Why You Must Understand Epigenetics

SUMMARY:  Why Must You Understand Epigenetics?  Because  epigenetics is the real driver of your health status, and diet plays a major role in gene expression (aka epigenetics), at least in this post’s animal study!  Mention this fun fact at holiday gatherings as others notice and comment — good and bad — about your favor of healthy whole foods with resist of the nutritionally empty and microbiome harming options!  Epigenetics is a big word but it simply means the process by which your genes are turned on or off (aka expressed) in good or bad ways.  You already know, diet pre-selects “who” comprises the gut microbiome.  This post shares the University of Wisconsin-Madison mouse study which found that the molecules produced by the microbiome (aka metabolites) tells our genes what to do (turn on or off).  This study looked at two diets: a carbohydrate rich diet (one rich in plant carbohydrates similar to fruits and vegetables humans consume) and pitted it against the Western, Standard American Diet (SAD) (think high in simple refined carbs, added sugars,  and unhealthy fats — this is found in most all home cooked, grocery prepared, and restaurant meals as they use convenient processed ingredients).  Their results showed the plant based diet yielded a more rich microbiome which in turn, produced metabolites that seemed to favor host-microbe communication as they chemically communicated with cells, including cells FAR beyond the colon (the liver and white fat tissue), to dictate gene expression and health (metabolic  — insulin, lipid to name a few) in its host.  In contrast, the metabolites of the SAD did not provide this communication likely because it was MISSING the necessary metabolites to do so!  If you think this is awkward party talk, what is even MORE AWKWARD is feeling others watch what you eat so that they can learn what foods express their genes best!  You’ve worked hard to learn microbiome.  I am  in awe and proud of you.  Now it’s your turn to pay it forward and teach others by doing!  

lightbulb2Look… Your genes are not your destiny.  Disease is rooted in our DNA EXPRESSION.  
Epigenetics triggers disease in those predisposed.  
Time to learn a short EASY bit more about epigenetics now that you know THIS is the real driver of your health status.

I love this video analogy of epigenetics:  What is Epigenetics?  An Entertaining and Educational Primer”, GreenmedTV, April 2013.  Look through the below slides to see how they use only PUNCTUATION VARIANCE TO DRAMATICALLY CHANGE UP THE DIALOGUE CONTEXT.  This is a great analogy to what epigenetics does.  EPIGENETICS DOES NOT “CHANGE UP” HUMAN DNA — that is constant for a lifetime.  Rather, an EPIGENETIC CHANGE READS THE INFORMATION DIFFERENTLY AND EXPRESSES GENES ACCORDINGLY; THAT CAN BE BENEFICIAL OR DETRIMENTAL TO HEALTH AND DISEASE STATUS.  I want you to think of this analogy as you read through the short EASY technicals of epigenetics because epigenetics is easier to get than it sounds!  Here’s the bottom line:  Interactions with the environment do not change the genes, but they alter their expression by switching them on and off through chemical tags on the DNA“. — Gut microbes switch host genes on and off under influence of diet

Now for the technicals made EASY and simple:  A module from Learning Genetics, from the University of Utah, called The Epigenome at a Glance explains:

  • DNA contains the instructions for building all the parts of the body.  DNA is wrapped around proteins called histones.  Both the DNA and histones are covered with chemical tags.  This second layer of structure is called the epigenome.  See this in the below slide.
  • The epigenome shapes the physical structure of the genome.  It tightly wraps inactive genes making them unreadable.  It relaxes active genes making them easily accessible.  Different genes are active in different cell types. The human DNA code is fixed for life, but the epigenome is flexible. 
  • The epigenome changes in response to signals.  Signals come from inside the cell, from neighboring cells, or from the outside world (environment). The signals from the outside world or environment that epigenetic tags react to include diet (things we eat are broken down and circulate throughout the body), stress (physical, emotional, chronic inflammation, disease), sleep, toxins, and more (see parameters on the below Whole Health Pillars slide).  The epigenome adjusts specific genes in our genometic landscape in response to our rapidly changing environment. 


  • It is Proteins that Carry the Signals to the DNA.  Once a signal reaches a cell, proteins carry information inside. Like runners in a relay race, proteins pass information to one another. The specifics of the proteins involved and how they work differ, depending on the signal and the cell type. But the basic idea is universal. The information is ultimately passed to a gene regulatory protein that attaches to a specific sequence of letters on the DNA.
  • A gene regulatory protein attaches to a specific sequence of DNA on one or more genes. Once there, it acts like a switch, activating genes or shutting them down.  Gene regulatory proteins also recruit enzymes that add or remove epigenetic tags. Enzymes add epigenetic tags to the DNA, the histones, or both.  Epigenetic tags give the cell a way to “remember” long-term what its genes should be doing.

You can PLAY (so can your kidos!) with the epigenetic controls at this website to SEE and MAKE epigenetics happen!  Just Do it… NOW!

lightbulb2The PEARL:  Signals from the outside world can work through the epigenome to change a cell’s gene expression, moving towards health, or not.

Now for the University of Wisconsin-Madison diet study.

