You may have heard the word “methylation” floating around. Or maybe you’ve listened in on people talking about “epigenetics.” These are pretty technical terms, but unlike some medical jargon, there’s a really good reason why they are becoming so popular in conversation.
The science behind these terms is downright profound, and it’s definitely worth a few minutes of your time. Let’s start with a few provocative questions.
- Are you genetically identical to the person you were when you were born?
- Are you — including your genes and other information in your chromosomes — identical to who you were last year or even last month?
In a word: no. Our 23 pairs of chromosomes contain our genes, yet around 98% of the “storage capacity” of our genetic “data banks” consists of “epigenetic” information.
Your Genetic Hardware and Software
“Epigenetics” literally translates to “above the genes,” and it refers to modifications that attach to our DNA and regulate how our genes work. This epigenetic data has often been likened to software that runs our genetic hardware, our genes.
Here’s the thing. Both of these aspects of our essential identity — our genetic hardware and our epigenetic software — change over time. A lot has happened since you were born, right? Genetically speaking, this means that plenty of software updates have also occurred over the course of your life.
Chromosomes are packages of DNA found in our cells. Like other dynamic living material, they are subject to damage and mutation. This is especially true if you (and they) are exposed to conditions that are toxic for genes. A few examples of these include radiation, poor nutrition, certain chemicals (heavy metals, pollutants, etc.), and other things that accelerate aging processes in your body.
Gene mutation also occurs naturally when cells make occasional errors while copying their genes in preparation for making new cells. Some mutations are deadly mistakes, yet many are harmless, and some are even helpful. In fact, genetic evolution actually depends on mutations that create advantages.
Gene mutation is typically rare, but living experiences are also incredibly newsworthy to our genes. Our genetic operating system even records the big events! Here’s how it works. When we experience a significant event, it gets translated into an epigenetic “tag” that is placed on top of our DNA. This tag then changes the way our DNA is used, altering our future physiology. This way our bodies are prepared for a better response the next time a similar event takes place.
The recipe for this “tag” is remarkably simple — a carbon atom plus a couple of hydrogens. This carbon-hydrogen tagging unit is called a methyl group, and the DNA-tagging process is called (you guessed it) methylation. DNA methylation is one of the main ways your body updates your living software.
Methylation Is How Your Genes React to Life
Your body is almost constantly adjusting the pattern of methyl-tagging in your genes with all the big news in your life. It probably changes even more rapidly than your average social media algorithm!
What’s the point of all these status updates? Think of it this way. The DNA in our genes is the source code for proteins that allow us to function. That includes everything from making immune cells to healing damage.
When a methyl group is tagged onto DNA, it usually decreases or stops production of that gene’s protein. This leads to a reduction in whatever function that protein usually performs. On the other hand, when a methyl is popped off DNA, it generally increases creation of that gene’s protein, which increases the influence of that gene on your health.
Since it’s a natural, normal process, why does methylation matter? Life has ups and downs, and methylation rapidly targets gene function to influence how well you respond to them.
In comparison, altering genes through mutation is rare, and it’s totally hit-or-miss as to whether it’s advantageous or not. DNA methylation is all about updating the software that runs your brain, your immune system, and the rest of your physical self.
Researchers note that lifestyle can really affect which genetic programs are played out more often in your cells and which get taken off their playlist. For example, does your body frequently need to run inflammation crisis programs, or can it queue up a DNA repair playlist that protects you from cancer more regularly? Your methylation portrait can promote healthy aging, reduce your disease risk, and build good immunity — or it can do the opposite.
Methylation is how your genes react to your life. It also directs how our genes are expressed, so it’s critical that we get our methylation right. In my next article on this topic, we’ll explore more about how DNA methylation influences immunity and how to help steer it towards better health. Stay tuned.
For a Deeper Dive
For a preview, here’s a recent study that discovered something profound about methylation. Older people who changed the way they ate slowed down the aging of their DNA. These individuals followed a Mediterranean Diet — lots of fresh produce, olive oil, and nuts; a little red wine and fish; and not much meat, sweets, or processed food — for a year, and it worked especially well in people who had more DNA aging to begin with.