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Be good to your Genes: How Epigenetics is shaping a new view of health and wellbeing

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Stay active. Eat healthy. Keep out of the sun. We've all heard this important advice from experts for a long time. Now, researchers are uncovering new evidence that our lifestyle choices – the foods we eat, the chemicals we encounter, our exercise habits and even our social connections and emotional states – can measurably influence mortality risk at a genetic level.

We caught up with James Brown, the Co-Founder and Nutrigenomics Director for Muhdo, an Epigenetics company based in the U.K, to find out more.

Hello James, thanks for speaking with Vala. 

Q. In layperson’s terms, what exactly is “Epigenetics”?

Epigenetics is basically a change in your gene expression but not to your actual DNA sequence, as your DNA and genetic code are fixed, and they don’t actually change.

Whereas your epigenome (the outside of your DNA) is covered with lots of tiny chemical makers that influence how your genes behave and function, creating proteins that carry important information around your body, which facilitates biological growth and repair; fights infection and illness; and aids the normal function of vital organs like the heart, brain and gut.

Epigenetics is basically the intersection’ between genetics, nutrition, and your environment and how diet, vitamins, exercise, stress and sleep can all change the methylation and expression of our genes.

Q. To a lot of people, this might sound like a whole strange new world of DNA tampering, how long has this been around, and why are only just starting to recognise its importance?

In 2003, scientists after 13 years finally finished sequencing the human genome, which has allowed us to identify a whole array of health, nutritional and disease predispositions and markers.

Epigenomics now moves the biological science of omics on further still, and in many ways will be the real key to us understanding as to why the human body ages and develops certain diseases, illnesses or aliments.

Q. Why is the area of Epigenomics important for our health? (i.e. I read somewhere that “the genome remembers.” Genes that have been turned on or off early in life may not work properly when needed later in life)

Epigenome analysis underpinned with your genomic profile will allow us to both understand our unique genetic foundations surrounding diet, exercise, stress, sleep etc but that only provides us with our predispositions and a possible correlation.

Your genes affect how you respond to your surroundings and experiences and those same surroundings and experiences will also affect the way your genes function and behave (nature and nurture), through epigenetics.

Epigenetic testing will then allow us to understand the causation and processes as to why a particular health issue develops and comes into fruition.

​Q. Are there any common conditions frequently encountered by primary care physicians have emerging evidence to support an epigenetic component? 

Yes, epigenetic modifications are paramount towards inflammatory (RA) and (OA) pathogenesis (rheumatoid and osteoarthritis).

Having regular epigenetic tests will allow primary care physicians to understand early inflammatory indicators and acts as a possible medical “crystal ball”, which will allow then to tailor certain treatments, diets or other lifestyle interventions to hopefully dilute or mitigate before any health issues occur.

Yes, epigenetic modifications are paramount towards inflammatory (RA) and (OA) pathogenesis (rheumatoid and osteoarthritis).

Having regular epigenetic tests will allow primary care physicians to understand early inflammatory indicators and acts as a possible medical “crystal ball”, which will allow then to tailor certain treatments, diets or other lifestyle interventions to hopefully dilute or mitigate before any health issues occur.

Q. How do epigenetic factors modify the expression of the genome, and can the effects be reversed?

Epigenetics factors come in all shapes and sizes from our lifestyle and environment, such as the foods we choose to eat each day, amount and type of exercise, how much stress or sleep we are getting each day, as well as the pollution levels we are exposed to.

Luckily most lifestyle factors and effects can be reversed, the secret is knowing how your day to day life is affecting your epigenome and health.

Q. Can epigenetic changes be passed from generation to generation within a family?

Yes, it looks that way as research has also shown that your lifestyle and environment will not only affect your health but may then go on to affect your children and grandchildren in a process called “Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance”.

This is where your lifestyle, environment and the pollution you have been exposed to and subsequent epigenetic information that it creates can then be passed on down to future generations. Leaving either a positive or negative effect on your child’s genetic traits.

Q. Do prenatal and perinatal events impact epigenetic outcomes?

Definitely yes, if we take stress and subsequent offspring developing mental health issues as an example, which is just one area that has been studied in both humans and animals.

Thinking back to your childhood, and if you can look back further still to when you were a baby, certain epigenetic modifications may hold the key to your happiness into adult life.

Why?

Well all the sociological data shows that if a child has a horrible upbringing, then as an adult will be at a much higher risk of alcoholism, addiction to drugs, increased risk of suicide, as well as mental health disorders including severe depression and schizophrenia.

Why is it the case that if a child has a horrible start to life and even when they are taken out of that environment into a more loving and healthier environment that they are still at a higher risk of these mental health disorders.

So, the questions need to be asked, what happened in their childhood to affect or influence them in adulthood. The answer that you will get more times than not is that they were psychologically damaged, which is more than likely to be true.

Q. How can epigenetic information help formulate a diagnosis and direct intervention for a doctor?

The more information that a doctor has at their disposal, will obviously be a huge benefit and allow for a more focused and accurate approach to tailoring subsequent treatments.

Epigenetics can allow for early detection for a whole variety of health issues, which will then allow practitioner’s the crucial and extra time required to utilise specific treatments to hopefully dilute or mitigate that illness, disease or ailment.

Q. Once people have learnt about their DNA and Epigenetics, what kind of positive lifestyle changes can they make to start modifying their health outcomes and change their Epigenetics?

Once someone has had the time to go through and digest the information and understand their genetic traits, it then allows them to be proactive instead of reactive with their health.

Epigenetic testing largely allows you to quantify and understand what your current health status looks like, and if you are heading down a particular health path that may cause you a few issues somewhere down the road.

Epigenomics has allowed us the gamify our health, which is extremely empowering to every individual.

Q. I’ve been reading a lot about how our Epigenetics can also impact our mental health as well as our physical health. What can we learn about our mental health from the study of Epigenetics?

As I previously mentioned when we spoke about pre and perinatal events impacting the epigenome and certain health outcomes.

Mental health will be hugely affected by lifestyle and environmental stressors. Epigenetic testing and huge amount of subsequent data gathered over the coming years, will allow us to then quickly define when, what and why these stressors took effect upon certain regions within the epigenome, which then go to cause stress, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.

Thank-you for your time, James. We’re very excited to find out how epigenetics is going to help share the future of primary care.

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