Just when you think you’ve got a grasp on the whole concept of genetics, something new comes along and completely changes your thoughts. That thing, in this case, is epigenetics. And no, I’m not just making up words. Epigenetics is defined as “The study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself” and it may be more important than your DNA! To break this down, think of yourself as a painting. Your DNA provides the tools to make that painting, like the paints, the brushes, and the general idea of what the painting should look like. The painter is the epigenetic factor. Depending on who the painter is, the picture could look a little different. Maybe they don’t use one of the colors your DNA provides, or maybe they decide to make one part of the painting slightly more pronounced. The overall image is the same, but the details differ, therefore making the painting beautifully unique.
Well, what are some of the epigenetic factors?
DNA Methylation: By this point, I’m pretty sure we all have a good idea of what DNA is, but what is methylation? Methylation is simply the addition of a methyl group (CH3) to a nucleotide. In DNA, this methyl group attaches to the nucleotide cytosine, especially when it is next to guanine. Methylation in DNA effectively silences a gene and makes it unable to be read. If your cell can’t read the gene, it won’t be expressed.
Histone Methylation: Much like DNA methylation, histone methylation requires the addition of a methyl group, except this time the methyl is getting added to a protein called a histone. A histone is a protein that DNA wraps itself around, kind of like tape in a music cassette. In a cassette, the film is constantly being wound and unwound depending on what song you want to hear, much like DNA is being exposed and covered depending on what gene you want expressed. The location of the methylation on a histone can either expose or hide away genes by controlling this unwinding process.
How does Epigenetics affect me and why should I care?
The more we study the human genome, the more we realize how external factors play an extensive role in the expression of our DNA. Lifestyle choices can influence the amount of methylation that occurs, and diet is proving to be a huge component of this. Eating the right food or taking the right vitamin supplements can make a difference, but why? Here is an example.
The process of methylation utilizes a vitamin called folate. Folate is naturally found in dark leafy green vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and kale. Folate plays a key role in, you guessed it, epigenetics. Folate can be used to provide an all-important methyl group for methylation. Within your body, folate must be converted into methylfolate, the active form of Vitamin B9, in order for it to be usable. What enzyme performs this transformation? Why, it’s none other than methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (or MTHFR for simplicity’s sake). The gene that encodes this enzyme, also named MTHFR, can have a variant that makes the resulting enzyme less efficient at converting folate. Which means less active folate; less methylation.
Individuals either have the ability, have an impaired ability, or worse, a severely impaired ability to convert folate to methylfolate. This means eating the recommend 5 servings a day of these delicious veggies won't ever hit the mark. Impediments to methylation have shown correlation with the development of anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancer.
Here are nine common signs that you might be suffering from a folate deficiency:
- Poor immune function; frequently getting sick
- Chronic low energy (including chronic fatigue syndrome)
- Poor digestion; issues like constipation, bloating and IBS
- Developmental problems during pregnancy and infancy, including stunted growth
- Canker sores in the mouth and a tender, swollen tongue
- Changes in mood, including irritability
- Pale skin
- Premature hair graying
All this information can seem a bit overwhelming, but fear not! The best part of epigenetics is that it’s reversible. Unlike your DNA, which is set in stone, altering your lifestyle can alter the course of your epigenetic path. Knowing if you have risky variants of genes, such as MTHFR, gives you a huge advantage when planning your diet and exercise plans. You now have the power to know and adapt your life to the genetic hand you’ve been dealt. With knowledge like this, as well as all the other important health information contained within the test, you can live the genetically optimized way.
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