A Simple Introduction to Epigenetics: Updating Our Perspective on How Our Genes Influence Our Health

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Dr. Sylvia Orozco Silberman DO, MS
March 18, 2024 / 7 mins read

Definition by the CDC: Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect how your genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.

Are we victims of our heredity? Are we powerless in controlling our biology? Our medical paradigm has us believe that the answers lie in an external solution to our “hereditary” issues.

In the ‘90s, the Human Genome Project was a $3-billion medical promise to “revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.” It promised to provide individualized medical care based on your unique DNA. Unfortunately, the project under-delivered on its promise and failed for several reasons. I’ll share a little bit of history to plant not only a seed of inquiry but also a seed of surrender to the endless magnificence of the human body. DNA is not so straightforward.

Envision a cell. A cell has many organelles inside that serve many different functions. An important organelle is the nucleus. The nucleus is the home of our DNA, our genetic makeup. You can think of your DNA as a book. It’s made of letters that make sentences. Each unique sentence is read and then makes a protein. Proteins work all over the body to serve different, incredible functions.

The dogma in how our DNA functions governs how physicians treat disease and educate patients on how their bodies function. Most patients leave a clinic understanding that our genetic code is the “end all, be all” and that most diseases or diagnoses are due to their genetics.

Unfortunately, the “new” science of epigenetics is not translated into medical education or clinical medicine. It has been a term loosely thrown around the medical world without shifting the perspective of clinical medicine. In 2012, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Sir John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, recognizing their work in epigenetics. In 2006, Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello won the Nobel Prize for their work in epigenetics.

One definition of epigenetics is “the transmitted inherited genome activity that does not depend on the naked DNA sequence.” In layperson’s terms, identical twins who have the exact same DNA may have different health expressions. They are different because it is not our DNA that governs our health; rather, a wide variety of chemical modifications take place.

Using the analogy of a book to understand DNA and health, you are not just reading a book word for word and making proteins. Chemical reactions are flipping to different pages and deciding which sentences to read. For this reason, identical twins are not 100% identical.

So, what governs our chemical reactions?

Our environment.

This stirs up the debate of nature vs. nurture. I am not picking a side but instead planting the seed on how the environment influences the function of our cells. If you place a cell in a Petri dish with a surrounding liquid containing lots of sugar, the cell will respond by its environment. If placed in liquid with minimal salt, it will react differently.

Our environment matters. What we do matters.

Doctors are responsible for attending to such factors and explaining the relationship between lifestyle, diet, and other environmental factors and health because we need to understand that we can influence a change in its expression.

From a reductionist point of view, you can interpret your environment as the liquid around a single cell. In a broader view, you can solve your organs as one big functioning “cell” (made of many cells). On the widest view, you can view your WHOLE body as one big cell, functioning as one cohesive unit, and the environment is all that is around us. Your food choices influence DNA expression. Your emotions influence DNA expression.

Your exposure to nature influences DNA expression. Your thoughts influence DNA expression. Your movements influence DNA expression. Trauma influences DNA expression. The airway influences DNA expression. The ego influences DNA expression.

Influence your environment by nourishing it with laughs with friends, organic nourishing foods, love, walks in silence through nature, being surrounded by those you love, drinking clean water, and practicing gratitude.

The perspective of epigenetics returns the experience of health to us.

For further research:
1. Hall, Stephen S., “Revolution Postponed: Why the Human Genome Project Has Been Disappointing.” Scientific American Magazine, Vol. 303, No. 4 (October 2010)

2. “Cancer, epigenetics and the Nobel Prizes,” Molecular Oncology, 6 (2012), pp. 565-566

3. Lipton, PhD, Bruce. Biology of Belief – Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles. 2016