Epigenetics: How Keeping Yourself Healthy Now Can Benefit Future Generations


Healthy and lifestyle—these two words are often paired together and championed by health and wellness advocates everywhere, including physicians, other medical personnel, social workers, and exercise professionals. The concept of “lifestyle” refers to how someone lives and includes such factors as diet and exercise, stress, and work habits. Increasing evidence shows that lifestyle, as well as environmental factors, may influence epigenetic mechanisms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines epigenetics as the study of how behaviors and the environment can cause changes that affect the way genes work. In contrast, genetics is the study of genes and centers on inherited traits. Epigenetics centers on whether those traits are expressed and its mechanisms are influenced by lifestyle and environmental cues, which play a significant role in switching genes on and off.

Epigenetic inheritance counteracts the idea that inheritance only happens through the DNA that passes from parent to offspring. It implies that a parent’s experiences can be passed down to future generations in the form of epigenetic tags. For example, the diet or environment of a pregnant woman can potentially impact her developing fetus. As a fetus develops, it grows germ cells—cells that create reproductive cells—thus impacting another generation of offspring. This phenomenon means that the environmental influences experienced by a pregnant woman can potentially affect not only her own children but also her children’s children. In other words, three generations are directly exposed to the same environmental conditions at the same time—the mother (first generation), the fetus (second generation), and the fetus’ reproductive cells (third generation).

Contrary to the fixed sequence of DNA, epigenetic tags can change throughout life in response to lifestyle or environment.

Alterations in epigenetic tags have been associated with a variety of health issues, including cancer, cardiovascular, and neurodegenerative diseases. For instance, the inhalation of tobacco smoke changes the epigenetic makeup of lung cells, which may eventually lead to cancer. Hence, smoking during pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of developing diseases during fetal development or later in adulthood through epigenetic mechanisms.

Also, contrary to the fixed sequence of DNA, epigenetic tags can change throughout life in response to lifestyle or environment. Researchers have delved into the role diet plays in modifying epigenetic mechanisms. Studies have shown diets rich in fruits and vegetables, which contain natural antioxidants, may generate anticancer protection.

Emerging evidence indicates that exercise may also positively affect epigenetic mechanisms. Physical activity reduces epigenetic mutations, increases expression levels of tumor-suppressing genes, and decreases expression levels of oncogenes—genes that cause cancer. Moderate, 30-minute sessions of physical activity may increase the number of cancer-fighting immune cells in the body. Less intense levels of exercise have also proven to be effective.

Besides foods and physical move­ments, environmental factors can also affect epigenetics and future genera­tions. Research suggests that epigenetic mechanisms can rapidly change in response to signals from the environ­ment, including stress and air pollution.

Although more research and studies are needed to provide additional confirmation on how the many lifestyle and environmental factors can impact present and upcoming generations, what seems to be clear to many scientists is that genes do not single-handedly control destiny. Through epigenetic inheritance, experiences, disease, and other physical conditions of the parents may pass to their offspring. At the same time, however, epigenetic mechanisms remain flexible and may allow an organism to continually adjust its gene expression to fit its environment. Although the genes that parents pass to their offspring cannot change, epigenetic modifications can feasibly improve the way our bodies use genes.

The bottom line—your environmental factors and stress levels can permanently alter your body. Learning to mitigate stress and making consistent healthy lifestyle choices is crucial for your own health and the health of your future offspring.