By Tapp Francke Ingolia
In the brave new world that we are living in, our bodies are exposed to more stress, chemicals and pollutants than ever before. With COVID nipping at our heels, and heart disease and cancer the leading causes of death in the U.S., understanding how to best support your body is taking precedence. Human DNA contains directions for how our bodies work; it understands the body’s unique nutritional needs. Achieving those needs can optimize genetic expression, performance and therefore physical and mental health.
The exploration into the extraordinary landscape that is our genome (our complete set of DNA, including all of our genes), is relatively new. It has only been roughly 20 years since the human genome was mapped, and everyday there seems to be a new study on how genes determine health. A set of human genes consists of two complete sets of 23 chromosomes housed in the nucleus of cells. These contain an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 genes. DNA, a unique genetic code, is essentially an instruction manual on how to build and run a human body. DNA molecules are made up of four basic bases. Each of us has two sets of these bases for every gene; one maternal, the other paternal. The differences in the DNA sequences are what make us unique individuals.
Epigenetics looks at the activation or deactivation of genes, also known as genetic expression. Nutrigenetics is the scientific study of the interplay between those genes with diet and lifestyle. Diet and lifestyle choices regulate genomic stability, which in turn impacts all relevant pathways and determines health, longevity and disease risk. The study of genomes tells us how we can influence our genes to behave in a way that is more beneficial. In his book Dirty Genes, Dr. Ben Lynch says that “with the right tools, we can transcend genetic tendencies to disease.” This is important to understand, because genetics do not have to equal destiny. Your mother may have had breast cancer, and your father heart disease, but that does not mean you will suffer from either. The genetic code is heavily influenced by the food we eat and the behaviors we engage in; an example of this is the AA haplotype COMT gene, a variation associated with slower estrogen metabolism that causes the hormones to stay in the body longer than they should. This may increase the risk for breast cancer. By eating cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and kale, which may work to block estrogen production, we can help move estrogen out of the body and possibly help mitigate cancer risk.
Eating for our genes can help reduce a genetic predisposition to certain health issues like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Martin Kohlmeier, M.D.,PhD, in his book Nutrigenetics: Applying the Science of Personal Nutrition, says that the study of nutrigenetics “leaves little doubt that adjusting personal nutrition patterns to inherited predisposition can greatly improve the health of many people.” Those with a predisposition for the gene associated with lower levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol, need to consume higher levels of healthy fats like fatty fish and olive oil in order to help decrease the risk of heart disease.
We are complex organisms. Our bodies require care so we can live the longest, healthiest lives possible. Nutrigenetics can help inform us how to achieve that. Health care practitioners trained in reading people’s genomes can put together diet and supplement plans specific to people’s individual needs—20 years ago, this would have been beyond comprehension. Now the information is at our fingertips. As we usher in a new era of individualized care, we are only just beginning to understand where the study of genes can take us.
Tapp Francke Ingolia is Purist’s contributing health editor and the founder of STANDwellness in Water Mill. standwellness.com