Epigenetics, nutrition and behavior

Epigenetics, nutrition and behavior

Have you ever heard of “epigenetics”? It is a word that you may have already heard and that you may have linked to the better known term of “genetics.” Indeed, the two terms are linked but not overlapping. In fact, epigenetics is a relatively modern branch of the study of biology, and literally means “that is above genetics”.

We are used to thinking that the DNA in our cells determines who we are and that’s it, that is, that genetic information is static and immutable.

But this is only partially true, because the sequence of our genes does not correspond to the totality of what our body manifests.

This is where epigenetics comes into play, with the study of the regulatory mechanisms of DNA, which turns out to be a plastic and adaptable structure.

In fact, epigenetics deals with changes that affect the phenotype without altering the genotype: it studies the heritable modifications that vary gene expression, but without altering the DNA sequence.

The premise seems complicated, but to explain it in a simple way we can put it like this: genetics studies the structure of DNA, while epigenetics the way in which genes are expressed , or how much they are turned on or turned off.

According to Thomas Jenuwein, a German scientist who studies this subject closely, the difference between genetics and epigenetics can be compared to the difference between reading and writing a book: once written, the text (the genes or information stored in the DNA) will be identical in all copies, but each reader will then be able to interpret the plot in a slightly different way.

Similarly, epigenetics allows for different interpretations of a fixed model (the genetic code) and can give rise to different readings, depending on the varying conditions under which the model is examined.

Why you should care about epigenetics

What are these variable conditions?

The argument should be interested closely: I do not mean that you have to put you to study the course material, but there are some things you should know to be able to put into practice the best possible behavior through simple everyday actions.

Indeed activation or not the genes of our DNA can promote the onset of disease or the permanence of a health condition and determine this power are so many factors: what we eat, what we breathe, how much we stress our body and even our mind.

In concrete terms, we are talking about choices, the ones you make every day and that you gradually transform into deep-rooted habits.

So lifestyle, family upbringing, diet, exposure to toxic agents and stress, relationships with parents and others count a lot ..

In summary, nutrition, food supplementation, physical training and mental and relational management are the levers with which to optimize one’s epigenetic response, and many aspects of these areas are in our hands.

In support of these theses, the researchers carried out studies on homozygous twins, that is, born with the same genetic heritage ( the same DNA ): it was observed how growing up and receiving influences from the environment in which they lived and the lifestyle they adopted, then show considerable differences as adults in susceptibility to diseases.

This type of more should make responsible in the first person of ourselves because in fact the way we choose to live has a direct effect on your body and on your state health.

Inheritance, aging and reprogramming

But that’s not all: apparently the epigenetic changes acquired during our life also affect the health of subsequent generations, that is, they can be transmitted from parents to children and grandchildren in a mechanism called “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance” ( TEI).

Furthermore, the changes of epigenetic origin are reversible.

This means that with a change in habits or lifestyle, even the results on an epigenetic level can undergo a change of direction, for better or for worse.

Let’s summarize in a few words what we know about epigenetics:

  • strongly affects the possibility of health and disease ;
  • influences the health of successive generations to ours;
  • acts on aging processes and on lifespan;
  • the mechanisms that it puts in place are reversible ;
  • we can directly control the mechanisms that belong to it .

Exploiting epigenetics: nutrition

From this perspective, food and lifestyle represent a very strong lever of health.

Nutrition is an aspect of life that we manage, or at least try to manage, every single day and which plays a key role in many aspects of health: in fact, food imbalances are the main ones determinants of chronic diseases , including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer.

Many epidemiological and experimental data show that sub-optimal early nutrition can have consequences for health even several decades later, supporting the hypothesis that epigenetic mechanisms form the link between nutritional imbalances and disease risk.

Microbiome and adaptive capacity

Diet is one of the factors that most affects the variability of genetic expression since, in addition to a direct biochemical action of nutrients, it determines the composition of the microbiota (the set of microorganisms that populate our mucous membranes, especially that intestinal).

The microbiota carries with it a huge variety of DNA that amplifies our adaptive capacity as it changes quickly in relation to the environment and protects us from environmental changes like a buffer.

To promote the health of the intestinal microbiota, it is important to include the consumption of fiber in your dietary habits, especially from fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.

Obesity and epigenetics

There are also a growing number of studies on the role of epigenetics in states of obesity.

It appears that environmental exposures during the first years of life can induce persistent alterations in the epigenome, and thus lead to an increased risk of obesity later in life.

This also means that predicting the risk of obesity of an individual at a young age is possible, as well as the introduction of targeted prevention strategies to modify unfavorable epigenomic profiles, starting from the lifestyle of the pregnant woman to continue then in the modification of lifestyles in adulthood.

Some of these strategies may include focusing on maintaining a healthy weight, introducing physical activity and healthy eating habits, such as Harvard’s now famous single dish consisting of half vegetables, a quarter of whole grains and a quarter of healthy protein sources.

Tumors and epigenetics

Cancer is caused by an imbalance in the mechanisms that control cell proliferation and this loss of control may be due to genetic mutations and epigenetic aberrations, many of which build up over time.

Epigenetic modifications could be used to predict susceptibility to certain types of cancer, but also to evaluate the effectiveness of dietary modifications to reduce this risk.

A number of dietary components have been studied which, by influencing epigenetic modifications, are considered protective in the development or inhibition of cancer, such as folate from green leafy vegetables, cinnamic acids from coffee, cereals, plums and kiwifruit, polyphenols such as epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) from green tea, resveratrol from red grapes, sulforaphane and isothiocyanates from cruciferous trees, lignans from linseed, selenium and vitamin E.

Some diets are also widely associated with risk for particular types of cancer.

For example, the high content of animal fats is related to the increased risk of colon cancer, while a lower risk is associated with a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes and oily fish.

Again we know that nutrition and lifestyle habits during gestation and early adolescence can impact adult health by changing their epigenetic profile, but there is also evidence that adult nutrition can affect health with respect to the development of tumors.

If you have read this article carefully you will have realized that we still have a lot to discover, but there is a lot of data on which we can rely so as not to limit ourselves to betting on luck : most of the indications of health are concordant, such as the use of whole grains or the increase in the consumption of fruit and vegetables.

It’s not easy to change your food lifestyle.

But perhaps it is easier to grasp an apparently unrelated concept: behind many problems of daily life there is an incorrect lifestyle, often centered on unhealthy eating habits, which weigh down, deconcentrate, tire and make you sick.

You should change your life first of all starting from the table, exploiting the mechanisms inherent in our body, such as those studied by epigenetics.


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