Epigenetics and nutrition are two commonly studied areas of health and wellness, but most people don’t consider the ways in which they overlap with one another. In this article, we’ll take a brief look at each of these subjects before exploring how they actually have more in common than you might think.
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Epigenetics is a field of study within biology that investigates how the expression of genes can be influenced by factors outside of natural mutation processes. It tries to figure out how genes can manifest and show themselves in different ways based not on an unanticipated mutation within genetic code, but based on a behavioral genetic change caused by external influences on the gene itself.
Simply put, genes can be turned “on” or turned “off” based on their external surroundings.
Environment has often been mentioned in relation to epigenetics, revitalizing the old “Nature vs. Nurture” debate that you probably learned about in Psychology class. But epigenetics is very different and much more complex than a couple of seemingly opposed theories.
Take, for example, the various types of cells in the human body. Under a microscope, a brain cell will look very different from a liver or a lung cell. This is because of epigenetics; even though all cells within a given human have the same genome (set of genetic material), the expression of the genes vary between different cell types. This is because the signal for a brain cell to look and behave a given way is activated, or turned “on,” by its environment, just as a lung cell operates and looks different based on its specific surroundings.
So nature versus nurture might be a simplified way of looking at epigenetics, but in a broad sense, it’s not too far off from the truth!
Nutrition, in comparison to epigenetics, is a bit easier for the mind to grasp. Nutrition is understood as the study of processes of food within the bodies and systems of organisms, and how this food is essential for the organism’s development and overall health.
Nutrition can also be understood more narrowly as the interaction between consumed nutrients and bodily functions within the human body.
What Causes Epigenetic Behavior?
Whether a gene is active or inactive in its given expression is contingent upon two processes called DNA methylation and DNA demethylation.
DNA methylation refers to the chemical process whereby a gene is turned “off,” so logically, a gene is turned “on” by DNA demethylation. The exact nomenclature and jargon isn’t so important to understanding what this means; basically all you need to know is that the addition of a methyl group (CH₃) to DNA is an “off” switch, whereas the removal of a methyl group is like an “on” switch.
When cells are developing or regenerating, as in the embryonic stage of human development, cells are undergoing processes of demethylation so that they can reproduce and build up the form of what will eventually become a person.
By contrast, as we age, DNA methylation increases, and more and more cells become less active or turned “off.” That’s why diseases like cancer and dementia are so much more common in older individuals. Because a smaller number of their genes are “active,” the vitality levels of their brain, organs, and energy levels follow suit.
How Epigenetics and Nutrition Connect
A growing field of science referred to as nutritional epigenetics is researching how the food we eat influences the way our genes are expressed, or how they “show” themselves.
Some recent and promising studies have already shown that the nutrients in certain foods have the ability to prevent or inhibit DNA methylation, the process associated with aging.
Furthermore, research has indicated that nutrition can beneficially influence the pathology of processes like embryonic (neonatal) development and carcinogenesis (cancer progression). The food we eat is also being studied in the context on disease onset, particularly for major issues like type 2 diabetes, neurocognitive decline, and chronic inflammation.
There is still so much to learn about the biological interactions between what we put into our body and how the body responds, but that’s what keeps science so interesting to those with a passion for health. Perhaps 2020 will be the year a new breakthrough is made in the field of nutritional epigenetics. Until then, you can get scientifically-backed guidance and training from the experts at QuickHIT Fitness Labs.