Our body is an amazing miracle of nature, and its functions are the result of an impressive interplay of genetics, environment and lifestyle. In recent years, epigenetics has gained increasing attention because it gives us unique insights into changes in gene activity that occur independently of DNA sequence. A particularly exciting aspect of this research concerns the important role of the gut microbiome in epigenetic changes and its long-term effects on our health.
The World of Epigenetics: A Brief Introduction
Epigenetics is about studying changes in gene activity that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence. In this context, we will take a closer look at the importance of DNA methylation. This process plays a crucial role in determining which genes are switched on or off without changing the genetic DNA sequence itself.1)
The gut microbiome: A complex ecosystem
The intestinal microbiome forms a colony of countless microorganisms that populate our digestive tract. This community is made up of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes. The importance of the gut microbiome extends to fundamental aspects such as digestion, immune function, nutrient absorption and protection against pathogens.
Current evidence suggests that the gut microbiome is able to influence epigenetic changes. Later in this article, we will take a closer look at some of the mechanisms by which such changes are possible and discuss the potential long-term health effects:
1. DNA Methylation:
Methylation is a chemical process in which methyl groups are attached to important biological molecules and influences, among other things, gene activity, DNA repair and hormone conversion. In genetics, methylation can influence the activation or deactivation of genes, which in turn enables epigenetic changes in inheritance.
The gut microbiome plays an essential role in influencing DNA methylation. The microorganisms in the intestine produce enzymes that are used to attach methyl groups to specific positions on the DNA. This means that the activity of genes can be changed, which in turn has a significant impact on our health.
An impressive example is the development of honey bees. Bee workers and queens differ not only in appearance, such as their size, but also in their function. Interestingly, queens and workers are genetically identical. The answer to this genetic identity lies in diet. More precisely, in the "royal jelly", a secretion that is administered to some larvae. The future queen bee is fed royal jelly for a longer period of time. Royal jelly changes DNA methylation patterns, activating or deactivating different genes in the queen bee compared to the worker bees. (2)
2. Influence on food intake:
We stick directly to eating food. The gut microbiome influences which nutrients are absorbed and how they are processed in the body. Here too, epigenetic changes can be triggered in relation to metabolism and nutrient utilization. An unbalanced gut microbiome can lead to epigenetic modifications that impair metabolism and increase the risk of metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity. (3)
3. Inflammation and immune response:
In this context, it must also be mentioned that an unbalanced microbiome can trigger inflammation in the intestines. Inflammation can cause epigenetic changes in the cells of the gut and beyond. When epigenetic marks get out of control, they can affect the activity of genes linked to inflammation and various health problems. (4)
4. Long-term health consequences due to transmission of the changes:
The epigenetic changes in intestinal cells can also affect other tissues and organs in the body. This allows genes in other cells and organs to be regulated differently, which in turn affects the health and function of these tissues. This can increase the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity and even cancer.
The status quo
Current research shows that the gut microbiome is linked to various diseases. Scientists from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have shown in a study on mice that intestinal bacteria influence gene activity in the cells of the intestinal mucosa and can therefore significantly influence the development of a healthy intestine. They found that artificially induced acute intestinal inflammation in the mice led to a significant increase in the activity of genes that promote inflammation and are linked to cancer. (5)
How can we get around this?
The findings on the role of the gut microbiome in epigenetic changes underline the importance of a healthy lifestyle. A balanced diet, and maintaining a healthy microbiome play a central role here. Our everyday choices have a significant impact on our epigenetic inheritance and our long-term health.
When DNA methylation in the organism becomes unbalanced and defective, it can have serious consequences, including diseases such as cancer, chronic diseases and neurological disorders.
One example is the so-called tumor suppressor genes, which serve to suppress tumor growth and which we definitely do not want to switch off. It is therefore of great importance that the methylation mechanism in the body functions in a balanced manner. (6)
Most chronic and age-related diseases are associated with hypomethylation, i.e. a lack of methylation. But where does that come from? One cause can be a disruption in the methyl cycle. For example, this disorder can be triggered by insufficient intake of foods containing methyl groups or by age-related limitations in the production of the enzymes that attach methyl groups to DNA. A diet rich in methyl groups therefore plays an important role in DNA methylation processes.
Let’s take a closer look at the connection between the gut, microbiome and epigenetics. Intestinal bacteria, such as bifidobacteria, produce folic acid - but the “bad” intestinal bacteria that we carry in a healthy intestine also produce vitamin B12 for us. We need both vitamins for the methyl cycle and ultimately for DNA methylation. This is one of the important connections between diet, gut bacteria and epigenome.
Consequently, a clear conclusion emerges: healing the intestines is essential to reduce silent inflammation, effectively detoxifying the body, allowing it to absorb sufficient nutrients, enabling the immune system to do its job, and finally generating enough energy for all these processes to run smoothly.
My name is Beatrice Tuttlies and I am 29 years old. Although I am originally from Berlin, I have found my home in beautiful Munich. I am Yin Yoga Teacher, epigenetics coach and nutritionist.
As the founder of Busy Being Healthy , I am passionate about helping people find holistic balance and optimize their health. My approach focuses on reducing stress on a psychological, physical and chemical level, with epigenetics always at the center. Because I am firmly convinced that every person has the potential to optimize their health and well-being. For this purpose, I have created three coordinated programs that can be integrated into every day life.
This article is intended for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as medical information or instructions for action. The recipes are for inspiration and are not intended as a therapeutic measure. If you have any health problems, we recommend that you contact a doctor or other expert immediately.
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Garcia-Mantrana I, Selma-Royo M, Alcantara C, Collado MC. Shifts on Gut Microbiota Associated to Mediterranean Diet Adherence and Specific Dietary Intakes on General Adult Population. Front Microbiol. 2018 May 7;9:890. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2018.00890. PMID: 29867803; PMCID: PMC5949328.
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Ansari, I., Raddatz, G., Gutekunst, J. et al. The microbiota programs DNA methylation to control intestinal homeostasis and inflammation. Nat Microbiol 5, 610–619 (2020).
Kashani B, Hasani Bidgoli M, Motahari SA, Sedaghat N, Modarressi MH. You are what you eat: Sequence analysis reveals how plant microRNAs may regulate the human genome. Comput Biol Med. 2019 Mar;106:106-113. doi: 10.1016/j.compbiomed.2019.01.020. Epub 2019 Jan 23. PMID: 30708219.