Epigenetics is a word that you might have heard of and perhaps you’ve even read about how alterations to your epigenetics can affect your health.
It’s quite a complex topic, especially when you start to look at all of the genes that are involved. Your DNA is fixed and genes read code from it, which allows them to create proteins.
In epigenetics, the way your genes are expressed changes. You’ll often find epigenetic alterations listed in the 12 Hallmarks of aging, as it holds a strong relation to how quickly you age and how likely you are to develop age-related diseases.
In this article, we focus on helping you get a better grasp on what epigenetic alteration is, what it means, and what you can do about it.
When it comes to understanding epigenetics, it’s important to talk about your DNA and genes.
Every gene in your body plays an important role in regulating functions and keeping your body healthy.
While genes do play a role, everything is not set in stone - how you behave, what you eat, how active you are, and several other environmental factors also play a role in your health.
These are factors that we look at in the study of epigenetics.
Epigenetics is often considered to include the reversible factors that contribute to how our body copies code from the DNA to produce proteins. Epigenetics can also have an impact on how the activation process of certain genes works.
For example, through epigenetics, it is possible to turn the switch on or off on genes, affecting their functionality in the process.
When there are alterations in your epigenetics, it can have an impact on gene expression.
Different types of epigenetic alterations can occur, including histone modifications, changes to DNA methylation processes, and more.
Role Of DNA Methylation, Histone Modification, And Non-Coding RNAs In Epigenetic Alteration
Even before you are born, epigenetic changes already start.
More changes happen as you age and this process continues during your entire lifespan.
When it comes to understanding the alterations that can happen to your genome, it’s important to focus on three particular factors:
- DNA Methylation: This process essentially helps with gene expression. It’s a process that happens continuously in your body and ensures genes can be switched on or off.
The process is called demethylation when it turns a gene on. If it turns a gene off, then it’s called methylation.
What happens during DNA methylation is a methyl group is added to a molecule in your body.
Some things, such as environmental factors, can hinder the methylation process and cause genes to be mistakenly activated or deactivated.
- Histone Modifications: Your DNA is wrapped around proteins that we call histones. These proteins play a role in how your genes work.
In particular, they are involved in the process of allowing genes to read code from your DNA. If the histones are packed up close together, they make it harder for this to happen.
On the other hand, when they are not as tightly collected, then it’s easier for genes to get data from your DNA sequences. When epigenetic modifications happen, it could cause problems with how your histones behave.
- Non-Coding RNA: RNA plays an important role in producing proteins and how gene expression occurs.
Non-coding RNA can be affected by epigenetic alterations.
They attach themselves to coding RNA. The RNA also attaches other proteins to the coding RNA and causes it to break down.
This breakdown process ensures the coding RNA is not able to create proteins.
Causes Of Epigenetic Alteration
As we’ve previously discussed, epigenetic alteration is often a result of environmental factors. Understanding what particular environmental factors can result in modifications to your epigenetics is important.
This can help you better understand what you can do to minimize adverse alterations.
Some of the most important factors that are able to affect your epigenetics, in terms of your surrounding environment and behavior, include:
- Toxin exposure
- Nutrient and food intake
Many of your lifestyle habits and factors will influence your epigenetics over time.
For example, a diet that is rich in a good balance of nutrients may have a positive impact on your epigenetics.
On the other hand, being sedentary and rather opting for fried foods that are high in saturated fats may accelerate the rate at which negative epigenetic changes develop.
What Is The Role Of Epigenetics In Aging?
If you’re interested in learning more about what makes you age, you’ll often find that researchers talk about genetics.
This has been their focus point for a very long time, but recently, there’s been somewhat of a shift and researchers are now continuously considering the impact that genetics has on age too.
There is already evidence that shows how epigenetic modifications contribute to the aging process and these studies often show that alterations cause changes to your genome’s structure.
Studies suggest that through epigenetic changes, there are certain alterations that occur in your gene transcription, DNA replication, and cell cycle.
