetics are the director of that movie. Each actor (cell) is reading from the same script, but the director (epigenetics) tells the actor how to, (or not to) act.

Epigenetics vs. genetics

Unlike genetics, which are fixed throughout your lifetime, epigenetic changes can occur based on a person’s environmental and lifestyle factors, such as air pollution, sun exposure, sleep, diet, exercise, emotional trauma, and tobacco use.

Since epigenetic effects occur not only in the womb, but over the entire course of a human’s lifespan, it’s important to understand which lifestyle choices can improve your epigenetics, and possibly, your health and longevity.

For example, studies have shown that getting more exercise can impact your epigenetics to improve cognitive health at the cellular level, and could even be passed down to your kids as part of their epigenetic inheritance3.

If you would like to start making an impact on your own epigenetics, follow FOXO LIFE as we have new exciting things coming soon. You can also get early access into what we are building and how you can be a part.

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References
  1. 1. A Super Brief and Basic Explanation of Epigenetics for Total Beginners, What Is Epigenetics
  2. 2. https://www.whatisepigenetics.com/what-is-epigenetics/
  3. 3. What are proteins and what do they do? https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/howgeneswork/protein
  4. 4. Physical Exercise as an Epigenetic Modulator of Brain Plasticity and Cognition https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5705447/

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