The study, Diet-Microbiota Interactions Mediate Global Epigenetic Programming in Multiple Host Tissues, with full text PDF here, found that gut microbes have a huge role in health as they alter the host gene expression in a diet dependent manner.  The two diets studied, a plant based carbohydrate rich diet (think fruit/vegetables) compared to the Western, Standard American Diet (SAD) (think low fiber and high in simple carbs, sugars, and unhealthy fats found in most all home cooked/grocery prepared/restaurant foods as they use processed ingredients), expressed genes very differently not just in the gut, but in the liver and fatty tissue FAR removed from the gut.  From the Wisconsin University News article, Gut’s microbial community shown to influence host gene expression

  • “One of the findings here is that microbial metabolism or fermentation of plant fiber results in the animals production of short-chain fatty acids. These molecules, and potentially many others, are partially responsible for the communication with the epigenome,” says John Denu, a UW–Madison professor of biomolecular chemistry and a senior researcher at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, and a co-author of the new study.  
  • Surprisingly, in addition to talking to cells in the colon, the microbiome also seems to be communicating with cells in the liver and in fatty tissue far removed from the gut.
  • In contrast, the gut microbiota of animals fed a Western diet rich in sugar and fat had a less diverse microbiome that prevented many of the epigenetic changes that occur in the plant-rich diet and thus had a diminished capacity to communicate with host cells.  The Western diet may not necessarily be a good source of food for the flora inhabiting the gut. Now isn’t that an understatement looking at the current ongoing disease epidemic!
  • The researchers then fed the mice raised in a germ-free environment with three different short-chain fatty acids that the study showed to be important messengers to the epigenome. The supplement was enough to promote much the kind of healthy interplay between microbiota and host cells seen in mice given a diet high in plant fiber. It is likely that other metabolites play a role as well since full restoration did not occur.  
  • “It helps show that the collection of three short-chain fatty acids produced in the plant-based diet are likely major communicators.  We see that it is not just the microbe. It’s microbial metabolism.” explained John Denu.
  • The template for a healthy human microbiome was set in the distant past, when food from plants made up a larger portion of diet and sugar and fat were less available than in contemporary diets with more meat and processed foods. 
  • “As we move away from plant-based diets, we may be losing some of that communication between microbes and host with a Western-type diet.  It seems like the communication between microbes and host gets lost.”  noted Federico Rey, a UW–Madison professor of bacteriology and co-corresponding author of the study.

This EurekAlert, Changes in the Diet Affect Epigenetics via the Microbiota, explains:

Additional work needs to be done to translate these findings from mice into humans. “Obviously that’s a complex task,” Denu says. “But we know that human microbial communities also generate these short-chain fatty acids, and that you find them in the plasma in humans, so we speculate the same things are going on.”

Rey adds that butyrate-producing bacteria tend to occur at lower levels in people with diabetes and cardiovascular disease [and many other disease conditions], and butyrate is also thought to have anti-inflammatory effects in the intestine.

But the investigators don’t advocate supplementing the diet with short-chain fatty acids as a way around eating healthy.Fruits and vegetables are a lot more than complex polysaccharides,” Rey says. “They have many other components, including polyphenols, that are also metabolized in the gut and can potentially affect chromatin in the host in ways that we don’t yet understand. Short-chain fatty acids are the tip of the iceberg, but they’re not the whole story.”

In conclusion, You Must Understand Epigeneticslightbulb2Because your genes are not your destiny.  

Disease is rooted in our DNA EXPRESSION.  

Epigenetics triggers disease in those predisposed.  

Epigenetics is at the heart of microbiome optimization for prevention and management of chronic disease.  That is the mission of Biome Onboard Awareness, LLC:  To make you aware of  “Whole Health Pillars,” diet and lifestyle changes, so that you can PUT THE BRAKES on epigenetic changes that trigger disease, or optimize your gut microbiome if disease is already triggered to improve health status and mitigate epigenetic gene expression that stops furthering detriment to health and disease status.  How empowering!

It is sad, but I hear over and over again, “Had I only known about diet, lifestyle, microbiome and its cross talk for epigenetics, I wouldn’t be on this X drug, biologic, or chemo drug.”

Gene expression is hugely influenced by diet, environment, all aspects of stress (physical, mental, emotional, ongoing chronic inflammation, and infections/disease), sleep, toxin exposure, sun exposure, and exercise.  The process whereby these factors influence gene expression is called “epigenetics,” and you have a say in influencing that gene expression by manipulating and optimizing your microbiome through diet and lifestyle, and thus you can optimize the microbome’s metabolites which influence epigenetic gene expression.  Recall:  “Gene regulatory proteins also recruit enzymes that add or remove epigenetic tags. Enzymes add epigenetic tags to the DNA, the histones, or both.  Epigenetic tags give the cell a way to “remember” long-term what its genes should be doing.”  —Learning Genetics, from the University of Utah, called The Epigenome at a Glance.

This study put it nicely and succinctly this way:

“Thus, despite our genome being more or less fixed, our microbiota pre-selected based on diet and lifestyle, affects our epigenome.  One such example is DNA methylation and histone modification mechanisms regulating gene expression, which we are only now beginning to understand.  This is called epigenetics.”  — “The first thousand days – intestinal microbiology of early life: establishing a symbiosis,” June 2014.

You now realize the importance of diet in this gene expression.  Use your knowledge as motivation to make change because well… to continue to put gasoline on the fire, or play Russian roulette when you know you are predisposed to disease, is really stupid for yourself.  It also is really ignorant and selfish to your family who loves you.  You have a responsibility to them to live as long and as healthy as you can, and they bear the brunt of dealing with the mess you’ve made of your health if you’ve neglected diet and lifestyle implications for health.  I don’t usually go here, but I am passionate about restoration of your vitality, health, and the consequent domino effect that ripples throughout your family.

Did you know…. SMART corporations are educating their employees about microbiome, diet, lifestyle, and epigenetics to not just reduce their healthcare costs, but increase their bottom line!  It started with their educating their executives. They extended it and found that educated employees make diet and lifestyle changes that improves their well-being and health.  These epigenetic changes also include improved cognition and employee energy, and THAT employee is more productive!  Now that’s smart corporations making bank!

I truly hope you learned something here to help move you to health through increased awareness.  Please pay it forward this holiday season and demo how to eat to support your microbiome and thus your epigenetics! 


Last updated: February 14, 2017 at 19:45 pm to add “epigenetics” cateory and tag for SEO optimization.

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