Anti-Aging Health Weight Loss

How to Define Epigenetics and Apply the Health Benefits

By Kim Crawford, M.D. Last updated: June 15, 2020
Define epigenetics

Defining Epigenetics

What is epigenetics? It’s the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off. I’ll explain what genes are in detail, but start by knowing genes contain your DNA, and your DNA contains the “instructions” for cellular expression in your body.

This article will review:

  • Epigenetics in Cells, DNA, DNA sequences, and Genes
  • Diet and Epigenetics
  • Sleep and Epigenetics
  • Exercise and Epigenetics
  • Aging and Epigenetics
  • Supplementation and Epigenetics

What is Epigenetics? 

Define epigeneticsIf you look at changes in the expression of inheritable genes which don’t involve any change to our DNA or true genetic material, we are looking at a change in phenotype, but not a change in genotype. This modification is called epigenetics. As a result, this affects how cells read the genes. Epigenetic change is a common, natural occurrence but can also be influenced by several factors such as age, lifestyle, and disease state.

Your body is compromised of cells. Each cell contains “working instructions,” which is the genetic material known as DNA. Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA consists of approximately 3 billion nucleotide bases. Four basic bases comprise human DNA, including cytosine, adenine, guanine, and thymine. It’s this sequence of nucleotide bases that determines precisely how our bodies’ function.

Within the 3 billion nucleotide bases, there are roughly 20,000 genes. Genes are specific sequences of bases that provide instructions on how to make complex molecules that trigger different biological actions to carry out various bodily functions.

Epigenetics can give us control over our genes. This control is achievable through two methods. Specifically, it occurs naturally via cellular specialization as a fetus develops into a baby. This process determines what type of cell will develop (e.g., blood cell, skin cell, etc.) through gene active or dormant genetic expression. However, fascinating discoveries over the past 10 years reveal that environmental factors can also influence whether or not a gene will express, meaning “turn on,” or be suppressed, meaning “turn off.” This is the second method and the basis of quite a lot of research in the field of Functional Medicine.

Diet and Epigenetics

By now you should be aware that you really are what you eat. Dietary composition, fasting, and the timing of when you eat also modify epigenetic expression in significant ways. The field of nutrigenomics explores how food and epigenetics work together to influence human health. For example, a study found that a high fat, low carb diet could open up chromatin and improve mental ability via histone deacetylase inhibitors. HDAC inhibitors are chemical compounds that inhibit histone deacetylases.

Other studies have found that certain compounds contained in certain foods (such as polyphenols) could protect us from cancer by adjusting methyl groups on oncogenes or tumor suppressor genes. Most of us are aware eating fast food will allow for the expression of diabetic genes. Contrary, eating a nice salad and a piece of lean fish will inhibit such expression. The SIRT enzymes have been studied extensively, with the findings that obesity, glucose, cholesterol, and even blood pressure can be manipulated quite extensively by diet.

Researchers have found a ketogenic diet — consuming high amounts of fat, fairly low, and very low carbohydrates — is epigenetically helpful for some cancers, diabetes and some genetic variants of Alzheimer’s disease.

Ultimately, personalized epigenetic diets may guide people toward the optimal food regimen as more and more scientific studies reveal the impact different foods have on the epigenome and health.

Sleep and Epigenetics

Your Immune System

DNA methylation is one of the most heavily researched of all epigenetic mechanisms. This activity is necessary for the body’s ability to fight off infections (and some diseases), and it happens largely during sleep. Research in patients with obstructive sleep apnea reveals that DNA methylation is lower in patients suffering from OSA, causing an increase in a systemic inflammatory response and subsequent immune suppression.

Stress and Sleep

Chronic insomnia affects up to 60 million Americans a year, and we all will experience occasional short-term insomnia. Epigenetic mechanisms (e.g., lack of or, more often, a decrease in DNA methylation) have been implicated in the regulation of our response to stress by reducing serotonin production and utilization.  A reduction in serotonin translates to a decrease in quality sleep.

Disrupted sleep occurring over a long period may act as a chronic stressor itself that supports the condition of insomnia. Although more research is needed, it is possible that extended sleep disturbances could epigenetically perpetuate insomnia through histone modifications and the stress system. Since evidence supports an epigenetic connection between stress and sleep, we could probably improve our sleep and even possibly stave off insomnia by mitigating daily stressors. Here’s a reminder of what you can do.

Sleep and Cancer

Impaired sleep causes severe disruptions to our circadian clock; our internal 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Circadian rhythms respond primarily to light and dark cycles and consist of physical, mental, and behavioral changes. There is evidence that the speed of the circadian clock is controlled by certain DNA’s RNA (it’s copy-machine) methylation. Many studies now link the desynchronization of the circadian clock to the development of cancer.

