Epigenetics and How Lifestyle Choices Affect Health

The external effects of the environment can influence disease, and some of these effects can even be inherited in people. 

What exactly does this mean? 

Let’s give an example: in 2002, Swedish scientists conducted an investigation where they examined whether nutrition affected the death rate from heart disease and diabetes and whether these effects were passed on from parents to their children and grandchildren. 

They discovered that if a parent did not eat sufficiently during his developmental period, just before puberty, their children were less likely to die from heart issues. Furthermore, death caused by diabetes increased in children if food was abundant during the same developmental period for the paternal grandparent, but the risk of death from diabetes decreased when more than enough food was available to the parent. [1]

This and other similar studies conducted over the years have suggested that diet and other lifestyle habits can cause changes to our genes passed down through generations and that these changes can seriously affect susceptibility to certain diseases and to lifespan. 

So, what kind of changes are we talking about? The answer lies in the science of epigenetics.


Epigenetics is the study of alterations in gene expression that doesn’t involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence, which is set and fixed for an individual.

Epigenetics allows us to understand that we are not victims of our genes. Genes are potential. Epigenetics will determine which genes are expressed and which are not.

These alteration marks on the DNA effect how cells can ‘read’ the genes, and this leads to the determination of which genes will be expressed and which will not, even if they are part of the DNA sequence. 

Some genes can be silenced through epigenetic markers. These epigenetic markers lead to a winding of the DNA sequence or a binding to the DNA sequence in such a way that the section of the DNA is not readable and thus will not produce the genetic instructions of that part of the DNA.

Research shows that we share 96% of our genes with the apes, but it is the epigenetic tags that express different parts of the genome making us so different. 

Epigenetic change occurs regularly and it is very much influenced by lifestyle factors including a persons environment, their lifestyle choices, or any disease state that they have. [2]

Within cells, there are three epigenetic systems that interact among each other to silence genes – DNA methylation, histone modification, and non-coding RNA (ncRNA)-associated gene silencing. 

Disrupting any of these three systems can cause abnormal activation or silencing of genes. Such disruptions have been linked with cancer, chromosomal-instability syndromes, and mental retardation on the negative side, but on the other hand, also silencing of certain genetic susceptibility to diseases.

A study from 2014 has shown that a mother’s exposure to pollution can impact her child’s susceptibility to developing asthma. [3]  Air pollution can also increase the risk of neurodegenerative diseases through epigenetics. Another study from 2016 showed that Vitamin D known for its role in the regulation of gene expression, also regulates DNA methylation epigenetically modulating gene expression depending on its levels. [4]

Therefore a child’s health and mental capabilities are epigenetically influenced by the parents environment.

Therapy and Diet

But environmental influence is not they only factor majorly affecting epigenetic changes. Dietary choices also significantly modify epigenetic tags, and alter normal epigenetic states as well as reverse abnormal gene activation or silencing.

Fruit and vegetable consumption in sufficient quantities daily can reactivate tumor suppressor genes, and initiate apoptosis in cancer cells, leading to their death. Fruit and vegetable consumption also leads to the repression of cancer-related genes. [5-8]. 

Foods rich in B vitamins can also protect against disease through epigenetic markers. B vitamins are methyl donors that bind to certain bases of the DNA causing the silencing of genes thereby protecting against disease. B vitamins are found in most beans, whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, and green vegetables

Phytoestrogens also have the same protective effect through epigenetic DNA modification. 

See my article on phytoestrogens to see how you can add these crucial nutrients into your diet here:


EGCG, a green tea polyphenol, genistein found in soy beans and soy products, sulforaphane, found in foods from the broccoli family including broccoli, cabbage and kale, selenium found in Brazil nuts, resveratrol found in grapes, allyl mercaptan found in garlic and others, have been demonstrated to be effective agents against cancer and other diseases by acting through epigenetic mechanisms that affect the epigenome [9,10]. 

Cashews, tomatoes, and parsley also have positive epigenetic effects. [11].

You should regularly incorporate all of these foods mentioned into your diet to reduce any risk of suffering from disease while also providing your future children the benefit of a longer healthier life. 

On the other hand, you should limit any alcohol consumption. Alcohol is associated with harmful epigenetic modifications as well as the development and progression of several human cancers, including colorectal cancer, and head and neck cancers. [12]

Feel free to comment below and let me know what you liked best about this article.

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Dr. Galit Goldfarb


  • [1] G Kaati, LO Bygren, and S Edvinsson. Cardiovascular and diabetes mortality determined by nutrition during parents’ and grandparents’ slow growth period. European Journal of Human Genetics. 2002 October. 
  • [2] Bob Weinhold. Epigenetics: The Science of Change. Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Mar; 114(3): A160–A167. doi: 10.1289/ehp.114-a160.
  • [3] Mariangels de Planell-Saguer, Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, and Rachel L. Miller. Epigenetic Regulation: The Interface Between Prenatal and Early-Life Exposure and Asthma Susceptibility. Environ Mol Mutagen. 2014 Apr; 55(3): 231–243. Published online 2013 Dec 9. doi: 10.1002/em.21836.
  • [4] O’Brien KM, Sandler DP, Xu Z, Kinyamu HK, Taylor JA, Weinberg CR. Vitamin D, DNA methylation, and breast cancer. Breast Cancer Res. 2018;20(1):70. Published 2018 Jul 11. doi:10.1186/s13058-018-0994-y
  • [5] Li Y, Tollefsbol TO. p16INK4a suppression by glucose restriction contributes to human cellular lifespan extension through SIRT1-mediated epigenetic and genetic mechanisms. PLoS ONE. 2011;6(2):e17421. 
  • [6] Paluszczak J, Krajka-Kuzniak V, Baer-Dubowska W. The effect of dietary polyphenols on the epigenetic regulation of gene expression in MCF7 breast cancer cells. Toxicol Lett. 2010;192(2):119–125.
  • [7] Meeran SM, Patel SN, Tollefsbol TO. Sulforaphane causes epigenetic repression of hTERT expression in human breast cancer cell lines. PLoS ONE. 2010;5(7):e11457. Sulforaphane represses the catalytic component of telomerase, hTERT, through epigenetic modification.
  • [8] Landis-Piwowar KR, Milacic V, Dou QP. Relationship between the methylation status of dietary flavonoids and their growth-inhibitory and apoptosis-inducing activities in human cancer cells. J Cell Biochem. 2008;105(2):514–523.
  • [9] Link A, Balaguer F, Goel A. Cancer chemoprevention by dietary polyphenols: promising role for epigenetics. Biochem Pharmacol. 2010;80(12):1771–1792. 
  • [10] Lee KW, Lee HJ, Lee CY. Vitamins, phytochemicals, diets, and their implementation in cancer chemoprevention. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2004;44(6):437–452.
  • [11] Davis CD, Milner JA. Biomarkers for diet and cancer prevention research: potentials and challenges. Acta Pharmacol Sin. 2007;28(9):1262–1273.
  • [12] Puri SK, Si L, Fan C-Y, Hanna E. Aberrant promoter hypermethylation of multiple genes in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Am J Otolaryngol. 2005;26(1):12–17


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