It’s also possible for epigenetic alterations to affect your body’s ability to repair DNA damage and through changes in your cell cycle, telomere shortening happens at an accelerated rate.
What Are Examples Of Epigenetic Alterations?
We’ve taken a closer look at what epigenetic alterations are and you should now understand the reasons they happen over time.
Now, we should take a look at a few examples of what epigenetic alterations can do. These examples happen over a long period of time, but it is important to understand how they can affect you.
- DNA methylation changes: Through epigenetic alterations, it is possible that the DNA methylation process can be affected.
For example, these alterations could modify the addition of atoms to a cell during the methylation process.
When this happens, it can have a negative effect on your gene expression. Thus, certain genes may not function properly, which can affect your well-being.
- Histone changes: Histones are a critical part of your body and ensure DNA is able to fit inside every cell.
Some forms of epigenetic alterations can cause histones in your body to squeeze together too much.
This makes it difficult for genes to read your DNA code, which could cause changes in how your genes are expressed or even switch genes off wrongfully.
What Can Alteration Of Epigenetics Lead To?
How epigenetic alterations affect you depends on a number of factors. The specific alterations and the genes affected will play a large role in determining what potential complications could develop.
Here are some potential complications that could be caused by epigenetic alterations:
- If epigenetic modifications result in genes responsible for tumor-suppressing being silenced, then it can increase your risk of cancer.
These genes help to ensure tumors do not develop, but when they are not able to function, they are unable to stop the tumor growth.
- Sometimes, everything in the process of gene expression does not run smoothly.
Your DNA methylation process and histone modifications are not in balance, and this can cause certain alterations that heighten your risk of metabolic problems, such as type 2 diabetes and obesity.
- In some studies, they have shown that alterations in your epigenetics can sometimes be linked to autoimmune diseases too.
If you have hypomethylation in your T cells, for example, it could be an indication of systemic lupus.
Researchers say that demethylation and 5-hydroxymethylation both play a role in this case.
Detecting Epigenetic Alterations
Maybe you’ve been feeling like age is catching up to you too quickly over the last few years and now you wonder if it could be related to alterations that happened in your epigenetics.
It’s common for people to become concerned when they feel the effects of age starting to set in.
The problem is that researchers are still looking at ways to make more accurate conclusions when detecting these changes in your gene expression, but here’s the good news - some progress has already been made!
If you want to know more about your epigenetics and any alterations that have developed, then you could have a laboratory analyze your DNA methylation process.
We’ve covered this process before - it happens when methyl groups are added to a molecule to activate a gene.
The process helps to ensure your cells can copy code from DNA when dividing.
Researchers published a comparative review paper in Cellular & Molecular Biology Letters, explaining that DNA methylation is currently a good observation point when trying to see how alterations in epigenetics are affecting your health.
They’ll look for certain patterns in how these methylation and demethylation processes carry molecules through your genome.
If you recall the section where we talked about the role that different elements play in epigenetic alterations, we talked about histone too.
This is another area of interest that researchers are looking at to determine how they can pick up modifications in your genome and how they affect you.
Sometimes, histones pack together too much as a result of the environmental factors you expose yourself to - and this can make it too hard for your genes to read code from the DNA that wraps around these proteins.
It’s possible that this process makes a gene shut off when it is supposed to work - it could even mean important functions like suppressing tumors become less effective in the process.
Preventing And Treating Epigenetic Alterations
Now that you’ve learned more about epigenetic alterations and how they could affect you, you may be wondering… “how do I prevent this from happening to me?”.
There’s good news and bad news that we’ll share.
There’s not really any “specific” treatment that’s going to help you get rid of these alterations.
If your gene expression changes due to environmental factors and you develop an illness as a consequence, then you can treat this condition, of course.
Now, with this said, you should know that you can do a few things to reduce alterations in your epigenetics and possibly delay the rate at which your genome becomes unstable.
There are a couple of things that you can do if you want to improve your genomic stability and avoid those age-related ailments catching up to you too quickly.
This is where the good news comes in - in the study of epigenetics, researchers will usually focus on reversible elements that affect your genome.
