Our genes carry the code for what we inherit from generation to generation such as, height, weight, and eye color, and we have limited influence over these traits. However, in the last decade, new discoveries have made it clear that genes can be influenced by lifestyle choices and we refer to this as “epigenetics”. This describes modulations of the DNA that does not change the actual code, but how it is expressed. These changes should inform us that the lifestyle choices we make have an impact on not only us but could be carried to future generations.
Many of us are striving to improve our lifestyle and it can be hard in particular if you may have inherited a genetic background that predisposes you to struggle with this. Therefore, it is important to emphasize that genes are not destiny, they can be influenced to change the outcome positively for you and even your children. It is always a good time to set some goals to improve lifestyle and make healthier choices.
Although geneticists in this field are still at the very beginning of understanding the full impact of epigenetics, we can measure DNA modulations in response to external changes. These studies indicate that sleep, stress, diet, age, and exercise can cause epigenetic changes that will influence the physiology of the individual to contribute to wellbeing or disease. Previously, it was believed that the lifestyle that one generation experienced would not directly be carried by genetic material to the next generation. Evolution happens by mutations, actual changes of the genetic code, over 100s and 1000s of generations and takes a much longer time. Some of the most interesting studies show that we can connect how one generation experiences famine or times of unlimited nutrition, with the next generation’s incidence of metabolic disease as diabetes and obesity.
The insight that we have acquired from learning about epigenetics could be used in future medicine to predict disease and design medication but we are not able to do so yet. However, the awareness that we can make meaningful changes to the way our genes are expressed and our physiology, even having this lifestyle positively influence the next generations, can make us more motivated to stay committed.
Charlotte Ling, Tina Rönn. Epigenetics in Human Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. Cell Metabolism, 2019