The Importance of exercise on the expression of our DNA and the role of epigenetics

For me, this is an area of science that I find most fascinating.  I also believe that the science behind epigenetics gives us a good clue into why we see such differences between those who have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.  However, there is no way to really prove it, other than just my own personal experience, versus those of others. And what is even more crazy, is when I compare my personal experience it is not to my family, but to others who seem to have similar issues with EDS to me.  Comparing to my family is difficult, because no one else has been diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos; however, you can do a quick overview of lifestyle factors, current health stats of those in my family and compare us all to what mainstream medicine states about judging who is “healthy” vs. “unhealthy” and pretty obvious who sticks out.  Why is this important to me? Because I believe that consistent exercise is one of the single most important things you can do to control your overall health and well-being.  Regular exercise can also change the way certain genetic traits affect you or not.  And for those with EDS, I believe exercise along with nutrition, is just about as close to a magic pill that we are going to get for now.

So, what is epigenetics and how is it tied to the importance of exercise on the expression of our DNA that we are born with?

Let’s start with the definition & explanation of epigenetics according to Wikipedia: “In biology, epigenetics is the study of cellular and physiological trait variations that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence; epigenetics describes the study of dynamic alterations in the transcriptional potential of a cell. These alterations may or may not be heritable, although the use of the term epigenetic to describe processes that are not heritable is controversial.[1] Unlike simple genetics based on changes to the DNA sequence (the genotype), the changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype of epigenetics have other causes, thus use of the term epi- (Greek: επί- over, outside of, around) genetics.[2][3]”

So, what does that mean to the average person? You are born with certain genetic components and some may be turned on or turned off.  For example, you have brown hair & blue eyes … those genes are turned on. However, you also have type 1 diabetes in your family, but you personally do not have it yet. That gene is turned off .. for now.  And what I mean by for now, is because we know that you have inherited a genetic predisposition for diabetes, but through lifestyle factors you have a very high chance of avoiding diabetes (Type 1. Type 2 is a different situation).  You are the primary driver (vs. backseat driver) on the road to diabetes.  With this understanding, some people choose to fight against it and some do not. However, those that do choose to fight, dramatically decrease their chances of “turning on” the diabetes gene, because they made decisions such as exercising regularly, what they eat and do not eat, not smoking and not drinking.  Those lifestyle choices, environmental factors and other situations can literally cause chemical changes in your body on the cellular level, which then helps ensure that the diabetes gene you inherited does not turn on.  Hence, why the definition refers to epigenetics as the study of “dynamic alternations” in the way a cell and its DNA expresses during your lifetime – dynamic means constantly changing, evolving and influenced by factors that are different from what you were born with.

While I strongly believe in epigenetics & the theories behind it, some of the research done has yet to be understood or accepted by the entire medical community.  The reason? For every story that seems to prove epigenetics, there is a story that just does not make sense.  It is also hard to study epigenetics, because it requires 2 people with the same exact DNA, living the exact same life, with all of the same lifestyle and environmental factors, studied over a good amount of time and just one big lifestyle or environmental factor different.  Right.. even with identical twins, there can be some much variability. Basically, it has always been too hard to really get every aspect of the study to be identical, other than the factor that is being studied.

However, a recent study that just came out from Finland of 10 pairs of identical twins who shared the same DNA and the same environmental factors, but chose different exercise habits in adulthood, went on to develop dramatically different brains and bodies.

What is even more interesting, yet alarming at the same time, is that the changes in exercise habits (one twin still working out consistently and one not, due to normal life balance issues) had been recent – in the last few years.

“The scientists invited these twins into the lab and measured each young man’s endurance capacity, body composition and insulin sensitivity, to determine their fitness and metabolic health. The scientists also scanned each twin’s brain.

Then they compared the twins’ results.

It turned out that these genetically identical twins looked surprisingly different beneath the skin and skull. The sedentary twins had lower endurance capacities, higher body fat percentages, and signs of insulin resistance, signaling the onset of metabolic problems. (Interestingly, the twins tended to have very similar diets, whatever their workout routines, so food choices were unlikely to have contributed to health differences.)

The twins’ brains also were unalike. The active twins had significantly more grey matter than the sedentary twins, especially in areas of the brain involved in motor control and coordination.

Presumably, all of these differences in the young men’s bodies and brains had developed during their few, brief years of divergent workouts, underscoring how rapidly and robustly exercising — or not — can affect health, said Dr. Urho Kujala, a professor of sports and exercise medicine at the University of Jyvaskyla who oversaw the study.

Of course, the study was small and not a formal randomized trial, although it involved identical twins.

But Dr. Kujala said he believes that the results strongly imply that the differences in the twin’s exercise habits caused the differences in their bodies.

More subtly, the findings also point out that genetics and environment “do not have to be” destiny when it comes to exercise habits, Dr. Kujala said. For these particular twins, whether their genes and childhoods nudged them toward exercising regularly or slumping on the couch, one of the pair overcame that legacy and did the opposite (for better and worse).

The rest of us can do likewise, Dr. Kujala said. Even if the input from our DNA and upbringing urges us to skip the gym, we can “move more,” he said, and, based on this study, rapidly and substantially improve the condition of our bodies and brains.”

Take-home point?  It is never too late to “Move your DNA.”  This may be small, but it is a strong example of why studying epigenetics is so important, especially for those of us born with predispositions to a chronic illness(es) or for those of us who somehow developed one.  It also proves how crucial regular exercise is to our overall health, including the health of our material in our brain.