In the last few years, we have seen huge advances in the field of genetics. (See below for a mini-primer on genetics.) We’re rapidly discovering more and more about what individual genes do, but genes are not the only players.
Nutrigenomics is the study of the effects of foods on gene expression.
Just because you have a gene, your body isn’t necessarily ever going to use it.
Genes require an environmental trigger to be turned on or off. For those genes that are helpful to your body, it’s ideal to foster an environment that allows them to do their thing. For those genes that are not necessarily great, it’s ideal to avoid long-term exposure to the triggers that cause them to be expressed.
If someone has a bunch of “bad” genes that create conditions that encourage disease, there’s no guarantee that person will develop a disease. Lung cancer is a commonly-used example because some genes that are involved in lung cancer can’t be switched on without the right environmental trigger (cigarette smoke, excessive factory farts or asbestos). Similarly, “good” and “regular old” genes operate best when their environment provides plenty of what they need. (Learn about options for genetic testing.)
This is what I’m talking about when I say “environment”: air, water, food, movement/ exercise, bacterial flora (probiotics), emotional/mental state, sunshine, physical touch and social interactions. Stated more generally, your environment consists of anything that changes the biochemistry inside your body. Of course, the ideal environment provides more of what a body needs and less of what holds it back.
Nutrigenomics focuses on the nutritional aspect of your environment– how food affects the expression of your genetic code. Certain components of food ask your DNA to untwist so that a copy of a specific section of genetic code can be made. That genetic code is used as a blueprint to create a protein, and that protein is used to make the body’s machinery work. The result can either support health, or fight against it.
Would you like a couple general examples of Nutrigenomics? Assuming you said yes, here you go!
- 1) Cruciferous vegetables (I’m talking broccoli, kale, arugula, cauliflower, Brussels spouts, etc). Components in these leafy beauties give your body the ability to turn on genes involved with your immune system. Multiple studies indicate that higher intake of cruciferous veggies is associated with decreased cancer risk. (link1, link2, link3)
- 2) Let’s say a body thrives on a diet with moderate amounts of protein, but that person’s diet is very carb-heavy. If a body operates best when its internal environment contains protein-sourced compounds, that body cannot thrive while eating a high-carb diet. Why? It’s harder for that body to turn on the genes involved with immunity, detox, hormone production, mood and more. It’s is like putting gasoline in a diesel engine: if a machine is built for one kind of fuel, anything else will make it sputter and perform suboptimally.
A recent clinical trial shows that people who receive nutrition advice tailored to their genetic profile lost 76% more weight.
DNA provides powerful potential, but it’s happy to just sit around. Like a wise guru, it requires that your body ask it to unwind and expose the genetic code within. The requests your body makes of your DNA are driven by the environment. Most of these environment-focused requests are temporary and change along with the environment.
But some of these requests are flagged to be long-lasting. And, depending on the severity and/or timing of an environmental aspect, effects can become permanent enough to get passed on to the next generation.
Epigenetics (meaning “above genetics”) is the study of molecules that attach to DNA to affect their expression. These molecules are not official parts of the genetic code, but some are inheritable!
- Methyl groups attach to DNA to activate or repress genes.
- Molecules can attach to histones, which are like spools around which DNA is wound like thread.
- Transposons are fragments of DNA, which can jump from one section of a chromosome to another, ostensibly to rapidly reorganize genes in response to environmental stress. >>
- A decision about which genes to switch on or off can change in as fast as thirty minutes. Stress and emotions are usually a contributing factor in this short timeframe.
Humans share over 90% of our genome with apes <insert joke about your uncle here>. But the huge difference comes in how those genes are managed and expressed. We have ~30,000 genes, but only 2% of the entire genome is made up of genes. The 98% remaining is what used to be called “Junk DNA”. It turns out this not-junk DNA provides instructions for how genes are directed and controlled… pretty outrageously important.