Epigenetics – or why you are more than just your genes

Many companies now offer solutions to help you measure your epigenetic age, but what does it all mean and how do these tests work?

Ever worried that you’re destined to suffer from the same health conditions as your family? Well, although some genetic factors are handed down, we can still influence the way our DNA changes over times through epigenetics. These can affect how quickly we age. Coaching them or even using epigenetic treatment can help us stay younger and fitter.

What is epigenetic testing?

Epigenetic testing focuses on genetic changes other than changes to the DNA sequence. These can play a role in showing your biological age and influencing how susceptible you are to certain conditions.

The good news is that they can be monitored and changed. Blood or saliva tests can measure your epigenetics and see how old you truly are. They may give you an insight into your real health and possibly how long you might expect to live.

How do you test your biological age?

Your chronological or calendar age is how old you are from a time point of view. In contrast, your biological age measures your age based on several biological markers such as the condition of your cells and blood. These can be influenced by lifestyle, diet and other factors. By measuring this figure you get a pretty accurate idea of how far through your lifecycle you are.

Plenty of companies offer ways to measure your biological age; some offer a home test kit using saliva, while scientific tests often look at your blood. However, the frustrating thing is that there is no single biological age. Different parts of you may age at different rates. A more effective approach, therefore, can be to look at DNA methylation. These can look across a person’s genome and track how it changes over time.

What is epigenetics and how does it work?

Epigenetics govern how changes in your behaviour or environment can change the way in which genes work. This involves certain things such as how cells make certain proteins, or chemical caps which prevent DNA being read. Changes to your lifestyle or health may affect these processes for better or worse.

How do you determine epigenetic age?

As you age, your epigenome attaches to your DNA and tells it what to do. Each time it does this, it is said to have been ‘marked’. These marks don’t change the DNA sequence but they do change how cells read the DNA. Methylation is one type of mark, and by identifying and tracking it, we can now get an idea of your genetic age.

It can be likened to an instruction manual or cook book telling your body how to make things. For example, if your cells need to create fingernails they will look at the section of your DNA which tells it how to build fingernails.

Although the ingredients don’t change over time, the recipe does. As it changes, it marks the DNA – although the DNA sequence isn’t changed, its operating instructions are, as the epigenome alters the way cells read and use the DNA’s instructions.

The genetic ingredients stay the same, but the epigenetic recipe book changes over time, as notes are made, steps skipped or added and pages fray and become harder to distinguish. Epigenetic markers can also be passed on from cell to cell, and sometimes from parent to child.

These epigenetic patterns can change with your environment or lifestyle patterns. For example, if you’re exposed to pollutants or start a new diet or exercise regime they may change for better or worse. Scientists can measure these patterns to determine your age.

This means someone whose chronological age is 50 could be 39 or 62 inside, depending on their epigenetics.

What is an example of epigenetics?

An example of epigenetics in action is DNA methylation. This represents the addition of a chemical cap, or a methyl group which can stop certain genes being expressed. Other examples involve histones. These are proteins which DNA wraps around.

Without them, DNA would be too long to fit inside cells. If histones squeeze DNA too tightly, it can stop them from being read. Interventions which relax the histones can make DNA more accessible.

Testing in the lab

What is the idea of epigenetic therapy?

Many illnesses such as cancer, diabetes or heart disease are influenced by epigenetics. As such epigenetic therapy can help to reduce the risk of such conditions.

Researchers discovered that patients with cancer may have epigenetic features which reduce the success of antitumor systems. Drugs which reverse some of these changes can create a healthier environment and return some cells to their pre-cancerous state.

DNA tests

What is epigenetic coaching?

Epigenetics coaching teaches you how to activate or suppress gene expression. By altering lifestyle factors, such as your diet and exercise regimes, you can coach your genes to express themselves in certain ways and improve longevity.

Possibly the easiest way to understand it is to look at honey bees. If the queen mates with one drone, her daughter bees are genetically identical.

However due to diet and lifestyle factors some female workers bees are better able to detect parasitic infections of the hive or respond better to pheromones and thus have superior bee communication. One special bee can even become a new queen with a lifespan 20 times longer than her fellow bees, with epigenetic treatment in the form of royal jelly while still a larva.

By using things such as lifestyle, sleep, diet, supplements and detoxification you can influence the way your epigenetics changes over time. In doing so you can reduce your risk of all sorts of conditions from heart disease to cancer, anxiety and diabetes among others. In theory it can keep your DNA fighting fit for a longer, healthier, life.

Image credits: Chokniti KhongchumPixabay, Karolina GrabowskaPexels, Eric Ward / Unsplash

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The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.