Nutrigenomics is an emerging field of study that shows how genes interact with lifestyle. Here’s how it can help you eat and live to maximize your health.
Your body isn’t just a static set of DNA and cells. Our bodies are biologically active, with genes that can be switched on or off based on environment, lifestyle, diet, and other factors. So how do your genes really affect you, and how, in turn, can your diet, lifestyle, and behavior influence what your genes are doing?
Nutrigenomics can help you discover the best nutritional plan for your unique body. Read on to see how it works.
What is Nutrigenomics?
Nutrigenomics is the study of the way food, diet, and nutrients impact genetic expression, and in turn, how specific genetic mutations dictate the way the body uses food. (1)
It’s still an expanding field of research, but what has been discovered so far with nutrigenomics is life-changing. We have learned that diet plays a major role in risk factors for many diseases, and can even act on genes and change their expression.
Because everyone has a unique genetic makeup, one person might be more genetically prone to disease or sickness than another. However, simply having the gene for certain conditions doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get them. This is where nutrigenomics and epigenetics step in. Epigenetics is the study of how the environment – which includes diet, exercise, and lifestyle – can influence gene activity and effectively turn them “off” or “on”.
Nutrigenomics asserts that taking a personalized approach to diet and lifestyle based on genetics can prevent, treat, and even cure chronic disease. (2)
Personalizing Diets to Decrease Risk of Disease
People mistakenly blame their genes when it comes to health and longevity, but only about 25 percent of longevity is based on cut and dried genetic factors. (3) Most of it is determined by lifestyle, nutrition, mental health, stress levels, inflammation, and more – all factors that influence how genes work within the body.
The same is true for disease. For example, some people are more prone to autoimmunity than others, and the type and severity that develops is decided both by genes and external factors.
By understanding how your genes interact with the foods and nutrients that you take in, you’ll be able to shift your dietary and lifestyle choices away from those that negatively affect genetic expression and focus on the ones that have positive and protective results.
This is the ultimate in a personalized dietary program, the antithesis of “one size fits all” eating and the future of nutrition. As more advances in research are made, it will become easier for the everyday person to plug their genetic profile into an app of some sort and learn which foods and nutrients are protective and which should be avoided. Until that day comes, however, we’re limited to what research tells us at the moment.
Sifting through genetic results and determining which nutrients help or hurt expression is a time-consuming process. While there are hundreds of genetic mutations, only a few of them are well understood, both in how they impact health conditions and in the sorts of nutritional support they require. This article will not prescriptively describe how to address specific mutations but will talk about the potential for diet customization that exists both currently and as the subject of ongoing research.
3 Ways Your Genes Determine What’s Good for You
Your body consists of a complex series of genes that exist as a unique switchboard. All individual switches must be turned on or off – there is no neutral state for genetic expression.
Your “master switchboard” is in a constant state of flux, and how you eat, live, sleep, move, and think all affect the current state of your switchboard.
While much in the field of nutrigenomics isn’t fully understood, we know that the following three areas are highly influenced by genetics.
1. The Way Your Body Uses Nutrients
Macronutrients and micronutrients are used differently by people based on many factors, including genetics. For example, some people can digest fat more easily than others, while others have a higher tolerance for carbs and sweets.
Not only do our genes need specific nutrients to function, but the foods that we digest are regulated in part by the genes that we have.
Take the mutation MTHFR C677T, perhaps the most well-known of all genetic building blocks. This genetic variant can reduce the body’s ability to use folate, which means the body needs extra folate to offset this genetic problem. (4) Whole foods like spinach and broccoli can provide more bioavailable forms of folate, which in turn can help the gene to better function. This same process is true for many genetic mutations, with many forms of macronutrients and micronutrients.
While tying specific nutritional support to everyone’s individual genetic set is an impossible task at the moment, most research indicates that the starting point to good genetic health and gene expression is eating a diet free from “fake” foods and nutrients.
Bottom line: Genes influence the way that the body uses macronutrients and micronutrients. Opting for real, unprocessed food is the starting point for good genetic health and gene expression.
