What Is Epigenetics?
This emerging discipline studies the influence that lifestyle has not only on our health, but also on our genetic material.
Until recently, it was believed that genetic code was fixed and unalterable, but we now know that this is not the case. Epigenetics is an emerging field of science that studies elements, such as food, emotions or environmental factors, that are capable of influencing genetic material without modifying the DNA sequence. Essentially, it has been discovered that what we eat, where we live, what we feel and how we manage our emotions can activate or deactivate certain genes, thus changing their function. Moreover, these alterations are hereditary and are passed on to the next generation. In short, epigenetics analyses how the environment interacts with one’s genome and how, although unable to alter any genes, it can regulate their expression.
As Vicente Mera, head of the Genomic Medicine and Healthy Ageing Unit at SHA Wellness Clinic, comments, ‘epigenetics is a relatively recent discipline (the term was coined by the Scottish biologist and geneticist Conrad Hal Waddington in 1942) that studies the reasons why the genetic material we inherit from our parents can vary according to each person’s lifestyle. Therefore, diet, living in a city with a lot of pollution or how we manage stress and emotions can modify the expression of our genes and determine who we are and what we are like. Charles Darwin, on one of his trips to the Galapagos Islands, already noted the influence of the environment on the behaviour and evolution of species when he saw how the shape and size of the beaks of the birds that lived on the different islands, known as Darwin’s finches, had adapted to the different food sources. In other words, the environment had caused an epigenetic change that was passed on to the next generation. Subsequently, he discovered that the environment was capable of modifying species’.
To help us understand this better, Dr Mera explains it with a practical example: ‘If a person is born with a polymorphism in a gene that makes them prone to myocardial infarction and eats processed foods, has a sedentary lifestyle and manages stress badly, they are very likely to end up suffering from a myocardial infarction. On the other hand, if that same person eats a healthy, balanced diet, does regular moderate exercise and learns to control their emotions, they can reverse this genetic tendency and, therefore, their risk of having a heart attack will be greatly reduced. Hence, in addition to genes, lifestyle is a determining factor in longevity, quality of life, well-being and, in general, one’s state of health’.