The difference between genetics and epigenetics
Who are we? What makes us the way we are? And why do we fall ill?
Many important questions about the human body are still unanswered.
Watson and Crick won the Nobel prize for discovering the DNA structure – the now-famous double helix – and its replication mechanism, in 1962. But they had already come to the conclusion that DNA is responsible for the transmission of hereditary traits as early as 1944.
The Human Genome Project, initiated in 1990 and completed in 2003, was mainly aimed at identifying and mapping the genes that make up our DNA and understanding their function. Scientists expected to identify approximately 100,000 genes, but only found approximately 25,000.
Scientists were most surprised to find that only 1.5% of DNA is actually made up of genes, i.e. the structures that carry the hereditary traits. It was an amazing discovery: what we are does not depend exclusively on the traits we inherited from our parents or ancestors. To a large extent, we are the co-creators of our lives in terms of health and illness. Beside genetics, we also need to take into account another factor that plays a decisive role: epigenetics.
Epigenetics may be defined as the set of factors – both inside and outside the body – that influence gene expression and can potentially change a person’s psychophysical characteristics (i.e. the phenotype).
Simply put, we now know that our cells respond, react and adapt to our lifestyle and external factors. This means that we influence how our own genes express themselves!
Now, let’s have a closer look at what DNA is and how epigenetics can change it.
DNA is found within the cell nucleus, and we can see it as a code that carries the information needed to build the human body and ensure its proper functioning – an instruction manual, if you will. The bits of information are contained within the genes, small DNA units that are responsible for the traits that parents pass on to their offspring. An epigenetic signal can either activate or deactivate a specific gene.
Even though monozygotic twins have the same genetic make-up, they can develop different traits as they grow older – for example, one may be fat and the other thin, or one might develop diabetes while the other stays healthy. This is due to environmental factors, lifestyle, diet, emotions and suffering experienced etc. All of these can change gene expression, by either activating or deactivating single genes. While it is true that stressful events can leave a deep epigenetic footprint capable of travelling through generations, it is also true that positive epigenetic signals can influence favourably our state of health and well-being, and sometimes even heal damaged DNA parts.
Health-promoting epigenetic signals include:
- Correct breathing. Thisensures proper oxygen supply to body tissues. Lack of oxygen paves the way to chronic inflammation and ultimately disease.
- A balanced diet, rich in longevity-promoting foods that supply the body with molecules capable of interacting directly with the DNA and influencing the gut microbiota, which is involved in the functioning of the immune and nervous systems.
- Regular physical exercise. Muscles should be considered as proper endocrine organs: as you move, they release substances such as cytokines, interleukins and myokines, which have anti-inflammatory and anti-tumour effects.
- Activities with a rebalancing effect on the peripheral and central nervous system. These include, for example, yoga, meditation, outdoor exercise and more. The correct balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system is crucial to all our essential physiological functions.
- Food supplements containing phytotherapic ingredients, vitamins and trace elements to support body function, and natural therapies such as ozone therapy to boost tissue oxygenation and counter inflammation.
Gaining some control over gene expression to increase well-being and longevity is a challenge we can win by sticking to a few, simple rules on a daily basis. Only so can we fully enjoy life and the wonderful opportunities it offers.