What Is Epigenetics Theory?

by Julie A. Fast Patient Advocate

Genetics is the study of heredity and the variation of inherited characteristics. Epigenetics is the study of how the environment around us and the choices we make can change the expression of inherited genes and whether these changes in gene regulation can then passed to a child. Richard C. Francis, the author of Epigenetics: How Environment Shapes Our Genes notes, “Social interactions are a particularly important source of gene regulation.” Think of the possibilities!

An Example of Epigenetic Theory From Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder is linked to genetics as it can run in families. Two children, raised in the same environment have a grandfather with bipolar. One child has naturally expressed bipolar mania at age 17 with no substance use. The other child who lives with depression, but no mania takes an SSRI antidepressant at age 28. She has her fist mania three weeks later and now has a bipolar diagnosis. Her substance-induced mania is considered an epigenetic change causing a latent gene to switch on. Epigenetic theory asks, “Can the switched-on quality of this gene then be passed to a child?”

What is the Epigenome?

Epigenetic changes do not affect our DNA (genome), but instead influence the expression of genes through changes in the epigenome, a set of chemical compounds that tells our genes what to do including switching genes on or off and controlling the production of proteins in particular cells. R. Francis calls this epigenome the director of a play while our genes are the actors. The epigenome represents the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. If we learn to control our epigenome, can we direct the expression of genes for better health?

identifying what changed in dna sequence.

What is the Science Behind Epigenetic Theory?

There is evidence of the epigenetic theory in plants and some mammals, but only anecdotally in humans as of now. We know we can change the expression of genes, but whether the change is passed to a child is up for debate. Epigenetics is not eugenics, nor is it natural selection due to gene mutation.

Father reading to daughter.

It’s Not True Epigenetic Change Unless It Passes to an Offspring

When you hear people talk about the possibilities of epigenetics, they often stop at the impact of the environment on an individual’s epigenome in one generation. As shown in the bipolar example, there is science to back up the idea that what we do now affects how our genes express in the future. But it’s not epigenetic theory unless the changes in a person’s epigenome then affect an egg or sperm that becomes another human. If we start now, in 50 years we can have evidence or disproof of epigenetic theory.

Helping daughter make good lifestyle choices to stay healthy physically and mentally.

Why Epigenetic Theory Might Matter to You

If there is genetic illness in your family, whether it be known genetic illnesses such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia, inherited illnesses without specifically identified genes such as bipolar or the less understood genetic components of addictive behaviors, epigenetic theory suggests that YOU have the ability to stop the spread of an inherited illness to an offspring by changing your health before you have a child or by helping a current child make positive epigenetic changes to protect the next generation in your family tree.

eating healthy

Can We End Transgenerational Illness by Changing Our Epigenome?

Why not? Epigenetic theory gives us hope that we are more in control of our physical and mental health than we think. It suggests that by making positive changes to our current body, can we genetically influence future offspring. There is evidence that negative behaviors such as poor diet, smoking, or substance abuse by a mother can have effects on a child in the womb. Why not explore the possibility that positive changes (in both parents) before a child is created can create healthier generations?

The Downside to Epigenetic Change

Epigenetic theory might one day explain aspects of the culture of poverty, a history of family abuse or cancer passing through generations. What if heart disease created by poor diet choices in a parent increases the chance of heart disease in an offspring by creating a desire for less than nutritious food? It could be that the environment and our choices in that environment are being passed to a child who then makes similar choices due to epigenome changes… and a cycle is created.

More Questions About Epigenetics and Our Health

Smoking can cause cancer. Does a father’s smoking create an epigenetic change in sperm that puts offspring at a higher risk for cancer, even if the offspring doesn’t smoke or inhale second hand smoke? Regarding diet and mental health: Can a gluten free diet affect the expression of a schizophrenia gene? If yes and the person who better manages mental health through a gluten-free diet has a child, does an active or a dormant gene pass to a child? Should all offspring of a person with schizophrenia follow a gluten-free diet as prevention?

Epigenetics and a Hopeful Future

As a person with bipolar disorder and a psychotic disorder, I have taught my nephew about epigenetics and how he might prevent these illnesses in himself and his offspring. We can work together using the theory of epigenetics to improve transgenerational health. We need to fund research that can track changes of an individual’s epigenome into the next generations. We also need scientific monitoring to make sure that any cloning and artificial intelligence used in health care to affect our genes also takes epigenetic change into account.

Julie A. Fast
Meet Our Writer
Julie A. Fast

Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get it Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards. Julie won the Mental Health America Journalism Award for the best mental health column in the U.S. and was the recipient of the Eli Lily Reintegration award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners on bipolar disorder and mental health management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show "Homeland" and is on the mental health expert registry for People Magazine. She is a sought-after coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder.