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Beyond DNA: How Your Lifestyle Shapes Your Genes

Updated: Jan 12


Happy people exercising
How lifestyle shapes your genes

Genes Are Not Your Fate: Discovering Your Epigenetic Key

You have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes but at any one time only a fraction are active.

(Just as a little aside - you might think that is a lot of genes but the humble fruit fly has 14,000!)


Until relatively recently it was thought that our genes were fixed - set in stone and couldn't be altered. But we now know that that is not the case. In fact this is where the nature vs nurture debate comes in.


Think of your genes as NATURE and Epigenetics as NURTURE


To understand the function of epigentetics let's take a quick look at the make-up of a cell.


Epigenetics and cells
Structure of cells

Inside each cell is the nucleus and inside the nucleus are the chromosomes which are made up of DNA and on each strand of DNA are your genes. 


You have more than 37 trillion cells in your body.


Your DNA contains ALL your genetic coding and acts as the manual or the blueprint for your body. This is what makes YOU uniquely YOU.


But, the way your genes are expressed is through a biological process of DNA methylation.


This is when methyl groups (which are generally nutrients) are added to the DNA molecule - in a process called methylation. 


Methylation can change the activity of a DNA segment without actually changing the sequence. 


What causes DNA methylation?


In the course of your life, the process of ageing, environmental influences and lifestyle factors such as smoking or diet, induce biochemical alterations to the DNA and this can lead to DNA methylation. 


DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism or change which is triggered by the food you eat, the exercise you do, how much you move, the sleep you get, the stress you suffer and the toxins in your environment.


Epigenetics are like book-marks which mark which bits of the manual certain cells need to read. They can turn on the pro-ageing genes or through the right lifestyle choices, they can turn them off. So even identical twins can experience totally different health outcomes depending on how they live their lives. It's their lifestyle and their daily habits not their genes that are the difference.


Food is a wonderful way to trigger your epigentetic mechanism, and there are certain nutrients that are PIVOTAL in how genes are expressed. These nutrients can, for example, cause tumour suppressant genes to switch ON and cancer genes to switch OFF. 


The nutrients that are central to gene expression are found in foods such as eggs, fish, flax seeds, lentils, nuts, beans, whole grains such as quinoa, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruit, beetroot, garlic, onions.


If you are familiar with the Blue Zones (the areas in the world that boast the highest number of healthy centenarians) then you will probably notice is that this very much correlates with the diets eaten by people in these Zones.


Epigenetics and Cancer


I'd just like to touch on Epigenetics and cancer, because as we know, sadly, cancer is all too prevalent these days  - but epigenetics can play a role in many of the age-related cancers that we get.


An experiment undertaken back in 2005 was conducted on 31 men who suffered from low grade prostate cancer. They were fed a low fat, plant based diet whilst a control group ate their normal diet.

The study group were also encouraged to walk, meditate and meet up for group sessions.


After only 3 months some 453 genes (especially ones that controlled for tumour growth) were less active. Overall blood tests for prostate cancer improved and tumours shrank. 


After 5 years a check revealed that their telomeres were longer than the control group. If you remember from yesterday - just to remind you that telomeres are the caps at the end of your DNA that become shorter each time a cell divides and as such are a marker of longevity.


Since then more studies have been done which indicate that following the same protocol can help treat breast cancer....


Moving daily, eating a mainly plant based diet, being part of a community, and practising activities that calm the nervous system such as meditation, breathwork or prayer.

Exercise and Epigenetics


Besides eating a diet rich in nutrients, EXERCISE is another important way to create positive gene expression.


Scientists in Stockholm conducted an experiment with 23 young, healthy men and women who they got to cycle using just ONE LEG. (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-85733-1)


Both legs would, of course, be experiencing methylation from their diet and environment, but only the leg they used for pedalling would show any epigenetic changes due to the exercise.


They pedalled for 45 minutes, 4 times a week for 12 weeks.


Unsurprisingly, the exercised leg was stronger at the end of the 12 weeks, but it was the changes to the DNA of the exercised leg's muscles that was the surprise. New methylation patterns had occurred in over 5000 sites on the genes of the muscle cells on the exercised leg.


The genes that had been switched ON were those that enhanced energy metabolism, better insulin response (therefore there was a reduced risk of diabetes), and reduced inflammation - which is a major cause of ageing and heightened risk of having a chronic illness.


The exercise had directly affected the health of their body but none of these changes had occurred in the unexercised leg.


How You Live Each Day is How you Live Your Life


So - how you live your life each and every day has a long term effect on your health and how well you can live your life.

Women out walking with their dogs
Enjoying daily exercise

Simple changes to your daily life has a deep and profound impact on your body, right down to a cellular level. 


Epigentetic changes triggered by your daily habits affect your biological age which means that your body can be years younger than your actual chronological age. That's something worth celebrating!




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