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The low­down on epi­ge­net­ics

It’s long been as­sumed that be­cause a wide range of health prob­lems have a ge­netic link, if your par­ents were di­ag­nosed with a condition, your chances of get­ting it are high.

How­ever, ad­vances in epi­ge­net­ics – the study of how we in­flu­ence gene func­tion – have led sci­en­tists to be­lieve we have more con­trol over our in­her­ited make-up than pre­vi­ously thought.

What this essen­tially means is that en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors, like nutri­tion and stress, can cre­ate epi­ge­netic changes, which switch a gene ei­ther on or off. This helps ex­plain why only one iden­ti­cal twin might de­velop type-2 di­a­betes; both twins in­herit the same genes, but dif­fer­ent life­style choices switch the di­a­betes-re­lated genes on or off.

Early days

Re­searchers are only just start­ing to un­der­stand all the ways that chang­ing how genes func­tion can af­fect a per­son’s health, while also un­rav­el­ling ex­actly what causes the epi­ge­netic changes in the first place.

For ex­am­ple, can­cer re­searchers are ex­plor­ing how epi­ge­net­ics might turn a healthy cell into a can­cer­ous one. Their dis­cov­er­ies could lead to more ef­fec­tive can­cer treat­ments – or even a cure.

Like the genes them­selves, epi­ge­netic changes can also be in­her­ited, which means your par­ents’ and grand­par­ents’ life­styles be­fore you were con­ceived im­pact your health by de­ter­min­ing how your genes func­tion. Like­wise, as well as in­flu­enc­ing your own genes, your life­style might in­flu­ence how your chil­dren’s genes func­tion.

Some healthy habits can spark al­most in­stant epi­ge­netic changes to your genes – changes that could help pro­tect against ev­ery­thing from heart dis­ease and stroke to di­a­betes, can­cer and arthri­tis. They could also help you drop weight. Many of them are very sim­ple to in­cor­po­rate into your ev­ery­day life.


The ac­tion of at least two genes that are linked to in­flam­ma­tion in the body are turned right down in peo­ple who med­i­tate. Psy­chol­o­gists at Coven­try Univer­sity an­a­lysed 18 stud­ies of gene be­hav­iour, and in re­search pub­lished in June this year con­cluded genes re­lated to in­flam­ma­tion be­come less ac­tive in peo­ple who prac­tise mind-body in­ter­ven­tions. This is key be­cause in­flam­ma­tion has been shown to play a role in the de­vel­op­ment and pro­gres­sion of a va­ri­ety of dis­eases, in­clud­ing heart dis­ease and rheuma­toid arthri­tis.


Be­ing ac­tive trig­gers pos­i­tive epi­ge­netic changes to at least a third of your genes, in­clud­ing some that have been linked to type-2 di­a­betes and a higher risk of obe­sity. When those par­tic­u­lar genes are de­ac­ti­vated, the way fat cells store fat im­proves. Re­search pub­lished in the Euro­pean Jour­nal of Ap­plied Phys­i­ol­ogy

Some sim­ple, healthy habits can spark al­most in­stant epi­ge­netic changes

last year con­cluded that after walk­ing for 45 min­utes three times a week for two months, study par­tic­i­pants ex­pe­ri­enced im­proved in­sulin sen­si­tiv­ity which re­duces in­flam­ma­tion and fat stor­age.

Con­sume re­sis­tant starch

Re­sis­tant starch is a fi­bre-like nu­tri­ent that’s found in lentils, cooked and

Genes re­lated to in­flam­ma­tion be­come less ac­tive in peo­ple who med­i­tate

cooled pota­toes, and many un­pro­cessed ce­re­als and grains. Be­cause re­sis­tant starch re­sists di­ges­tion, it makes it to the large in­tes­tine where bac­te­ria change it into a short-chain fatty acid. This has been shown to pro­duce ben­e­fi­cial epi­ge­netic changes in can­cer-re­lated genes, par­tic­u­larly those that may play a role in bowel can­cer.

Eat fer­mented foods

Fer­mented foods, such as kim­chi and sauer­kraut, cre­ate pos­i­tive ef­fects in the ex­pres­sion of genes re­lated to blood pres­sure and weight gain, thanks to the way they im­prove gut bac­te­ria. In a 2015 study pub­lished in Molec­u­lar Nutri­tion and Food Re­search, South Korean sci­en­tists con­cluded that eat­ing kim­chi for eight weeks could help metabolism, boost im­mu­nity and also have an im­pact on cir­cu­la­tion and di­ges­tion.

Get­ting enough sleep

Sleep de­pri­va­tion cre­ates the ideal en­vi­ron­ment for weight-gain-re­lated genes to be switched on – and even one bad night can have an im­pact. A Swedish study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Clin­i­cal En­docrinol­ogy and Metabolism con­cluded that los­ing just a sin­gle night of sleep can al­ter the genes that con­trol our body’s cel­lu­lar bi­o­log­i­cal clocks. Jonathan Ced­er­naes, lead au­thor of the study, says, “It could be these changes are re­set after one night of good sleep [or it may be] sleep loss could lead to changes in the genome of your tis­sues that can af­fect your metabolism for longer pe­ri­ods.”

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