What Is Epigenetics and Why Should I Care?

In the last article we introduced you to epigenetics and let you in on the secret that we can influence our genetics. We are no longer victims of our DNA. We have the opportunity every single day to influence our genes in order to live longer, healthier lives AND perform better physically and in our careers.

Sound too good to be true? Read on.

Have you ever met a set of identical twins? If not you’ve probably seen photos or portrayals in the movies. Two people that look extremely similar because they share (almost) identical DNA. But twins are two different people with different mannerisms and characteristics, and in certain cases one twin has developed cancer or some other disease while the other twin does not.

In a Spanish study, researchers at the Cancer Epigenetics Laboratory at the Spanish National Cancer Center in Madrid studied 40 pairs of identical twins, ranging in age from 3 to 74. Younger twins with similar lifestyles had similar epigenetic patterns. Older twins with dissimilar lifestyles had very different epigenetic patterns. These researchers found 4x as many differently expressed genes between 50-year old twins vs 3-year old twins.1

Epigenetics is the reason for two seemingly identical people evolving and changing divergently over time. Their DNA is essentially the same, but over time the outside environment (stimuli) affects each twin differently. The older they get the greater the number of differing experiences and the more unalike the twins become.

Stimuli, mainly from our environment, create a response in the brain which in turn signals genes to be expressed (turned on) or repressed (turned off). The main stimuli we’ll focus on in this series of articles are exercise, nutrition, recovery (sleep and meditation), stress, and our mindset (our thoughts and emotions).

But before we get into the best stimuli to positively influence your genes we’re going to dive into a little science of how genes are expressed. We want to make sure you’re armed with the knowledge to understand the how. Because knowledge leads to belief. And with true belief and buy-in you’ll be able to leverage your mindset to enhance your performance even more (more on that later).

Now a little science:

Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells. As you may recall from some high school biology, cells are the working units of the body. There are roughly 200 types of cells, from muscle tissue to liver tissue and so much more.

Each cell’s nucleus contains DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA is essentially the instructions for how our cells, and therefore our bodies, are built. While there are roughly 3 billion nucleotide bases in DNA there are only 4 main bases. The way these 4 bases are sequenced together is what determines how we’re built.

A gene is a specific sequence of bases with particular instructions on how to make certain proteins. Proteins are key as they are the complex molecules that trigger various biological actions to carry out our life functions.

Depending on which gene is expressed and therefore which protein is made, an unspecified cell might turn into a muscle cell, a liver cell, a hair cell or something else.

These unspecified cells are stem cells. Sound familiar? Scientists are using them to try to heal injuries, increase life expectancy, and more.

To recap: our bodies are made of cells, cells contain DNA, and specific sequences of DNA are genes. The brain is stimulated and sends signals to the cells that express certain genes, these genes instruct cells on how to make proteins, and the proteins in turn determine a new cell’s specialization.

If we look at diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer certain genes are depressed (turned off). So if we can figure out how to ensure those genes don’t get turned off, we can prevent those diseases. And if they’re already turned off, there is potential to turn them back on and start the healing process.

By this logic outside stimuli can affect which cells are made. An important fact because we’re learning that we can influence which genes are turned on (and hence which proteins are created).

So if we pay attention to the right things in daily life we can directly affect our genes.

There are thought leaders and scientists who believe that through epigenetics we can not only improve our health and performance and prevent diseases, but we can also reverse illnesses that have already manifested themselves. There is potential that our bodies are capable of healing themselves through exercise, better nutrition, meditation, sleep, and our mindset.

Stay tuned for our next article that will reveal a little known fact about how you can improve your results from exercise by changing one thing, no matter what type of workouts you do.

If you’re interested in applying these learnings to your fitness, career, and life in general but aren’t sure where to start, check out our 8-Week Building Better Humans Mindset Course. You’ll get access to over 60 videos, exercises, 1-on-1 coaching, and interviews with experts in a variety of industries from a Navy Seal to an executive from Proctor and Gamble, CEO’s, mothers, and entrepreneurs as we walk you through a step-by-step process to achieve your full potential.

- Written by The Nate Chambers, co-founder, coach, and positivity guru at Project 13 Gyms


  1. M. F. Fraga, E. Ballestar, M. F. Paz, et al., “Epigenetic Differences Arise During the Lifetime of Monozygotic Twins,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, vol. 102, no. 30: pp. 10604-10609 (2005)

The Nate Chambers
The Nate Chambers