Epigenetic Marks: What They Are And Why They Matter

Epigenetic marks can have a profound impact on long-term health. Learn more about epigenetic marks, and it’s influence on health and well being.

RELATED: How To Turn Back Your Biological Clock? Know Your Epigenetic Biomarkers

In this article:

  1. Epigenetic Marks and DNA
  2. Gene Expression and Epigenetic Marks
  3. DNA Methylation
  4. Why Epigenetic Marks Matter
    1. Epigenetic Marks and Disease
    2. External Factors Influence Epigenetic Marks

Epigenetic Marks And Why They’re Important

Epigenetic Mark and DNA

All the cells in your body have the same DNA, but cells in various parts of the body are distinct. For example, brain cells are different from skin cells, and each cell has a unique function. DNA tells each cell what to do and how to behave based on its purpose.

DNA Definition: A set of codes that tells each cell how to behave.

Epigenetic marks are small chemical tags that instruct genes to turn on or off. The instructions affect how a cell reads the underlying genes. In other words, epigenetic marks can prevent DNA from sending messages to cells.

Sometimes it is a good thing because it stops DNA from giving cells unnecessary messages. However, in other cases, this block prevents genes from expressing, which may cause health problems.

Gene Expression and Epigenetic Marks

When DNA information is converted into instructions and sent to a cell, it is called gene expression. Gene expressions tell cells to make specific proteins. It also gives cells their ability to respond to their environment.

Gene expression is like an on/off switch for individual cellular functions. In other words, some genes tell cells to grow, or switch on, while others stop cells from growing.

Sometimes DNA expression malfunctions, and the on/off switch gets stuck. For example, cancer tumor growth.

Cancer cells grow when the epigenetic mark – the chemical tag – prevents the gene from switching off. At the same time, the gene continues to instruct a cell to grow. We can measure this through marks like DNA methylation.

DNA Methylation

DNA Methylation is one of the most common epigenetic marks we can track.

Methylation Definition: A biological process where a group of methyl molecules attaches to DNA. It prevents a gene from expressing.

Normal DNA has four nucleotides, each of which is a combination of a base molecule, a carbon sugar, and a phosphate group that binds the sugar molecule to the DNA. These four nucleotides work together to signal correctly to the cells.

One of these four standard nucleotides has a cytosine base.

Cytosine Definition: A chemical compound found in natural tissue. It is one of the building blocks of DNA. Cytosine is one of the bases coding genetic information.

When a methyl group attaches to DNA, it tends to latch on to the cytosine through a hydrogen bond. As a result, it blocks the part of the DNA that signals carrier protein to turn “on” cellular function.

Whereas DNA methylation turns a gene off, demethylation turns it on.

DNA methylation is crucial to human development. It suppresses specific genes and stops damaged DNA sequences from replicating.

Methylation and demethylation are like a series of switches in the body. Regularly turning these switches on and off ensures everything functions properly.

On the other hand, abnormal DNA methylation patterns are concerning. For this reason, DNA methylation is a valuable epigenetic mark.

Why Epigenetic Marks Matter

Sometimes, DNA expression doesn’t work properly. Sometimes the on/off switch gets stuck.

Tumor growth in cancer is a good example of this.

We have certain genes that tell our cells to divide and grow: on switches. We have other genes that tell our cells when it’s time to stop growing: off switches.

In the case of tumor growth, what often happens is that an epigenetic mark—a chemical addition—blocks the off switch gene while the on switch gene gets left on. We can measure this through marks like DNA methylation.

DNA Methylation

Researchers are studying the links between epigenetics and diseases, especially abnormal DNA methylation patterns. For instance, studies found links between methylation and diseases like cancer, muscle dystrophy, and autoimmune diseases, among others.

Understanding how DNA methylation affects these conditions may help scientists develop better therapies.

It may also improve disease detection methods. According to a colon cancer study, it is possible to detect the disease before symptoms show by looking for hyper-methylation or too much DNA methylation.

DNA methylation and demethylation are part of many essential processes in the body, particularly:

  • Energy production
  • Cellular repair after free radical damage
  • Immune system response
  • Inflammation response
  • Production of glutathione, a valuable antioxidant
  • Stress response
  • Genetic expression
  • DNA repair
  • Balancing brain chemistry

Finally, DNA methylation is the most accurate indicator of biological age.

Biological age Definition: Biological age, as opposed to chronological age, looks at aging on a cellular level.

Biological age determines how well someone ages. Habits like smoking, alcoholism, poor diet, an inactive lifestyle are all capable of increasing DNA methylation. Consequently, it speeds up the biological aging process and increases the risk of developing age-related diseases.

Knowing your biological age empowers you to make lifestyle changes that may reverse biological age.

External Factors Influence Epigenetic Marks

Epigenetic marks have a profound impact on long-term health. It may even affect future generations’ health because children can inherit marks from their parents.

Because environmental factors influence epigenetic marks, we have an opportunity to change our epigenetic marks. Engaging in more positive behaviors, such as regular exercise or intermittent fasting, may reduce the risk of age-related diseases. Additionally, it may enable us to live longer and age better.

Positive behaviors that may influence epigenetic marks include:

  • Eating a nutritious diet of high-quality protein, dark, leafy green vegetables, and berries
  • Getting enough folate and B vitamins
  • Minimizing our exposure to toxins, including nicotine and too much alcohol
  • Reducing stress
  • Keeping your gut healthy with probiotics
  • Getting regular exercise and sleep

Epigenetic marks are a significant way to understand better our genetic code and how to influence it for better health. It offers an opportunity to positively impact longevity so, treat your epigenome kindly with the lifestyle choices you make.

What changes will you make to benefit your epigenome? Let us know in the comment section!

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