The topic of epigenetics came up during a conversation today with a very brilliant physician. As I was listening to him speak, I started thinking about the implications of epigenetics for health behavior change. And then I found a Time magazine article that comprehensively explains to power of these genetic insights. Here’s a health behaviorists take on epigenetics:
“At its most basic, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material — the epigenome — that sits on top of the genome, just outside it (hence the prefix epi-, which means above). It is these epigenetic “marks” that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.”
Our environment influences the nuclei of our cells, works on the DNA, and turns on and off certain genes to drive certain behaviors.
“There’s evidence that lifestyle choices like smoking and eating too much can change the epigenetic marks atop your DNA in ways that cause the genes for obesity to express themselves too strongly and the genes for longevity to express themselves too weakly. We all know that you can truncate your own life if you smoke or overeat, but it’s becoming clear that those same bad behaviors can also predispose your kids — before they are even conceived — to disease and early death.”
“It’s important to remember that epigenetics isn’t evolution. It doesn’t change DNA. Epigenetic changes represent a biological response to an environmental stressor.”
Unhealthy behaviors – at the most basic cellular level – can quickly lead to “genetic diseases.” This is a two way street: health behaviors prevent disease, prolong longevity, and fortify stronger genes. Not just for us, but for our kids and grandkids, and great grandkids.