Drinking tea may not be changing your genes, but it could be altering their expression. A new study published in Human Molecular Genetics claims that tea can alter what are known as epigenetic markers, the molecules that dictate when a gene is turned on or off.
The study, conducted on over 3,000 participants, discovered that many of these epigenetic changes were found in genes associated with estrogen metabolism and cancer. Previous studies have found that a certain compound found in tea known as catechins may affect epigenetic markers associated with estrogen as well as cancer. Interestingly, specifically in regards to this estrogen link, the study also found that tea only affects the epigenetics of women, not men.
“Previous studies have shown that tea consumption reduces estrogen levels which highlights a potential difference between the biological response to tea in men and women,” explains lead author Weronica Ek of Uppsala University in a statement. “Women also drink higher amounts of tea compared to men, which increases our power to find association in women.”
For a long time, it used to be thought that the underlying genetic code in your cells was relatively stable, only altering when mutations occurred, driving evolution as well as serious diseases such as cancer. But as our understanding of DNA has expanded, scientists have come to realize that there is much more going on with our DNA than previously thought.
Each gene – which in turn codes for a protein used to build cells, tissues, or organs – is controlled by separate molecules that associate with the DNA strand, known as epigenetic markers. They sit at the start and end of the gene, and control the activity by dictating when it is turned on or off. It has now become increasingly clear that these molecules can be influenced by environmental conditions. Smoking, for example, has been found to alter these molecules and can cause certain forms of cancer.
Yet further studies have found something even more incredible. It seems there is the potential that these epigenetic markers may be passed from parent to offspring. This has led some to suggest that environmental stressors on the parent can ripple down the generations, with one study claiming that the stress experienced by Holocaust survivors is reflected in the epigenetics of their children, though this has since been questioned. Some experiments on roundworms have even found that they can be passed on for up to an astonishing 14 generations.
Whether or not these small tweaks to our DNA can be passed down is not well understood, but certain environmental conditions can alter the expression of our genes.