Epigenetics is a relatively young, but revolutionary science that is providing evidence to explain how life experiences and exposures directly affect gene function without changing (mutating) the physical DNA structure. Researchers have discovered that epigenetic signals are sending instructions to our DNA telling specific genes to be active or inactive, similar to how software directs the function of a computer.
Epigenetic research is providing the scientific validation for what most people already believe – lifestyle choices like diet, exercise, environment and stress, have short and long-term effects on health.
But, because of the advances in epigenetics research, we now know that we have even greater control over our long-term health than what we previously believed. Many chronic health conditions and diseases of aging that are known to have a genetic component, have also been identified to have epigenetic controls. This explains why some people who carry specific gene variations that predispose them to developing a certain condition actually develop the condition, and some people with the same gene variant do not develop the condition. Through epigenetics we now know that DNA is not destiny!
Lifestyle choices like diet and exercise, as well as environmental exposures to toxins and radiation have been identified as some of the signals that trigger specific epigenetic mechanisms. Physical and emotional trauma, in addition to stress, have also been identified as powerful epigenetic mediators.
Nutritional epigenetics is of particular interest because food is essential to survival and most people are exposed to food every day; therefore, they are experiencing this epigenetic trigger every day. The focus of nutritional epigenetics is to identify how specific dietary compounds (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, bioactives) affect specific gene activity.
Current research has only scratched the surface by identifying some dietary compounds that are known to affect gene activity. There remains significant amount of research that still needs to be done before we will fully benefit from this emerging field; however, the potential applications to disease prevention are undeniable.
“It is anticipated that within the next few years, major advances will be made to translate this knowledge of nutritional intervention on gene regulation and expression into health preventive programs.” - Ruemmele, FM, Garnier-Lengline, H: Why are Genetics Important for Nutrition? Lessons from Epigenetic Research. Ann Nutr Metabolism 2012:60 (suppl 3):38-43