How to change your genetic fate
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
We’ve had antioxidants. We’ve had paleo, keto and hormetic stressors. But those are small fry compared to epigenetics, the latest watchword of the wellness industry, which is currently being slapped onto supplements, face creams and most anything related to longevity. Epigenetic tests are also offered at top-end Swiss-clinic health programmes, or via a kit you spit into at home.
According to market-research firm IMARC, the global anti-ageing industry is projected to be worth $93.1bn by 2027, and billions of this are pouring into epigenetic research. The promise is that by understanding our epigenetics we can stay feeling young and even reverse the signs of ageing. So what is it?
“DNA is no longer your destiny,” says Professor David Sinclair, the geneticist co-director of Harvard’s Sinclair Lab, bestselling author and messiah of the longevity movement. “Twenty per cent of our future health is prewritten, determined by our genes, but the other 80 per cent is within our control.”
Sinclair argues that while the genes that make up your DNA are fixed, the environment around your genes (epi means “outer”) is not. Factors such as stress, pollution or diet can cause changes in this environment that lead to changes in DNA methylation (where methyl molecules stick to the DNA, like barnacles on a ship), causing parts of the genes to switch on or off. By analysing the patterns in the methylation – the epigenome – it is now possible to uncover how your genetic expression may be going awry, and the future health risks you could be storing up.
In his book Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To, Sinclair asserts that much of the dilapidation we think of as ageing (ranging from poor eyesight to dementia) is actually epigenetic disruption – your genes being switched off/on when they shouldn’t be. “The exciting part,” he continues, “is it can be reversed.” He’s not suggesting some Benjamin Button scenario: we are not going to revert to our teenage selves. Thank goodness. It’s about reversing damage, and living healthy lives for longer.
Clinique La Prairie, the state-of-the-art Swiss health clinic overlooking Lake Geneva, is among several using epigenetic testing to calculate biological age, predict the effects of ageing – such as chronic diseases and cognitive decline – and determine the reversible impacts of our daily choices on genes. “Because it gives personalised insights, epigenetic testing is the perfect preventative medicine tool,” says Olga Donica, Clinique La Prairie’s head of innovation. Exposures to negative or even apparently positive factors affect each of us differently. For example, it may be that for me, fasting and intense exercise are brilliant for my epigenome, maintaining an environment where my DNA functions exactly as it should, but for you they may cause harm. “Epigenetic testing tells us which levers we can pull to have the most positive effect,” says Donica. “You might suspect you don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables. But if I can measure the impact your diet is having on you, and show you that unless you change things, you may die younger and face increased risk of disease, then you will listen.”
By combining patterns of biomarkers, Clinique La Prairie also offers to tell you how “aged”’ your physiology is. I’m 43. But my biological age is 50. It’s sobering. Literally. It transpires that my epigenetic patterning has been particularly damaged as a result of tobacco/air pollution and alcohol (that would be my 20s, living it up in central London). And the tests give persuasive insight into how particularly susceptible I remain to damage from alcohol. Even quite small quantities disrupt my epigenome, and if I care about living life better, for longer, when it comes to sinking that early evening Negroni, basically – don’t.
Analysis of my test results shows how my diet can help fortify the detoxification mechanisms in my liver. I need to eat more sulforaphanes (such as cruciferous veg like cabbage and pak choi, as well as kale), spices (such as turmeric and cumin) and high-quality protein, as well as pomegranate and sources of the polyphenol compound resveratrol (such as dark grapes and peanuts). And I need to limit sugar. Supplements with chlorella and moringa extract will also help my liver to metabolise toxins, as will regular saunas. The doctors at Clinique La Prairie also recommend I buy some air filters. Through better daily detoxification, I’ll be able to repair some of the damage, reducing the risk factors of anything from cancer to diabetes and heart disease.
