Although Aristotle mentioned epigenesis in ancient times, and the English geneticist Conrad Waddington mentioned epigenetics in 1942, the first scientific publications in this field date back to the 1970s, with increasing importance in the 2000s. The prefix epi in epigenetics means 'around' or 'beyond' in Greek, literally means 'around the genes' or 'beyond the genes'. Thus, for Joël de Rosnay, one of the most eminent specialists in epigenetics, "Epigenetics is certainly one of the most important discoveries of the last twenty years in the field of biology.”
We are much more than our genes
Beyond genetics, there are changes in gene expression that do not involve genetic mutation or alteration of the genetic code. The organism is still built from its genes, but the activity of these genes can be modulated. Thus, genetically identical cells have a different destiny and can become muscle, bone, skin, brain, blood, fat, neuron, liver, etc., not based on their genes, but based on their environment, the culture medium in which they have divided.
It is this epigenome (beyond the genome) that epigenetics studies. It looks at how our genetic heritage can be modified, disrupted, and transformed by a certain number of internal and external factors, and this from the first seconds of our conception until the last seconds of our life. Epigenetics, therefore, partly belies the 'fatality' of genes. Bruce Lipton, biologist and father of the book "The Biology of Belief", explains this very well. According to him, 1% of diseases today are directly linked to genes, and more than 90% of illnesses are due to our lifestyle, stress, to the fact that we live in highly stressful environments. Physiologically, this translates into high cortisol and cytokine secretions, which weaken our immune system.
Stress profoundly affects our immune system and our vitality. And so, in the end, 90% of diseases have nothing to do with a defect in our biology. Science recognises that genes and DNA do not control our internal biology. (In this old, rather deterministic view from the “all-DNA” era, researchers believed that genes can explain everything from our physical traits to our behaviour to the diseases that lurk in our lives), They now acknowledge that the genes themselves are controlled by the environment, and more precisely by our perception of the environment. Bruce Lipton even talks about our consciousness and how we perceive life and respond to the world, for him this is what controls the genes.
So with the new epigenetics approach, things are presented differently: the environment and the way we respond to that environment is what controls our genes. This brings us back into our sphere of personal responsibility and power, of power to act.
Generally speaking, researchers have now admitted that our genetics are responsible for about 15% of our health or state of illness, and that epigenetic factors are responsible for 85% of that same state of health or disease... This allows us to realise how epigenetics plays a crucial role in understanding the development of certain diseases. And it enables us to understand how much influence we can have over our health.
The impact of our environment and lifestyle
Although the processes by which environmental exposure (temperature, exposure to pollutants and endocrine disruptors, availability of nutrients, lifestyle habits, smoking, alcohol, stress, social and emotional environment, etc.) disrupt the epigenome are not yet fully understood and documented, it is known that many factors exert a positive or negative influence on the genes.
As far as food is concerned, it has been proven that what we eat makes us more or less vulnerable to certain cancers and diseases. Depending on its quantity and quality, food can clearly alter the behaviour of genes. And these changes can then be passed on from generation to generation.
Stress is, without doubt, one of the most negative influences on our genes and therefore on our health and vitality. It is experienced in many different ways: we can feel stress because things are not going well at work, or because we don't have a job, because our love relationship is not working smoothly, or because we don't have the means to live as we would like, etc.
It is therefore important to understand that the epigenome can be modified both by positive factors, such as constructive relationships and learning opportunities for example, and by negative factors, such as all the toxic substances we are exposed to or stressful situations. All of this leaves a distinctive epigenetic "signature" on the genes, which may be temporary or permanent, affecting the genes’ ability to be expressed, inhibited or modulated. A disruption of epigenetic processes can lead to a wide range of diseases. Such disturbances have been observed not only in cancer, but also in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, in cardiovascular diseases, in metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity (the prevalence of which is exploding throughout the world), in mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorders and depression. Researchers are even beginning to link epigenetics to various dependencies, addictions and behavioural disorders. But according to recent studies, it is possible to reverse some of the perceived negative changes, some of the disturbances, and restore proper functioning.
