Nutrition and Your Genes
Genes …. genes …. genes. It seems that these days we hear so much about how everything from obesity to cancer has a genetic component, and there’s nothing we can do about it – in other words, we are subject to all sorts of inherited traits from our ancestry. Right? WRONG. Your DNA does not have to be your destiny.
While there are, of course, genes that are hard-wired (eye color, hair color, and so forth), it turns out that when it comes to matters of health and weight, it’s more about what our genes are exposed to, and not the gene itself. It turns out that lifestyle — what we’ve eaten or drunk, inhaled, surrounded ourselves with in our environment, endured as stresses, participated in as activities or suffered as injury, infection or inflammation, our sleep patterns, spirituality, and even our thoughts — has the ability to either turn large amounts of our genes on, or turn them off . This means that our genes are largely modifiable, and nutrition plays a huge role.
It has to do with the sciences of epigenetics, nutrigenomics, and a biochemical process called methylation.
The Science of Epigenetics
Epigenetics is the study of how DNA trait variations are caused by environmental factors influencing our genetic expression – i.e., whether a gene will be turned on or off – instead of being caused by changes in DNA sequence. Epigenetics involves genetic control by factors other than an individual’s DNA.¹
It might be easier to think about epigenetics as being analogous to playing cards. In every card game (poker, gin rummy, etc.), we are dealt a certain number of cards. If we never did anything with those cards – if we never played the hand we were dealt — they would be fixed that way forever. So think about the hand we are dealt as being our DNA.
Playing cards, however, is more about how we play the hand we’re dealt, rather than the hand itself. In cards, depending on how we play the hand, a variety of things can happen in the game. It is how we play the hand, of course, which determines whether we win or lose. Now think about how we play the hand we’re dealt as being how our genes are reacting to what they’re exposed to – how our genes are expressing themselves, or “genetic expression”. This is the science of epigenetics. It is epigenetics that tells our DNA what to do.
Epigenetics is now considered an important mechanism in the unknown etiology of many diseases, such as inflammation, immune diseases, cancer, obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, and even aging.
The Science of Nutrigenomics
Now think about this in the context of our lifestyle habits – what we do and are exposed to every day. It is the science of nutrigenomics that tells us it is our lifestyle habits – specifically our nutrition — that determine which genes will be turned on, and which genes will be turned off. Nutrigenomics is the study of the effects that foods and food constituents (vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phytochemicals) have on gene expression. It is the scientific study of the interaction of nutrition and genes.
Nutrients from foods and dietary supplements have the ability to communicate with our genes. They contain many inhibitors and stimulators (dietary signals) that are able to modify gene expression. In other words, dietary components (nutrients from foods and dietary supplements) can selectively activate or inactive gene expression.
This makes nutritional intervention a plausible way to reprogram the epigenome (chemical compounds that tell the DNA what to do) to promote health. It means that we are not subject to all sorts of inherited traits from our ancestry. We can reprogram many genes to promote health, and employing good nutrition in our lives is at the top of the list.
From Jeffrey S. Bland, PhD’s book, “Genetic Nutritioneering: How You Can Modify Inherited Traits and Live a Longer, Healthier Life”, here’s a list of some of the modifiable genetic factors over which nutrition and lifestyle changes can exert a good deal of control:
- Poor strength
- Reduced flexibility
- Poor aerobic ability
- Inappropriately high level of body fat
- Poor control of insulin and blood sugar
- Increased inflammation (pain)
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Accelerated brain aging
- Increased risk of cancer and More
In the body, there are many metabolic processes dependent on nutrition for health. One of these is called methylation. Methylation is a vital metabolic process that happens in every cell and every organ of our body. It is the passing of a chemical fragment called a methyl group (a carbon atom linked to three hydrogens) from one molecule to another. Methylation is a type of repair process. Life would not exist without it.
The list of bodily processes that methylation is involved in is quite lengthy. In general, methylation:
- Clears environmental toxins from body.
- Is involved in inflammatory control and other immune functions, including autoimmunity
- Helps with detoxification of many carcinogens, both organic and inorganic.
- Is involved in nervous system, gastrointestinal system and with lung function
- Is involved in the cardiovascular system
- Helps to process hormones
- Helps with energy production
- Turns genes on and off
- Is associated with aging and longevity
DNA methylation is a process by which methyl groups are added to DNA. DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism used by cells to control gene expression. DNA methylation is also associated with healthy aging.
Abnormal DNA methylation is associated with cancer and a number of other chronic diseases. There are several things that can disturb proper methylation in the body:
- Lack of nutrients that act as precursors for the formation of methyl donors
- Medications which deplete nutrients necessary for methylation
- Specific nutrients depleting methyl groups (ie: high-dose niacin)
- Environmental toxicity, heavy metals, chemicals
- Genetic mutations
- Mental stress, sleep, lack of congruence
Protecting Your DNA
There are several things that can be done to protect your DNA. Supporting methylation processes in your body is, of course, high on the list. Supporting other functions, such as detoxification, immune system, gastrointestinal system, etc., is also high on the list.
Choosing the right nutrients from foods and dietary supplements plays a huge role in ensuring proper methylation and protecting DNA. Of course, making other lifestyle changes may also be needed.
“Healthy lifestyle habits, including natural (unprocessed) foods,
regular physical activity, and maintenance of normal weight
may help reduce DNA damage and enhance DNA repair”
– Genes and Nutrition
Nutritional Consultation, Genetic Testing, and Food Allergies
Determining the proper nutrition unique to you is determined in an individual nutritional consultation. Amongst other assessment tools that we may recommend, if needed, is a genetic test known as a Methyl Detox Profile. This test looks for genetic mutations that may be affecting healthy methylation. If you have any SNPs (mutations), nutrition can play a key role in improving proper methylation — remember nutrition has a profound effect on epigenetics. If genetic testing for possible methylation SNPs (mutations) is recommended, a test kit will be provided to you.
In addition, it should be noted that food allergies can alter genes. A nutritional consultation will also determine any food allergies you may have. Food allergy testing is also available, if needed, and test kits will be provided if food allergy testing is recommended. A diet plan and other nutritional recommendations customized to your individual needs and genetic make-up (if genetic testing is done) will be made.
We Can No Longer Blame Our Genes
This new association between diet and genetic expression puts a much greater responsibility on us in selecting the foods we eat, and in making healthy lifestyle choices. We cannot create an environment in which obesity genes (as well as disease-creating genes) can flourish. The sort of “bad” news: We can no longer blame our genes for our weight gain or our poor health. The “great” news: WE ARE IN CONTROL. Your DNA is not your destiny.
It is important to note that once a modifiable gene has been turned on, it can be “silenced” or turned off through nutrition and/or other lifestyle changes, but you will always need to be diligent about employing nutrition and other lifestyle changes in your life; otherwise, the gene will turn on (express itself) again. Modifiable genes include obesity genes, as well as those mentioned above.²
You Are Not Alone – I’m Here to Help
Remember that my role is to guide you to health by designing a nutritional program specifically for you – this means I am partnering with you to ensure your success. Not only do our nutritional programs include the nutritional elements (food, recipes, supplements, etc.) and advice, but they also include education, developing strategies and tips, and more that respond to your situation in order to anchor your success.
¹Simmons, D. (2008) Epigenetic influence and disease. Nature Education 1(1):6. (www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/epigenetic-influences-and-disease-895).
²“Genetic Nutritioneering: How You Can Modify Inherited Traits and Live a Longer, Healthier Life”, by Jeffrey S. Bland, Ph.D.