For instance, one study looked at whether exposure to light at night, and the resulting decrease in melatonin could cause tumors to grow. The researchers found mice that were exposed to light during the nighttime, thus reducing their melatonin production, experienced an increase in tumor growth. And importantly, the tumor growths were reversed by melatonin supplementation (via light exposure) through the epigenetic mechanism of DNA methylation. These results indicate that sleep-wake behaviors can modulate DNA methylation. This experiment shows exposure to light can impact global DNA methylation, melatonin production, and ultimately (probably) cancer development.

Other studies, done in shift workers, reveal long-term workers had epigenetic changes leading to significant alterations in the levels of their DNA methylation associated with circadian genes, as well as inflammation and immune system genes. Most studies reveal an increase in sleep disruptions and cancers.

Overall, most studies reveal that sleep and epigenetics are most definitely related. Improving sleep can help strengthen our immune system function and even decrease our risk of developing cancer.

Exercise and Epigenetics

Regular physical activity is one of the most important steps you can take for achieving good health. It can help control your weight, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

It’s great for your brain, too; improving your mental health, your memory, and decreasing your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise improves brain health in many ways; one of which is promoting the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF. This well-known protein enhances memory and growth of nerve cells. Recent evidence reveals that it’s great for the microbiome, which seems to be “in charge of everything.”

Environment and Epigenetics

Pollution is a significant focus in environmental research; as related to epigenetic changes and human health. Air pollution can alter methyl tags on DNA and increase one’s risk for neurodegenerative disease. Certain B vitamins may protect against many harmful epigenetic effects of pollution.

Aging and Epigenetics

It seems that the epigenetics of aging is quite complex. Aging is affected by what you eat, the quality of your sleep, where you live, who you interact with, how “well” you exercise, the quality of your microbiome, and how well you supplement. This is why patients often seek out doctors such as myself — it’s hard to “get this all right” by yourself!

Supplementation and Epigenetics

Basic testing can reveal areas for concern which you can then easily “fix” with supplementation. For example, we can see if you “methylate” correctly with MTHFR (an enzyme) testing. If you don’t, you can take methylated vitamin B supplements, and do a few more things to reverse this problem, which, untreated, puts you at a much higher risk for heart disease.

Many complex genetic/epigenetic studies are ongoing. One in particular that underscores the utility of taking vitamin D and melatonin show that combining the two supplements in tissue culture will up-regulate the well-known SIRT-1 (obesity-preventing) genes; making this combination possibly one that we’ll recommend for weight management.

Studies looking at “cellular rejuvenation” involve reviewing multiple factors and multiple supplements. It appears that re-charging one’s mitochondria will potentially increase cellular lifespan. The supplements that have been studied most can be found here. If I were to pick just one, I would choose this one.

Meanwhile, advanced anti-aging supplement companies are developing multi-purpose epigenetic supplements such as the one I give my patients that lowers inflammation, cortisol, oxidative stress, and is good for bone health and brain health.

Cell Metabolism

Epigenetics in Human Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes+

PMCID: PMC5866737
Epigenetic reprogramming in metabolic disorders: nutritional factors and beyond
Zhiyong Cheng, Louise Zheng, and Fabio A. Almeida
 2017 Jul;18(7):441-451. doi: 10.1038/nrg.2017.32. Epub 2017 May 30.

Associating cellular epigenetic models with human phenotypes.

Lappalainen T, Greally JM.
. 2018; 15(14): 1631–1639.
PMCID: PMC6299418
PMID: 30588186

Melatonin and Vitamin D Orchestrate Adipose Derived Stem Cell Fate by Modulating Epigenetic Regulatory Genes

Sara Santaniello, Sara Cruciani, Valentina Basoli, Francesca Balzano, Emanuela Bellu,Giuseppe Garroni, Giorgio Carlo Ginesu, Maria Laura Cossu, Federica Facchin, Alessandro Palmerio Delitala, Carlo Ventura, and Margherita Maioli
. 2018; 11: 73.
Published online 2018 Dec 20. doi: 10.1186/s13072-018-0244-7
PMCID: PMC6300877
PMID: 30572909

Age reprogramming and epigenetic rejuvenation

Prim B. Singh and Andrew G. Newman
. 2018; 9: 349.
Published online 2018 Dec 17. doi: 10.1186/s13287-018-1075-y
PMCID: PMC6296020
PMID: 30558644

Rejuvenation by cell reprogramming: a new horizon in gerontology

Rodolfo G. Goya, Marianne Lehmann, Priscila Chiavellini, Martina Canatelli-Mallat, Claudia B. Hereñú, and Oscar A. Brown
Oxygen Club of California


Jia-Shi Zhu,Yan Zhang, Jieying Yang, Ningzhi Tan, Angela Mastaloudis and Chunsheng Zhao

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