How can we positively influence our genetics, to live longer and healthier lives
Beyond the large-scale therapeutic and medical perspectives, it is possible and even recommended, each at their personal and individual level, to do what we can to positively influence our genetics. Optimising the following parameters gives us the power to live in better shape and for longer.
We know that diet plays a significant role in the expression of our genes. But what is the diet that will optimise our potential? If diet must be personalised and individualised according to each person (because we do not all have the same constitution, conditions, temperament... but neither do we all have the same metabolic, organic, enzymatic or digestive weaknesses), the fact remains that there are some major trends that are important to follow if we are aiming for full health. The diet must be as lively as possible, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, with foods loaded with vitamins, minerals, trace elements, antioxidants, which will fight against the hypermethylation (change) of DNA. Thus, raw vegetables, crucifers, nuts, seeds, legumes, oily fish, seafood, seaweed, eggs, nutritional yeast, certain superfoods such as cocoa, or even certain spices such as turmeric, are foods to be favoured. Conversely, it is better to reduce or even eliminate industrial and (ultra-) processed food, certain saturated fats, industrial dairy products, refined cereals and above all sugars, which, through a glycation phenomenon, will lead to generalised inflammation.
2. Physical activity
Regular physical activity can also have a positive influence on our genetics; it is even essential. The more we use our body, the more it develops and the better it functions. The less we use it, the more it atrophies. The idea is, therefore, to get your body moving as often as possible so that it remains at its best. Daily physical activity of at least 30 to 45 minutes is recommended and will optimise the expression of one's genes, stimulate immunity, reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. Ideally, it is a good idea to do high-intensity interval training and stretching / yoga and walking daily. It's up to each person to find what suits them and what they like, but one thing is certain: whatever your age, level of fitness, level of energy... it's never too late to start.
3. Regulating the nervous system and stress levels
We know that stress, especially when it becomes chronic, and lack of rest/sleep first exhaust the nervous system. Yet the nervous system controls and activates most of the body's functions. We therefore try to obtain a relative balance of our autonomic nervous system, composed of its so-called sympathetic or orthosympathetic branch (the one that controls action) and its so-called parasympathetic branch (the one that controls rest, sleep, regeneration and repair of the body). When there is an imbalance in the nervous system in favour of the orthosympathetic branch, a cascade of negative physiological effects follows: secretion of too much cortisol, low-grade inflammation, lowered immunity, reduced production of endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, stiffening of the arteries, etc.
In the highly stressful environments in which we live, it is therefore important to engage in activities that stimulate the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system: being in nature as often as possible, recharging oneself in the elements, doing yoga, tai chi or qi-gong, meditation, specific breathing exercises (pranayamas, breathwork, Wim Hof), sleeping well, laughing, singing, reading a good book, etc. All these activities reduce oxidative stress, inflammation, cortisol secretion while they increase dopamine, serotonin, and immunity and positively affect the expression of many genes, especially those with anti-inflammatory activity. Here again, it is up to each person to find what is good for them and allows them to regenerate.
4. Human relationships and the social environment
The study of the Blue Zones, the famous few Blue Zones on the planet which all have in common that they are regions with a high population of centenarians in excellent health, has shown the importance of social interactions and the social fabric in which we evolve. We are social beings, with needs for interaction at different levels. Honouring these needs and to associating with positive, optimistic, happy people who give us energy is important. This activates our good genes. On the other hand, toxic social relationships negatively influence on our immunity, our oxidative stress... as does the absence of physical activity, smoking and alcohol or a poor diet.
