You probably have a decent idea of what your genes are. Most of us understand that they make up DNA and that DNA strands are the helix-shaped chemicals that live in our cells and define our physical characteristics. We also know that our genes are passed on from our parents. Many of us blame our genetics for a wide range of things, whether it’s our inability to lose weight, or our inability to learn math.
And the reason we blame our genes is because it’s convenient and it’s something that no one can really argue with. After all, the belief among most people is that genes are set in stone. This is ‘the way we are’ and there’s no changing it. You can play the hand you’re dealt but you can’t change that hand. You can’t change your genes.
Or can you?
What Is Gene Expression?
While you can’t change your genes (probably), what you can do is to change gene expression; the study of which is known as ‘epigenetics’.
What this means is that it can alter which genes are ‘switched on’ and which genes are ‘switched off’. When we exercise or eat a healthier diet, it can effectively act as a tune-up for our muscles and for our organs that results in more fat burning and greater muscle growth.
In one study it was found that the very first time participants went to the gym, it altered the activity of genes within the muscle cells. After exercise, more genes ‘turn on’ and a reduction in something called ‘methylation’ was noted. Methylation is a molecular process in which certain chemicals attach themselves to DNA and prevent it from being turned on or ‘accessed’.
In fact, this is actually how different cells differentiate themselves. An ‘eye cell’ is different from a ‘muscle cell’ even though it has the same DNA and that’s because methylation alters the way that the DNA is ‘expressed’.
But regulation of methylation also occurs in the short term to alter the way muscles behave. When you begin exercising, it can be used to encourage the production of certain enzymes that enhance energy burning. In the above linked study, participants were asked to cycle at either 40% or 80% of their maximum capacity. In muscle biopsies that followed, there was a marked correlation between the amount of exertion and the methylation.
What’s also interesting is that caffeine appears to enhance the impact of gene expression. When caffeine is given to rats prior to training, they actually see more gene expression resulting in the release of more calcium (for muscle contractions). This is interesting to bodybuilders and athletes as it essentially means that a pre-workout really could help you to become stronger in the gym! That said, the amount of caffeine being used in the study was somewhat gigantic compared to what we would need to use in our pre-workouts. This also leads to some interesting questions regarding the way that nootropics might potentially enhance or reduce gene expression – especially those that have similar mechanisms of action to caffeine. Of course CILTeP’s entire mechanism of action is actually based around gene transcription and is thought to that way enhance brain plasticity.
When gene expression occurs, the first stage is called ‘transcription’. Here, a segment of DNA gets copied into RNA by an enzyme called ‘RNA polymerase’. RNA stands for ‘ribonucleic acid’ and is present in all living cells. Its job is to take instructions from DNA to control the synthesis of proteins. In other words, gene expression acts primarily by changing how the body uses nutrients and what it does with your muscle tissues and organs.
Diet and Gene Expression
Diet also plays a big role in gene expression. In another study (1), researchers looked at the role of diet on gene expression. In this study, they compared gene expression across two groups – those eating what they referred to as a ‘prudent’ diet and those eating a more typically ‘Western’ diet. The prudent group consumed more vegetables, fruits and whole grains, while the latter consumed more sugars, refined grains and processed meats.
The result? Over 2,000 transcripts were different between those at either end of the spectrum. In other words, what you eat massively impacts on the way your DNA behaves and what it does to your body.
How to Make a Super-Baby
These studies surrounding gene expression have also led to some people deciding to alter the way they eat and their lifestyle before and during pregnancy. While it’s always pertinent to be as healthy as possible, the belief is that altering the expression of genes and the ‘strength’ of DNA could be a way to give offspring more of a fighting chance. This is just a theory and not something that has been extensively studied but it’s interesting food for thought.
And some people have even gone on to suggest that it might explain why the babies of the rich and famous always seem to come out so perfect. Access to the best food, nutrition and fitness advice could be the answer and it could support the mechanisms of natural selection.
One study at the University of Pennsylvania (2) looked at this and found that male mice subjected to stressful situations prior to siring children gave birth to offspring with a lesser stress response. Looking at the sperm, researchers found that there was an increase in molecules called miRNAs. These are slightly different from RNA (or mRNA) in that they don’t code for proteins but instead work by silencing certain strands of RNA by damaging them. Think of it as methylation for the RNA.
Further studies appeared to confirm that it was indeed the miRNAs that caused the difference and it was also found that there were different levels of gene expression in the mice’s brains. Specifically, the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus was affected, which is known to play a key role in stress regulation.
Other studies have found similar results and shown that the diet of the mother for instance can affect factors such as immunity (3).
None of this necessarily proves that your diet and lifestyle prior to conception and childbirth will result in a ‘super baby’ but it does show that it’s certainly not out of the question.
But obviously it’s much better to try and be as strong, healthy and fit as you can be for much longer – this will have further reaching and longer lasting effects.
Nice to know that all that effort you’re putting in down the gym could result in a stronger baby!