Genes play a role in developing specific health problems, but they aren’t the whole story. A healthy lifestyle matters too. The study of how behaviors and environments cause changes that affect the way your genes work is called epigenetics. In this article, Dr. Kevin Dalby, UT-Austin Professor, looks at the question: can you reprogram the genes you inherited through lifestyle changes?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “your genes play an important role in your health, but so do your behaviors and environment, such as what you eat and how physically active you are.” So epigenetic changes do not alter your DNA. They are reversible (at least as far as genetics is concerned). Instead, these changes affect how your body “reads” and responds to your genes. This change in expression occurs when proteins bind to DNA to “mark” the genome without altering its sequence.
Gene expression establishes the quantity and type of proteins expressed in a cell at any point in time. Genetic changes alter which protein is made, but epigenetic modifications control the production of proteins or turn genes “on” and “off.” The relationship between your genes and behavioral and environmental factors, such as diet and exercise, is illuminated by understanding epigenetics.
There are several factors known to influence epigenetics. These include:
It is worth noting that chronic stress is the number one reason for poor functioning biochemistry and genetic expression.
A closer look at how genes respond to the foods we eat is illustrative of epigenetic changes. Genetic research from scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) indicates that if your genes could tell you, they’d say they prefer you eat a third of protein, a third of fat, and a third of carbohydrates. That is the ideal blend to limit your risk of most lifestyle-related diseases.
A diet that strays too far from this ideal mixture can affect your gene expression, thereby adversely affecting cell structure and function. Too many carbohydrates, for example, induces some genes to work overtime and may cause inflammation in the body.
One encouraging finding of this research is that it can take as little as six days after altering your diet to change the gene expression. Researchers said if you want to decrease the likelihood of lifestyle-caused diseases, a healthy diet will need to be a permanent change.
In another example, smoking tobacco affects a gene (MTHFR) that constructs proteins used to activate many other genes. Disrupting this sequence of processes can set the stage for such illnesses as heart disease, cancer, and congenital disabilities. Avoiding tobacco use will not change your genome, but failing to do so can be an epigenetic disaster.
So, can you reprogram the genes you inherited by changing your lifestyle? In a sense, yes. Like reprogramming computer software, you can’t change the hardware — in this case, your genome — but you can change the output. Healthy behavioral and environmental changes can alter gene expression. Epigenetic variation can affect the body’s response to various factors, including age, germs, cancer, and nutrition.
About Kevin Dalby
Dr. Kevin Dalby is a UT-Austin professor currently working on cancer drug discovery. At the College of Pharmacy at The University of Texas, he examines the mechanisms of nature and cancer to develop new treatments and teach and motivate students to conduct research. Dalby is optimistic about the future of cancer treatments.