So, this means that by considering what these reversible things are, it’s possible to ensure you take measures to prevent exposing yourself to them.
Start by looking at where you work.
Maybe you love your job, but sometimes, it’s our working environment that exposes us to the things changing the genome.
If you’re in the construction business, try to wear a mask. The same applies in a scenario where you work with chemicals on a regular basis.
Sure, it might feel a little uncomfortable at first, but you’ll get used to wearing the mask while you are at work.
Exercise is one of those things that we sometimes just want to avoid.
Perhaps it's the sore muscles that get you down, but over time, your body builds up resistance and you won’t feel as sore anymore.
You’ll start to breathe better and have less frequent “out of breath” moments when you exercise regularly.
This is another thing that you can do for yourself to make noticeable changes in your epigenetics.
Don’t just focus on exercise, though. You want to eat a healthy and balanced diet too - after all, we depend on nutrients like protein and carbohydrates to get through those lengthy exercise sessions.
Nutritional deficiencies are alarmingly common, so make sure you get all of the nutrients you need to stay healthy and promote better functionality at a DNA level.
Frequently Asked Questions
What distinguishes epigenetics from genetics?
Your baseline set of genes will never change since they are "set in stone" at birth.
Epigenetics instead describes how numerous variables regulate how your genes are expressed and how they form new cells.
This field of research focuses on how environmental factors influence things like histones and methylation.
What part does epigenetics play in the process of aging?
You are more susceptible to get certain illnesses as you become older.
This is brought on by instability in the genome, which also impacts the way by which cells replicate themselves during cell division and speeds up telomere shortening.
One of the main causes of these consequences is changes in your epigenetics.
How does the environment affect gene expression?
Smoking, exposure to pollution, and working in an environment where you regularly use toxic chemicals are all elements that can have negative effects on your health.
These factors can affect the ability of enzymes and make them less effective when copying code from a DNA sequence.
Can genomic alterations be reversed?
Genetic changes in your body are considered permanent, but there are often ways to reverse epigenetic alterations that happen.
You should remember that these changes do not change your genes, but rather how they are expressed.
Can they be inherited?
It’s important to understand that you inherit genes from your parents, but there are more factors that affect how this will impact your health and life.
In some cases, alterations in your genome could be carried from your mother or father to you, but environmental elements also need to be taken into account.
What diseases are caused by these modifications?
Changes in your genome can possibly increase your chances of developing certain diseases. ICF syndrome and Fragile X syndrome are two examples of epigenetic-related conditions.
Some researchers also suggest that the alterations that happen over time to how your genes are expressed may lead to autoimmunity, diabetes, and cancer.
One thing that we can’t escape is age. It happens naturally and as you grow older, there are many changes that happen in the body.
In addition to the wrinkles you start to see on your face, your cells become less capable of copying themselves and reading code from your DNA.
Age, along with the environment, your behavior, and the lifestyle habits you adopt can affect your epigenetics and these alterations change how your genes express themselves.
This is why you should understand what epigenetic modifications are and what you can do about it.
While age is something that cannot be prevented, there are many avoidable things that affect your DNA methylation process and how histones are packed together in your body.
Even though there are no specific treatments that can help you with existing alterations, you can use some lifestyle and behavioral changes to help.
Epigenetic Therapy. PBS. Published 16 October 2007. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/epigenetic-therapy/
C. Ling, T. Ronn. Epigenetics in Human Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. Journal of Cell Metabolism. Published 7 May 2019. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30982733/
D. Hammaker, G.S. Firestein. Epigenetics of inflammatory arthritis. Current Opinion in Rheumatology. Published March 2018. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29194108/
R. Halabian, V. Arshad, A. Ahmadi, et al. Laboratory methods to decipher epigenetic signatures: a comparative review. Cellular & Molecular Biology Letters. Published 11 November 2021. https://cmbl.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s11658-021-00290-9
The epigenetics of aging: What the body’s hands of time tell us. National Institute on Aging. Published 26 March 2021. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/epigenetics-aging-what-bodys-hands-time-tell-us