Nutrition and Epigenetics in the Skin

Credits: Tanaphong Toochinda at
Steven Lam
Edited By:
Raja Sivamani , MD, MS, AP

Ever wonder why two people who are the same age may look years apart? While extrinsic factors such as sun exposure and smoking can contribute to skin aging, intrinsic factors, namely the genes inherited from our parents, can have an influence on how our skin ages too. People’s ability or inability to express the thousands of genes in their human genome is what makes each of us unique. Epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that switch genes on and off. Interest in the field has increased greatly as a thorough understanding of the biology of switching genes on and off is essential in work related to all aspects of genetics such as stem cells, aging, evolution, agriculture, and species conservation.

In the same field, nutrigenomics is the scientific study of the interactions between nutrition and genes. In other words, how does nutrition affect how our genes are switched on and off? The idea of our diet influencing health is an ancient one but to simply state: what you eat directly affects gene expression. By understanding our nutritional needs and our genotype, nutrigenomics enables individuals to better manage their health and well-being by matching their diet and unique genetic make-up.


What Is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that switch genes on and off. Our genes are influenced by external and internal factors like environment, nutrition, and lifestyle. Epigenetics controls our genes and is everywhere. Where you live, what you eat, when you sleep, how you exercise; all these may have influences that eventually modify a gene. 

Epigenetics has come to mean any process that alters gene activity without changing the actual DNA sequence. Our personal genetic code is subject to epigenetic change in response to environmental stress and individual lifestyle preferences, making it entirely unique. Epigenetic processes are natural and essential to many functions.  However, epigenetic changes can lead to major health problems and behavioral effects if they occur improperly, as these changes can also be involved in the development of cancer.

The best known epigenetic process is DNA methylation, the addition or removal of a methyl group at specific points in the DNA code. Hypermethylation, an abundance of methyl groups, can lead to gene silencing, whereas, hypomethylation, lack of methyl groups, can lead to overactive genes. Another significant process is chromatin modification; the modification of the protein and DNA complex by the introduction of acetyl groups, enzymes or forms of RNA, leading to altered gene expression. One possible effect of these is that certain genes are selectively silenced or activated, leading to increased vulnerability to microbes, toxic agents, or other harm.


Role of Nutrition in Epigenetics

Nutrients from our diets are one of plenty of factors that affect epigenetic processes, but how big of a change does it make? Diet is a key environmental factor that has profound effects on human development and health. Long-term exposure to certain dietary patterns, such as unbalanced energy or deficiencies in essential nutrients, creates metabolic stress, which can affect gene expression. For example, a study related a diet consisting of hyperglycemic carbohydrates, milk/dairy products, and saturated fats including trans-fats with a promoted appearance of acne. Whether the effects are due to changes in gene expression, changes in circulating hormones, or both, is now the focus of ongoing research. This goes to show that although we are all dealt a set of cards when coming into this world, how we play our hand determines our health. The field of epigenetics is quickly growing and with it the understanding that both the environment and individual lifestyle can also directly interact with the genome to influence epigenetic change.


Epigenetics in Our Skin

At last, how does epigenetics have anything to do with our skin? The major goal of public health is healthy aging. Epigenetics is enabling researchers to dive deeper into understanding the progression and molecular mechanisms associated with aging. However, to understand the effects of epigenetics on our skin, we first need to understand the basics. 

Our entire body, including our skin, is made up of cells. Skin cells produce proteins that are essential for their function. Each individual cell contains our DNA: the blueprint and instructions for cellular function. Each instruction for our cell is considered a gene. This is where epigenetics comes in. Our genes can be silenced (inactivated) or activated due to certain circumstances in life such as environmental stresses, nutrition, and interactions with our surroundings.

Our skin is our basis for interacting with the outside world and keeping it healthy is key. Most commonly, individuals worry about how to avoid wrinkles, sun spots, skin darkening, and overall how to keep their healthy skin the way it is. However, aging eventually catches up to all of us, and it ultimately comes down to how to slow aging down! Our skin has many genes playing a role in its health that help with collagen breakdown, skin sensitivity, skin regeneration, wrinkling, and photoaging. Because various nutrients and their metabolites function as substrates for epigenetic modifiers, nutrition can modify or reverse epigenetic marks in the genome as well as expression patterns.

The growing interest of epigenetics increases our understanding of our genomics day by day. There is always a big new trend in the world of skin care. We have seen trends such as alpha hydroxy acids shift to an interest in peptides. Epigenetics may be the new growing interest. Genetics is as complicated as anything else in the world.  However, it may also be our best bang-for-your-buck knowledge. Groundbreaking research that enables us to modify our genes is invaluable and may change our outlook on how we approach skin and body health.

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