By Tina Van Horn, Research and Businss Development Coordinator, SL Technology, Inc., a Reliv company
The right nutrition and lifestyle choices during all stages of life can have a profound influence on your good health. When it comes to developing healthy habits, “The sooner the better — but it’s never too late!”
Have questions about epigenetics? You’re not alone! Discussions about epigenetics are likely to generate more questions than answers. In this emerging science researchers are pushing forward to find answers to the unlimited questions naturally generated by a new field of study. But while you wait for answers to all the “What ifs,” you can stay ahead of the curve by getting to know the basic principles of epigenetics.
The Epigenome: Your Health’s ‘Comfy Sweater’
Epigenetics is based on the understanding that the epigenome is programmed through a lifetime of experiences. Epigenetic influences have subtle, cumulative effects that may be difficult to measure in the short term because they are so understated. The genome (DNA) that you are born with is static, like a straight jacket that you must conform to. You can fight it all you want, but it’s not going to give. Your epigenome, on the other hand, is flexible — more like a comfy sweater. You can move around in it, stretch it, change its shape and… if you damage it, you might be able to fix it!
Your epigenome changes as you age and interact with the environment. These environmental interactions begin prior to conception and continue through the entire life cycle.
Researchers agree the epigenome is most susceptible to environmental influences during specific developmental periods in life, including the prenatal period, infancy, puberty and maturity. How and when genes are activated (or inactivated) can have a profound effect on human development and healthy aging. If epigenetic modifications occur at crucial stages of life, they can potentially change behavior, wellness and disease susceptibility.
Early Influences on Your Lifetime of Wellness
Exposure to severe conditions during prenatal development and adolescence can result in epigenetic changes that persist later in life and increase the risk for health problems. It is no surprise that a number of epidemiological studies associate adverse environmental conditions early in life with risk for developing disease in adulthood. Research links many chronic health conditions in adulthood with persistent agitations or influences during early-life nutrition.
Cells divide rapidly in the early growth stages of prenatal development and infancy. It is during this cell division that epigenetic changes are applied. Inherent epigenetic programming instructs stem cells to develop specialized functions which determine the type of cell it becomes (skin, blood, muscle, etc.). Maternal nutrition also provides epigenetic instruction during pregnancy and starts to establish positive and negative marks on an otherwise relatively blank epigenome. It is these marks that begin to “program” how your genes will express themselves as you age.
Physical growth and sexual maturity during adolescence provide another critical period for epigenetic influence. The epigenetic inheritance of future generations may be the most susceptible as eggs and sperm are developing and may be imprinted by epigenetic events. Trans-generational epigenetics is a rapidly evolving research area that is reinforcing the importance of the nutrition and lifestyle choices of teens and young adults.
Undoing the Damage
For those who have reached maturity, there is still good news. Your comfy sweater of an epigenome is still pliable, which allows some epigenetic modifications to be reversed. Meaning, you might be able to undo some of the damage from poor dietary and lifestyle choices made early in life.
The potential ability for dietary compounds to reactivate epigenetically silenced genes in damaged cells may hold the key to disease prevention and therapy.
Other compounds such as resveratrol, vitamin D and niacin, among others, have also been recognized for their positive effects on epigenetic health.
Some epigenetic modifications appear to be more permanent than others, suggesting that reversing these marks requires subtle, consistent intervention to promote optimal cell functioning. But even these stubborn marks may fade over time and be replaced by healthy gene expression through positive epigenetic influences.
You Have the Power
As the field of epigenetics matures, research will identify specific diet-gene interactions that will allow you to combine what you know about your individual genetic identity and life stage with specific dietary interventions to reduce susceptibility to age-related health conditions. Much more research is needed, however, before nutritional epigenetics can be positioned for personalized dietary intervention.
In the meantime, a proactive approach to general well-being through proper nutrition and supplementation, physical activity and stress reduction are the first steps toward a lifetime of epigenetic wellness. No matter what your age, you have the power to influence your body’s epigenetic instruction. The sooner, the better — but it’s never too late.