What the heck is epigenetics? When I first was introduced to the word it was through a video I was watching on the ketogenic diet. I was fascinated and decided to research further.Since then I’ve read several medical journal articles and quite a few books on the subject. My academic training in clinical psychology was strongly research oriented, and personally I’m just like a dog with a juicy bone once something catches my interest. I want to know more. I’m hoping you do, too.
I’m going to attempt to lay out as neatly and as simply as possible an introduction to telomeres and why they’re so important, and to the exciting world of epigenetics so that you can start engineering your health and daily glow through a short list of simple life changes. They can be challenging to implement, I know, but get psyched and get pumped, you can do it! When you’re cells are happy you both feel and look better – and it doesn’t take long to start to notice both. First, you need to understand what telomeres are and how we can care for them – or trash them. Then I’ll visit the definition of epigenetics and explain how we can engineer our health through lifestyle changes. Quite simply, we are not just “stuck” with the genes we inherited! Think of our genes as our “hardware” and epigenetics as our “software”. We can write software that will help determine which genes express themselves and which genes don’t. Have a family history of breast cancer? Alzheimer’s? Perhaps there is much you can do to help determine whether or not that specific gene “turns on” or not. Solid scientific research says you can.
The term “epigenetics” refers to the heritable changes to the underlying DNA sequence; a change in phenotype without a change in genotype. This in turn effects how cells read the genes. Epigenetic change is a regular and natural occurrence but can also be influenced by several factors including lifestyle. In a big way.
Turns out that on a cellular level damage and biological aging can be measured by the length of our telomeres. But what’s a telomere? They’re the DNA-protein structures located at the ends of each of our chromosomes. Their job is to protect and preserve the genome from damage. Each time our cells divide a small bit of the telomere DNA is lost. When, eventually, that telomere length reaches a critical point, the cell undergoes something called senescence (the condition or process of deterioration with age and the cell’s power of division and growth) and/or apoptosis (the process of programmed cell death). Both senescence and apoptosis contribute directly to aging as each time our cells divide the copies that are produced do not have the integrity of the one before that..and the one before that…and so on and so forth. So, the length of your telomeres is in a sense the BIG CLOCK ticking. The shorter your telomeres become, the closer you are to falling ill to all sorts of diseases including but not limited to various forms of cancer, brain dementia, diabetes, etc., and the closer you are to your final demise. And for those of you who are primarily concerned with your looks? Telomeres rule. The longer they are, the younger you are – biologically – which is the only thing that matters. Chronological age is a number. Biological age is how old we really are. Next time you see someone who looks ten years younger than they are, think telomeres. Turns out it’s not just the genes you inherit after all, but how they are treated as well.
Minding the “Big Four” – diet, stress levels, sleep habits and exercise are key to preserving your telomeres, and telomeres in my humble opinion are the Holy Grail of epigenetics. One article I read compared telomeres to “genomic scribes that record and react to all the insults accumulated through our lifetime”. Your telomeres do not lie.
So let’s get down to it. First a little bit about diet. A crappy diet causes increased oxidative stress and DNA damage. One’s BMI correlates with biomarker of DNA damage independent of age. In the case of obesity, this increase in oxidative stress is likely caused by a deregulated production of adipocytokines (a bioactive product produced by adipose [fat] tissue comprised of inflammatory mediators, angiogenic proteins and metabolic regulators). Oxidative stress induces DNA damage and can shorten telomeres. Telomeres in obese women have been shown to be significantly shorter than those in lean women of the same chronological age. So biologically, fat people age faster, and the loss was found to be equal to about 9 years. They’re also stronger candidates for illnesses like diabetes. Folks with type 2 diabetes increase their risk enormously for Alzheimer’s, as much as 50%. Doctors are even calling it “type 3 diabetes” now. Quite literally, the brain can no longer handle out of control glucose levels. No small potatoes. Now, does that mean that folks who aren’t overweight have great looking telomeres? Not necessarily, but it’s a biggie. A clinically overweight person no longer has healthy metabolic functioning. They are a hormonal mess. The good news is that our bodies have beyond miraculous mending capabilities – but you have to provide it an environment it can work with.
On to stress. No doubt about it, we all live in a stressful world these days. The rather strange environment we’ve created for ourselves in all its modernity constantly signals potential dangers way above and beyond immediate life-threatening events. The list that triggers the stress response seems to go on forever…late for work, fender bender, argument with a friend, money concerns..on and on. So what happens when we experience stress? If it’s to escape with life and limb intact, then stress has done it’s job and we recover. But I’m talking chronic stress, the type that manifests in anxiety, depression, adrenal fatigue, and a plethora of other ills. Stress releases glucocorticoid hormones from our adrenal gland. These hormones reduce the levels of antioxidant proteins and opens up our DNA to increased oxidative damage (there’s that term again) and shortening of our telomeres. Individuals under constant stress and/or who do not handle stressors well have been shown to have telomere shortening equal to about 10 years of chronological life, and of course along with that comes a significantly higher risk of being diagnosed with disease. Sorry, gotta see reality before you can change it!
