What Is Epigenetics?

Learn about the power we all have to eliminate chronic disease

Epigenetics threw scientists for a loop. We thought we understood how information was passed from parent to child during development, but it turns out we didn’t know the whole story.

We’ve known for decades that genes are long strings of DNA found in all cells. The DNA contains the genetic code that instructs cells how to make the proteins needed for a healthy body. Proteins are made before we are born and throughout our lives. Until a couple of decades ago, we thought that was the whole story. But along came the field of epigenetics, a new and exciting field of genetic research.

Epigenetics refers to newly discovered ways that our cells can change the expression of our genes, meaning whether they are turned on or off. So it turns out our genes aren’t a rigid blueprint for our health, but a collection of infinite possibilities that can be switched on or off depending on the nutrition and well-being our mothers experienced during pregnancy. This fast growing area of research is continually uncovering links between environmental factors and long-term health outcomes and has recently discovered some new ways that genes are turned off and on—sometimes for life—sometimes not.

Nutrition as a cause of epigenetic changes has been the focus of a great deal of research during the past 10 years. One of the most significant discoveries involved determining how a woman’s diet before and during her pregnancy, and during the baby’s first 1,000 days – roughly the time from conception to age two – could affect her child’s vulnerability for developing chronic diseases like heart disease, obesity and diabetes later in life. It turns out the degree to which certain genes are turned on or off may have a greater effect on our risk for developing these chronic diseases than does the genetic code we inherited from our parents.

Once it was demonstrated that genes can be regulated by nutrients, we realized that our risk for disease can be directly tied to our diets. At no time is this more important than during fetal development. The risk of turning off “good” genes is highest during development. If this happens a person can be much more likely to develop chronic disease over their lifespan, but particularly as they age.

So how does all this work?

It’s a complex process, but one way it works involves the methylation of genes. Some foods in our diet are rich in chemical entities called methyl groups. These methyl groups can behave like tags that attach to specific chemical regions of our DNA and serve to turn genes off. Diets that are high in methyl-rich foods, especially before and during pregnancy, can suppress genes that put us at risk for developing chronic disease later in life. In addition, several other chemical changes that occur with healthy diets reduce our risk for disease.

What does it mean for me?

Growing evidence suggests that chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and obesity can be shut off for future generations, if we make sure everyone in this generation – especially infants, girls and women – are surrounded by whole foods and have opportunities to lead healthy lives. Spreading the word to women who may be thinking about becoming pregnant, making changes to your diet, and your family’s diet, encouraging changes to the food culture at your place of business or school and supporting public policies that support easy access to nutritious foods for all will help ensure that we are on the right track toward taking a huge bite out of the chronic diseases currently affecting the health of the U.S. population.

Learn more by watching OHSU Moore Institute director Kent Thornburg, Ph.D. explain in a recent TEDxPortland talk.