Epigenetics and Habits: How Does your Lifestyle Influence your Genes?

Environmental conditions, food and environmental factors alter genetic expression, even preventing the development of hereditary diseases.

Children running in a park

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LatinAmerican Post | Yenny Rodríguez Barajas

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Leer en español: Epigenética y hábitos: ¿Cómo influye tu estilo de vida en tus genes?

From conception, the fetus carries with it genetic information transmitted from its fathers/mothers, which influence certain physical characteristics such as height, hair color, skin color, and eyes, among others. Even genes associated with the predisposition to suffer from a chronic disease. However, according to the researchers, the human being has the power to produce changes in the organism -positive or negative- according to their eating habits, exposure to environmental factors and traumatic or positive experiences that they live. This is known as epigenetics.

In this way, doing physical activity in the open air such as walking, running, or playing; Having a balanced diet -rich in fruits and vegetables-, and avoiding stressful situations, allow genetic information to be modified without affecting the DNA sequence and thus, prevent the development or reduce the appearance of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cholesterol, or different types of cancer, among others. In fact, they even impact longevity.

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, during development, the DNA that makes up genes accumulates chemical marks that determine how many genes are expressed. That is to say, that the different experiences that children have reorganized those chemical marks. Which explains why genetically identical twins have different behaviors, abilities, health, and achievements. According to this same source, the epigenome can be influenced by positive experiences, such as supportive relationships and learning opportunities, or negative influences, such as environmental toxins or stressful life circumstances, which leave a unique epigenetic “signature” in the genes. These signatures can be temporary or permanent, and both types affect how easily genes are turned on or off.

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Epigenetics from fetal development

According to Tatiana Manrique Zuluaga, a psychologist specialized in Experimental Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience, and director of Colpsic (Fields, Programs, and Projects of the Colombian College of Psychologists), epigenetics is present from the moment of conception, during fetal development, as well as in childhood, adolescence and adult life.

“Studies agree that the earliest stages of fetal development are particularly sensitive to environmental factors that can modify epigenetics, having a significant impact on quality of life. For example: it has been shown that prenatal exposure to chemicals, toxins, psychoactive substances or malnutrition change the way in which DNA is expressed, increasing the risk of chronic diseases”, explains the specialist.

During childhood and adolescence, exposure to stressful experiences such as neglect or abuse modifies the marks on cells, increasing the risk of psychological disorders and altered emotional responses, the effects of which extend to children and even grandchildren. They may also influence the expression of genes that regulate brain function and behavior. “Certain epigenetic changes have been found to be associated with psychiatric and neurological disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and neurodevelopmental disorders,” says the psychologist. That is, while genetic factors exert powerful influences, environmental factors have the ability to alter inherited genes.

Some recommendations

According to Manrique Zuluaga, epigenetics is a constantly evolving field, and the precise effects of different environmental factors and lifestyles on epigenetic regulation at different stages of our lives are still being investigated.

However, "the promotion of a healthy lifestyle that includes a proper diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and stress reduction helps prevent hereditary diseases and reduces the risk of chronic diseases." Some strategies that can be implemented are:

  1. Maintain healthy lifestyle habits: A healthy diet (balancing the intake of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, carbohydrates, and water), regular exercise, and stress reduction can help reduce the effects of epigenetics on emotional disorders. Regular physical activity can also have positive effects on the brain and cognitive function. For example, studies have found that physical activity can reduce DNA methylation in genes linked to inflammation and oxidative stress, which can improve metabolic health and chronic pain.

  2. Avoiding the use of toxic substances: The use of toxic substances, such as alcohol and drugs, can increase DNA methylation and histone modification (epigenetic mechanisms that can affect gene expression), which can increase the risk of emotional disorders.

  3. Maintain good sleep hygiene: Adequate sleep quality and duration have also been associated with positive changes in epigenetic factors, for example, improving quality of life in people with obesity, diabetes, and cancer. They have also been related to better conditions for learning, with great impact during the early stages of life.

  4. Seek professional help: If you are experiencing symptoms of emotional disorders, it is important to seek professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist, who through therapeutic intervention can help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

  5. Maintain social support: Strong social support can help reduce the impact of environmental factors on epigenetics and emotional disorders. It is important to have a strong and reliable support system of friends, family, and other loved ones.

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