Sleep. Babies know how to do it right. Perhaps we lose the ancient wisdom as we grow up.Not getting enough sleep is directly linked to cellular aging. It shortens your telomeres. All sorts of incredible, amazing repair work is done every single night we go to sleep. Sleep is divine. Sleep is amazing. I cannot stress enough the importance that proper sleep plays in the role of health and the aging process. And, sorry to say, you can’t “make it up” the next night like I used to think (although that’s preferable to repeating another all nighter of course). I was a night owl my entire life until pretty recently. I know I did damage. The sooner you start paying attention to your sleep habits, the better. During sleep our bodies “clean house”. Hormones are released – HGH (human growth hormone) increases while cortisol dips and then rises slowly and steadily as morning draws nearer in order to prepare you for waking and starting your day. Sex and fertility hormones are released while you sleep. Leptin and gherlin, the hormones that regulate and balance your appetite are in play. Sleep is vital to the health of your immune system. A mighty antioxidant, melatonin (also a hormone) is released to regulate and promote a healthy circadian rhythm. In addition when we are sleep deprived, the hormone cortisol runs amuck, thus adding to overall stress levels and compounding the already compromised endocrine system. Sleep is truly a breathtaking symphony, and our body the orchestra. The concert of sleep is performed each and every night, cycling through several times before we wake. What little we understand about sleep already qualifies it as one of the body’s most marvelous and miraculous acts. Our body, the vehicle enables us to experience all that life has to offer, performs maintenance for us in the dark as we rest.
The last of the Big Four is, of course, exercise. Exercise is magnificent at helping the other three Bigs along. It can help in creating better eating habits and better sleeping habits, and we know it’s a big time stress buster. Studies show that people who exercise regularly have longer telomeres – whether it has to do with exercise solely, or the fact that exercise tends to be a very well matched companion for the other key three lifestyle factors doesn’t really matter for the purpose of this little article. We know that people who exercise tend to have longer telomeres that folks who don’t.
Sooooo, back to epigenetics. Remember that I compared epigenetics to software that can be written (and re-written) to turn genes on or off? We can change our diet and radically impact the expression of our genes by, for starters, getting off the sugar (I’m not getting into gluten here but suffice to say a lot of people are experiencing an inflammatory state and don’t realize what’s happening). Sugar causes oxidative damage. It’s a pretty serious toxin and highly addictive. And it doesn’t matter all that much in what form we introduce it into our bodies, whether it’s pasta, bagels or donuts. Our body turns it into glucose, and too much glucose leads down the path to a host of uglies, diabetes being only one of them. Protein can even turn into glucose via gluconeogenesis! So those of you downing protein like there’s no tomorrow ’cause you think since it’s zero carbs all is well? Think again! The goal is to keep blood glucose nice and low and on an even keel. A lot of people have metabolic damage from years of crappy eating but their numbers haven’t reached the point where your doc starts to get on your case. It’s called being “pre-diabetic” and there is still time to turn it around before more damage happens!
Stress Management – We can increase stress busting activities and tools. Whatever works for you – do it. Personally I like yoga, walking my dogs and in the warmer months, hiking and trap shooting. I know that when I get to hang out with friends and family members (who are handling their own stress decently) I feel calmer – and well, happier. The next time you are trolling Netflix for a movie, pick a comedy. Meditate. It doesn’t have to be in the conventional way (ohm), it doesn’t have to be complicated or cost money. Sometimes I just flop on the floor and listen to calming music for as little as ten minutes at a time – or dance around the room like a maniac. Light a candle and stare into the flame. When things come up don’t get frustrated – just gently push them away as you would a boat from the shore, setting it adrift. You can retrieve it later if you need to. Keep in mind that you are repairing, restoring, and fortifying. Always employing your common sense and your conscience, if it feels good, do it!
Sleep – Aim for getting to bed by 11 pm. 10 pm’s even better. Get 7-9 hours of sleep. Do whatever you need to do to make this happen. Yeah, I still stay up late sometimes, but I’m a hell of a lot better than I used to be. And when I do stay up late, I’m really aware of it the next morning. When I lived with a sleep deprivation hangover plaguing me, I didn’t even realize it because I didn’t really know the difference. I just stayed up late all the time! We are not nocturnal. If we were we would not have invented electricity and flashlights. See that hypnotic look the owl has? It looks really cool on an owl…no so much on me. Scary!
Exercise – Perhaps it seems a bit redundant because exercise often is used as a great stress-buster…but if you haven’t incorporated exercise into your life then find something you like and start doing it. Worthy to note is that kicking your ass with relentless high-impact exercise or doing endless amounts of aerobics have been shown to increase physiological stress levels over time and do – yes – oxidative damage. I’m not talking about inflammation regarding sore muscles after a workout. I’m talking about metabolic damage caused by not allowing your endocrine system ample repair time.
Wow, this has turned into a rather long article. I hope you hung in there. I feel so passionate about sharing this stuff because it allows each and every one of us the awesome possibilities of both addressing damage that’s been done already and fortifying our bodies for the future. It’s powerful information and available to us all.
I’ll be writing a follow-up article soon on supplements and certain food groups that are stellar epigenetic candidates. Again, there is plenty of good sound research out there for many of them. Epigenetics is cutting edge, and we’re all going to see a lot more of it in the not-so-distant future! It’s about stopping disease before it happens, or even reversing it, rather than treating the symptoms for the rest of your [shortened] life. Be ahead of the curve and the herd – why not? The trillions of cells in your body are there to serve you. Give them what they need to do their job!