Genes provide the blueprint for health, but how we live can alter how our genes are expressed.
Welcome to the beginning of our Healing from the Ground Up series. This series will take you on a journey demonstrating how to use natural health to unlock your full health potential. We will dissect the various building blocks of health, starting with the fundamental determinants of health like genetics, environment, and diet. You can read more about why we’ve put this series together in our introductory article. Today, we start our journey with a discussion of genetics and epigenetics, the study of how genes are turned on and off.
Researchers are learning more and more about the connection between human health and genetics. This has led to an explosion in the genetic testing market, which is expected to double by 2030.
Our genetics form the basis for our health. 99.9 percent of our genomes are identical; the last 0.1 percent is where variations occur between humans and defines why and how we differ from each other. These gene variations are like spelling changes in our genetic code and are often known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).
We often think of our genes as our destiny: you get genes from your mother and genes from your father, and that’s that. Emerging research is showing that predisposition is not predestiny, and the choices we make in our lifestyle, diet, and our environment changes how our genes are expressed, turning the genes on or off. These gene variations influence how we respond to the world around us, to our diet (gluten, dairy, caffeine, ketogenic diets, etc), how we consume and burn up calories, our response to exercise and injury, and how we respond to stress and trauma. Our gene variations also impact how we metabolize pollutants, hormones and drugs.
Understanding your genes is the first step to optimizing your health. Here’s one sample genetic test from 3X4 Genetics, one of the more user-friendly reports on the market today. The report is broken down into the six categories (listed below) covering 36 areas of health, giving an indication of the breadth of information that can be gleaned from learning about your SNPs and how they work together:
- Cellular. Your genetic makeup can give you information on how well you methylate, keep inflammation at bay, handle oxidative stress, and how well you detoxify.
- Systems. SNPs offer insights into your mood and behavior changes, as well as how to improve your memory, brain health, bone health, and hormonal balance.
- Cardiovascular. Certain genes affect blood clotting, cholesterol metabolism, as well as the health of your blood vessels and any potential for raised blood pressure.
- Energy. Everyone gains and loses weight differently and for some it’s harder than others. Your genes influence your appetite and how full you feel at the end of a meal, your eating behavior, and how you store and burn up body fat.
- Activity. Your SNPs can tell you about how your body responds to various types of physical activity, whether your body is conditioned for endurance exercise (running, biking) or more for power exercises.
- Nutrients. Your genes can also tell you how well your body absorbs and metabolizes nutrients. Genetics affects how your body processes caffeine, iron, fatty acids, choline, vitamin D, vitamin C, folate, and vitamin B12 etc. Knowing this information can help you make better and more targeted food choices.
Not all genetic testing companies are equal. Look at what information they provide and if you will receive personalized recommendations for diet, lifestyle, and supplements. So, for example, if your SNPs impact your ability to methylate focusing on B-vitamins, limiting alcohol and chemical exposures that overload the methylation cycle are recommended.
3X4 is one option— a simple cheek swab will get you all the answers described above. When you order 23andme or Ancestry.com (costing about $100-$200, versus $349 for 3X4’s test), saliva tests, which you can order yourself, you get the raw data regarding your genes, and then run that data through a site like NutraHacker.com, which analyzes your genes to identify variants associated with detoxification and methylation for free. Detoxigenomics is another gene test you get through your health provider focusing on Phase I and II detoxification, and provides you with advice on how to minimize risks based on your profile; they, too, offer insight into SNPs that prevent the metabolism of drugs like Coumadin, a blood thinner. Other tests are available that cater to athletes.
When choosing a genetics company, be sure to review what they offer in their sample report, who the scientists are who built the test, and how they manage privacy and ethics. As an example, 23andme sells genetic data to pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to use for drug development. Most importantly, no matter who you choose, make sure you get recommendations that you can use in your daily life.
The bottom line is this: acquiring an understanding of your genetic profile gives you a personalized blueprint for how to optimize your health, providing recommendations on what foods to eat and not eat, what lifestyle habits to incorporate or avoid, how to exercise effectively, how you might respond to certain drugs, how to proactively protect against diseases you may have more of a predisposition to like Alzheimer’s or cancer, etc.
Here are some examples of SNPs:
- Perhaps the most well-known SNP is MTHFR. This gene provides the instructions to make an enzyme that converts a form of the B vitamin, folate, into the primary form of folate found in the body and necessary for the conversion of homocysteine to methionine. The MTHFR gene variant decreases the activity of the enzyme, but this can be supported with the right nutrition.
- Genetic variations in the vitamin D receptor gene can influence how vitamin D is metabolized in your body, which may require you to supplement.
- The NQ01 gene plays a vital role in helping the body remove toxins as well as ensuring the availability of CoQ10, ubiquinol. A SNP in NQ01 may alter the need for additional CoQ10.
It is always important to remember that no one SNP by itself is powerful enough to determine what you should eat and the life you should live. But when looked at together, they provide valuable insight into who you are and how you respond to the world around you.
Just because you have a genetic predisposition does not mean you are predestined to become ill. This moves us from the realm of genetics to epigenetics, the study of how your choices, behaviors and the environment affect the way your genes behave. A fascinating 2016 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine provides a perfect starting point to look at the power of epigenetics in health.
The study, “Genetic Risk, Adherence to a Healthy Lifestyle, and Coronary Disease,” analyzed data from four other studies totaling 55,685 participants. The purpose was to assess the relationship between genetic profile and lifestyle factors in cardiovascular disease risk. Fifty SNPs were identified that were strongly associated with coronary artery disease. Participants were also given a lifestyle quality score determined by factors like body mass index, smoking history, physical activity level, and diet quality. Genetic and lifestyle factors were then statistically correlated. The authors concluded: “Among participants at high genetic risk, a favorable lifestyle was associated with a nearly 50% lower relative risk of coronary artery disease than was an unfavorable lifestyle.”
What this means is that a healthy lifestyle can help to overcome and compensate for a genetic predisposition to disease. This shows the power of knowing your genetic profile and the profound effect diet and lifestyle changes can have on your profile.
We reported previously on the effect that diet has on gene expression. For example, one study found that a diet of 65 percent carbohydrates turned on genes that cause inflammation in the body in addition to genes associated with the development of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, dementia, and type 2 diabetes. Other animal studies have shown that fatty acids have an impact on the expression of more than 300 genes.
It isn’t just diet that affects gene expression. Exposures to environmental chemicals modifies multiple biological processes including gene expression. Recent research into why and how heavy metal exposures cause cancer suggests that epigenetic factors may be at play; heavy metal exposures, for example, may silence DNA repair and tumor-suppressing genes. Exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals like BPA also have epigenetic effects.
Sometimes, the changes brought about as a consequence of diet and environmental exposures are passed on to subsequent generations.
Health and healing begin with an understanding of our “hardware” as it pertains to our genetics and what that tells us about our individual needs; but we also need to understand that our lifestyle and environment provide the “software” that has profound impacts on how our genetic “hardware” operates.
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