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The genetic DNA that we are born with may not change, but the growing field of epigenetics is looking at the factors that influence how our genes are expressed. Researchers have found that the on and off switches on genes, which we may be able to influence with diet and lifestyle modifications, including limiting our exposure to toxins, have a real impact on our ability to prevent chronic disease, reduce mortality and increase longevity.

“The cells of the body contain DNA, which contains genes. We inherit our genes and they cannot be changed. The genes, however, have ‘methyl groups’ attached which affect what is known as ‘gene expression’ — whether the genes are activated or deactivated. The methyl groups can be influenced in various ways, through exercise, diet and lifestyle, in a process known as ‘DNA methylation'” (source).

One of these major factors in gene expression is exercise and a recent study has shown that even a small amount of daily exercise changes the fat storage levels of cells.The Karolinska Institute in Stockholm studied the epigenetics of exercise by having 23 healthy men and women bicycle using just one leg for three months. Because there are so many potential factors contributing to the methylation patterns, they used the non-exercised leg as a control for exercise, and compared the individual’s responses using a series of physical performance and medical tests, including a muscle biopsy.

“Not surprisingly, the volunteers’ exercised leg was more powerful now than the other, showing that the exercise had resulted in physical improvements. But the changes within the muscle cells’ DNA were more intriguing. Using sophisticated genomic analysis, the researchers determined that more than 5,000 sites on the genome of muscle cells from the exercised leg now featured new methylation patterns. Some showed more methyl groups; some fewer. But the changes were significant and not found in the unexercised leg. Interestingly, many of the methylation changes were on portions of the genome known as enhancers that can amplify the expression of proteins by genes. And gene expression was noticeably increased or changed in thousands of the muscle-cell genes that the researchers studied. Most of the genes in question are known to play a role in energy metabolism, insulin response and inflammation within muscles” (source).

This research leaves hope for understanding epigenetic factors that influence the gene expression of so-called “inherited” diseases. Just because you carry the gene, does not mean that your body will express it. Mapping your DNA and finding genetic markers of disease, once a dismal prediction for a future chronic illness or disease, may soon give you the opportunity to understand the epigenetic factors and empower you to take control over your own health!

Sources:

How Exercise Changes our DNA, Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times Blog, December 17, 2014

Exercise: putting action into our epigenome., Sports Med., February 2014

Epigenetic changes to fat cells following exercise, Science Daily, July 13, 2014

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