Epigenetics is the study of how behavioral or environmental changes can impact our DNA. Our genes and DNA structure are actually not static and unchangeable; in fact, our base coding is being modified all the time. Certain types of tea (particularly green and black teas for example) have been touted as being healthy, and studies have shown that tea consumption may decrease the risks of heart disease, certain cancers, and even Parkinson’s. While prior studies have found tea health benefits to include lower estrogen levels in women and a decrease in cancer risks, the findings in a new study give us a possible why: the answer may lie in tea’s effect on our genes.
The genes related to estrogen (specifically estradiol) metabolism and cancer are affected differently in women who drink tea. Could this difference provide a positive epigenetic boost to women? And if so, what is the mechanism of these tea health benefits? Let’s explore these questions first by looking at DNA methylation.
What Is DNA Methylation?
One example of epigenetics is DNA methylation, which is one way that our gene expression is impacted. In DNA methylation, a chemical (methyl group) is added to the DNA strand, and this process can damage specific genes, possibly leading to certain diseases. There are a number of things that can lead to this damage, such as stress, poor diet, smoking, or sickness. This is a very powerful process, so powerful that if the damage affects particularly your sex cells, it could be passed to your kids and their kids and so on.
What we don’t seem to know as much about is the positive effects on our genes when DNA methylation is influenced by good things, like a healthy diet, exercise, and stress management. We do, however, know that controlling DNA methylation is vital to regulating the expression of our genes, and, now, the new study on tea consumption might provide some indications of those tea health benefits…at least for women.
The Importance of Estrogen Metabolism
While estrogen is most known as a female hormone, men do have small amounts of estrogen as well, and in both sexes, estrogen must be properly balanced in the body. This balance is accomplished through estrogen metabolism, which takes place in the liver. Estrogen metabolism breaks down the estrogen we don’t need and eliminates it from the body. There are many things that can hamper this process, including exposure to environmental toxins (e.g., pesticides, plastics, cleaning chemicals, etc.), poor diet, or certain medications. When estrogen cannot be properly metabolized, over time this excess of estrogen has been shown to increase the risk of certain cancers, such as prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women, and other health conditions.
A Review of Our Other Posts Regarding Epigenetics
We have covered many issues over the years related to epigenetics and DNA methylation. A handful follow:
- Exercise has been shown to alter aging by decreasing DNA methylation.
- Coffee could be an epigenetic nightmare for some people.
- Trans fats can epigenetically alter mothers’ genes.
- Epigenetic defects can be passed down for generations.
- Heavy alcohol consumption may cause epigenetic damage to stem cells.
Study Shows Epigenetic Tea Health Benefits in Women
The purpose of the new study was to determine if epigenetic changes, or any modifications to the DNA, occurred with coffee and tea consumption. The study was a meta-analysis (meaning a combination of several studies) consisting of 3,096 subjects (both male and female) in European countries. The subjects’ blood was measured for DNA methylation, and analysis found that two specific DNA genes—DNAJC16 and TTC17 (genes that relate to estrogen metabolism and cancer)—were methylated in the female tea-drinking subjects in a different way from the tea-drinking male subjects and all of the coffee-drinking subjects.
The upshot? Could the differences in how DNA is methylated in women who drink tea account for the lower estrogen levels and decreased risks of cancer found in other studies? The answer to that question wasn’t the purpose of this study, but, certainly, the results open the door for further research on what these epigenetic tea health benefits in women really mean.