One could arguably say that your genome, the complete set of immutable genetic instructions made up of the DNA found in every cell, is uniquely yours. In fact, even identical twins who start out as one embryo may develop slight differences in their genome soon after dividing into two.
How, what, and when your genes are expressed dramatically affects the behavior and function of every cell in your body. For instance, how your genes express has an impact on your state of health, your sense of well-being, and even your appearance. The answer to why some people look, act, and feel 10 years younger (or older!) than they are is due in large part to their epigenomes.
Your epigenome, ‘epi-‘from the Greek word meaning ‘above,’ consists of chemical compounds that attach to your DNA without changing its sequence. These epigenetic markers direct your DNA to turn genes on or off depending on the cell type needed during development, or in response to the environment. It’s this very process that distinguishes the cells of your toes from the cells of your nose, and also guides your cells in adapting to what you put in your body, changes in your environment, or your behavior.
If you think of DNA as notes on a page of music and the body’s cells as instruments in an orchestra, then epigenetics is the way the conductor directs the orchestra to play. Imagine how the music could be altered depending on what, when, and how an instrument is led by the conductor. Now consider how the conductor’s lifestyle might have a significant impact on how well she leads the orchestra: If she’s not getting enough sleep, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, experiencing chronic stress, consuming inflammatory foods, not exercising, or living in an area with high pollution rates, the sound of the symphony could be dramatically altered. This change in the “music” is a result of how she lives and is remembered in the body by the altered epigenome and remark-ably can be passed down to her son or daughter.
These epigenetic markers are arranged in characteristic patterns and have been employed to gauge physiological age or epigenetic clocks. These DNA methylation clocks are named for one of the mechanisms that cells use to control gene expression. In my practice, we use the most advanced epigenetic test company to assess physiological aging through the eyes of the epigenome.
The suite of blood-based tests evaluates epigenetic markers accumulated over time to describe your intrinsic and immune system aging. Uniquely, it also has a test called the Pace of Aging that looks at epigenetic changes occurring in a dynamic fashion and describes your years of biological aging, per year, at the precise moment your blood sample is taken. This is like having a needle-moving speedometer of aging. Knowing your rate of aging allows you to compare your past history from current influences which are regulated in part by ongoing, modifiable lifestyle factors. This is important, up-to-the-minute feedback on steps you may have taken to improve your physical and mental health, or a re-minder that things are slipping.
Studies have shown that reversing bad habits, and adding a few good ones like yoga and meditation, can have a quantifiable impact on the arrangement of your epigenetic markers. Just this year, a study showed that an 8-week program of lifestyle and dietary interventions, along with probiotics and phytonutrients, can reverse aging by a remarkable 3.2 years as measured by an epigenetic clock. You are truly the conductor of your epigenome! TA