5. The pleasure and satisfaction we derive from our own life
All emotions and sensations perceived as positive or pleasant positively influence our genes. Taking pleasure in one's daily life is therefore just as important as eating properly or doing sport: a convivial moment with friends or family, a tasty little dish that nourishes all the senses, sunbathing, discovering and learning new things, travelling, a moment of connection in nature... Putting awareness, attention, and being fully in the present moment allows to reinforce their power. Knowing ourselves well, feeling gratitude and satisfaction for what we already are and already have, setting out on a fulfilling life path for ourselves... are all elements that positively affect the expression of many genes.
6. Reprogramming our thoughts and beliefs
Quantum physics says that our perceptions of life determine the characteristics of our life. In biology, this is the basis of the so-called placebo and nocebo effects. With the placebo effect, in a way, the person heals himself by healing his consciousness. Before taking the medicine, he thinks he is ill; once the doctor has prescribed the remedy, the patient believes the doctor and tells himself that it is all right and that he will be cured. The reality of the placebo effect is just that the consciousness of that person has become very positive. Up to 2/3 of the cures in medicine are related to the placebo effect. This is very important as it means that positive thinking leads to positive physiology, biology, and health.
But then, what are the consequences of negative thoughts? They are just as powerful in controlling our lives as positive thoughts, but they don't lead us to health... quite the opposite. This is called the nocebo effect in medicine. They can cause almost any disease. Negative limiting thoughts or beliefs, which are predominant in most of us, weaken us with the same power with which positive thoughts and beliefs can heal us.
We must therefore reprogram ourselves to have positive thoughts and beliefs. This is a whole deconditioning and reprogramming process that can be done through different techniques: self-hypnosis, repetition of new behaviour that will create a programme that will manifest this behaviour (like when we learn to drive or play an instrument), energy psychology as advocated by Bruce Lipton, etc...
In summary and to conclude
The discoveries in epigenetics represent a significant paradigm shift from the "all-genetic" approach of the late 20th century.
It is now known that epigenetic marks, unlike genetic alterations of DNA (on which we can hardly act), are potentially reversible, making them therapeutic targets with considerable stakes for medicine and public health. Pharmaceutical research in this field focuses on what are known as epidrugs and epimedicines.
85% of our functioning is due to epigenetics compared with 15% to genetics.
Several studies have shown that certain epigenetic alterations are passed on to subsequent generations (up to two or even three generations later). We can therefore no longer consider that we reset the counter to zero when we have children, and think that our own lifestyle has no influence on them. They will clearly inherit some of our epigenetics, in addition to our genetics.
By listening to our deepest needs, to our body's messages, by adopting a rhythm of life that is more physiological and more adapted to our nature, by giving our bodies adequate nourishment (food, thoughts, emotions and so on), we have the power to regulate the activity of our genes by facilitating or preventing their expression.
Epigenetics is therefore part of our daily life, and we have, through it, a very great power over our life and our health.
References / Further information
- Interviews and publications by Joël de Rosnay, French scientist, former researcher and teacher at MIT, former director of research applications at the Pasteur Institute, author of La symphonie du vivant, comment l'épigénétique va changer notre vie (Ed. Les Liens qui Libèrent)
- Interviews with Bruce Lipton, cell biologist, pioneer of the new epigenetic science, author of The Biology of Belief (Ed. Ariane Publications)
- Scientific publications by Ariane Giacobino, researcher and assistant physician in the Department of Genetic Medicine at the University Hospitals of Geneva, author of Peut-on se Libérer De Ses Gènes? L'épigénétique (Ed. Stock).
- Interviews and scientific publications by Edith Heard, geneticist specialising in epigenetics, professor at the Collège de France, holder of the chair "epigenetics and cellular memory".
- Publications by Jonathan Weitzman, Director of the Centre for Epigenetics and Cellular Fate (Paris-Diderot University-CNRS)
- Articles by Isabelle Mansuy, Professor of Neuroepigenetics at the University of Zurich Medical School
- Publications by Vincent Colot, specialist in plant epigenetics at the Institut de biologie de l'Ecole normale supérieure (ENS-CNRS-Inserm, Paris).