2. Gut Health and Allergies
Allergies are another common way that genetics can have a huge say in what you can and can’t eat. People with immune-driven and anaphylactic allergies understand that, for whatever reason, they’re so sensitized to foods that they can’t eat them without endangering their lives. This is predominantly driven by underlying genetics.
While not all food allergies are genetic, those that involve the immune system typically are. Food sensitivity, on the other hand, can either be genetic or can be a result of gut health or other problems.
While not all allergies are passed from parent to child, all allergies are involved with gene expression. Take lactose intolerance, for example. Although it’s not a true milk allergy, it’s a disorder caused by a genetic lack of the enzyme needed to break down lactose. (5) Without a sufficient amount of this enzyme, the undigested lactose travels through the gut, wreaking havoc on your digestive system.
Still, this doesn’t mean that everyone who has a family history of lactose intolerance won’t be able to digest milk. Some will have the gene and it will be turned “on,” while others will have the gene and it will be turned “off,” aka not expressing.
It has long been thought that genetics largely shaped the type and amount of bacteria found in the microbiome, but recent research has shown that lifestyle and epigenetic factors, like diet, has a bigger role in determining what the gut landscape looks like. The microbiome, in turn, has a large role in genetic expression, which is one major way that how we eat and live can directly influence how our genes work – either for us or against us. (6)
Bottom line: Allergies are genetic, but just because a gene is present doesn’t mean a tangible allergy will exist.
3. Disease Development
Whether it’s looking to prevent obesity or to reduce a risk of developing cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, or more, nutrigenomics is being studied as a way to boost longevity by reducing the incidences of chronic and deadly diseases.
Many diseases are complicated by obesity, leading researchers to seek new ways to treat weight loss problems. Unsurprisingly, customized nutrition programs that take a person’s genes into account have proven to be more successful than one size fits all approaches. (7) Genetically personalized diets are also superior when it comes to maintaining a healthy glucose level, which can also be instrumental in optimizing body weight. (8)
Cardiovascular and metabolic disorders are also well-researched in nutrigenomics, placing direct focus on how environmental and lifestyle factors interact with a few key genes, including the aforementioned gene variant C677T. (9)
Heart disease risk is still going to dramatically increase when basic risk factors are present, like smoking, heavy alcohol intake and lack of exercise. Inflammation is also strongly influenced by genetic expression, as shown by examples of people who live the same risky lifestyle, where one develops heart disease and the other outlives even healthier people. This shows that even people who don’t live pristine lifestyles can still have inactivated dangerous genes and activated protective genes.
Research will focus on epigenetics and nutrigenomics for a long time to come, but it will never be able to fully account for every aspect of a person’s lifestyle. (10)
Bottom line: The way our lifestyle, nutrition, and overall environment interacts with our genes plays a huge role in our risk of getting diseases.
Should You Get Personalized Genetic Testing?
While there are definite upsides to understanding your genetics and being able to customize your lifestyle and diet to your exact needs, some people find the information overwhelming and even scary. Knowing that you have a genetic potential for certain types of cancer or other chronic diseases, can feel like a doom-and-gloom experience. While the presence of a gene doesn’t mean it will express, it can be a lot of information to process at once. There are also concerns about the risk of this data being used someday to determine health or eligibility for insurance.
Still, some feel that the empowerment achieved through understanding their genetic risks and being able to take a proactive approach to their lifestyle makes them feel more in charge. This is especially true for people who already have a family history of disease and assume they’re at greater risk, too.
Options exist for personalized genetic testing that typically involve collecting a saliva sample and sending it off to a lab where it may take 2-8 weeks to get results. You may choose to share results with your healthcare providers. Companies like Livewello and Promethease will analyze your genetic raw data for you and provide information to help distill the overwhelming amount of data. Certain practitioners also specialize in creating lifestyle programs according to your genetic health, many of which can be found by searching the practitioner database on Livewello.
The pros of testing are that it’s relatively inexpensive (less than $150 for most labs) and available for anyone to order. The cons are that you could find out that you have genetic tendencies toward chronic diseases which might be scary although working with a practitioner will help to hedge this fear.
Remember, you’re not just the sum total of your genes, and possessing a gene doesn’t mean you’ll automatically develop those disorders.
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