Chenot Palace Weggis Seven-day
Advanced Detox, from about £4,745, chenotpalaceweggis.com
Clinique La Prairie Seven-day Master Detox Programme, from SFr17,200 (about £15,410) plus epigenetic tests for about £1,750 each, cliniquelaprairie.com
Lanserhof Sylt Seven-night Basic Cure, €2,903 (plus accommodation from €4,130), with epigenetic test at €96, lanserhof.com
Bio-Synergy DNA & Epigenetics Testing Kit, £219, bio-synergy.uk
Wellgevity Epigenetic Bio-Age Testing Kit and Report, from £1,130, wellgevity.com
Dam DNA Test Pro + Epigenetic, £169.99, damhealthshop.com
Augustinus Bader The Rich Cream, from £69, augustinusbader.com
Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Eye Supercharged Gel-Creme, £52, esteelauder.co.uk
Meder Beauty Salva-Derm Cream, £96, mederbeauty.com
Olay Regenerist Day Cream, £15.74, boots.com
Altrient C Liposomal Vitamin C, £49.96, abundanceandhealth.co.uk
Artah Deep Detox, £32, artah.co
De-liver-ance, £23.99, loveyourliver.com
Such diagnoses vary between individuals; one patient at another clinic shares that epigenetic tests revealed they should eat more organ meats to help detoxify their liver, and not to use perfume or scented candles, which can further challenge detoxification pathways.
On Lake Lucerne, wellness retreat Chenot Palace Weggis last year launched its Molecular Lab for Optimal Living, which focuses on epigenetics in the pursuit of “increased mental and physical performance”. In a model they suspect may become commonplace (such as part of national health services or other common health screenings), they offer clients epigenetic tests every six months in order to tailor health programmes and monitor how well any interventions are working. Chenot is also researching the interaction between epigenetics and dementia.
Professor Jonathan Mill, head of complex disease epigenomics at Exeter University, is more circumspect. But while he doubts the value of tests to improve lifestyle choices – “You could argue you don’t need to spend money on an epigenetic test to know that smoking is bad for you”, and he suggests the notion of biological age is too vague at the moment to be meaningful – he sees huge potential when it comes to diagnostics. In particular, Mill’s lab is looking at early detection of neurodegenerative disease. “If we can tell someone they are at the early stages of Alzheimer’s before they are symptomatic, the benefits of lifestyle or therapeutic interventions might be much greater. Once symptoms appear it can be too late to do much about it.” It’s reassuring to know that if you are at early-stage dementia, there are practical steps that can be taken to mitigate its acceleration, from diet and brain exercises to medication.
Epigenetic tests are already used by the NHS in early-cancer detection and treatment. And with investors – including Jeff Bezos – collectively putting billions into epigenetic start-ups around the world (biotech start-up Altos kicked off with $3bn of investment from Silicon Valley backers), the research is fast evolving. Every expert I speak to is clear that science will mature rapidly, and there’s something of a race to own the space. Says Donica: “A good comparison is with genetics. Before we sequenced the genome, we didn’t have a sense of all the uses it could have, and now genetics inform so many parts of medicine.”
Home epigenetic kits already proliferate, variously testing different amounts of biomarkers (and hence with varying costs). Often these tests recommend supplements in reaction to results, frequently marketed by the makers. Sinclair advises caution: “To date, many commercial offerings overestimate their claims.” He is launching a test-kit and lifestyle-advice company, Tally Health, next year.
Clearly, the advantage of clinics like Chenot or La Prairie is how their doctors use epigenetic results alongside a panoply of other tests, such as hormones, vitamin levels, microbiome, and offer a full gamut of medical interpretation and advice. You aren’t alone in your kitchen wondering whether to trust the results or what action to take. But the cost disparity is significant.
Of products sold as epigenetic, face creams are a notable area, with brands including Augustinus Bader, Olay and Meder Beauty having created products that aim to alter the environment around the genes. Notably, Estée Lauder has put micro-signalling molecules into its Advanced Night Repair, with a view to epigenetically promoting collagen. “It’s a real target for skincare companies,” says aesthetic doctor Sophie Shotter. The jury is out on their efficacy; no expert wanted to be on record commenting about specific brands.
What sounded impossible a few years ago is starting to become real. In 2020, Sinclair’s lab said it had reversed age-related vision loss in mice, announced via a cover story in Nature. “We’re studying it in primates now, and next year we hope to try it in the first human,” says Sinclair. “I compare this moment to when the Wright brothers started flying: they knew they could, but nobody thought it was possible. Scientists can see that we can control the pace of ageing, but so far most of the rest of the world doesn’t know what is to come.”
This article has been amended to read “brands. . . [have] created products that aim to alter the environment around the genes” rather than “brands . . . have created products that promise to alter the genes responsible for ageing”
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