Our genes do not change and they dictate our destiny - how we look and the state of our health. That's what we were taught in high school biology and that's what I was taught in medical school a decade ago. But a decade is a long time in the research community. Today, scientific advancements in genetics show us that this is no longer the case.
Our genes are actually not always our destiny.
Epigenetic medicine is a new and rapidly advancing field that has revolutionised our approach to health and wellness. If you've ever met identical twins that were not 100% identical, even though their genetic makeup is, then you would have witnessed the effects of epigenetics. This medicine is the study of how our gene expression can be altered by environmental factors. It's a study of how certain genes can be ‘switched on’ and ‘switched off’ by our lifestyle choices. But, before we can talk about optimising epigenetics, it's important to first understand a bit about genetics.
We inherit about 3 billion units of DNA from our parents.
These are arranged in a specific sequence to form genes, which are then read by our cells like an instruction manual in order to make all the different proteins required around the body. Each of the trillions of cells in our body actually contains the same DNA code. But a muscle cell is certainly vastly different from a heart cell or a brain cell, not only in appearance, but in function as well. Although the actual DNA sequence is the same, the way the genes are expressed affects how that particular cell functions. Epigenetics is the reason for this.
We can think of our DNA sequence as a recipe in a cookbook.
The written instructions of the recipe don't change. However, the cook may choose to add certain spices or reduce the amounts of an ingredient in the recipe. This can completely alter the final dish. It's also possible that the cookbook pages have been stuck together by accident or part of the page was torn off. So, although the written instruction is the same, the cook can’t read those parts of the recipe. This changes the resulting taste of the final dish once again.
'Epi' means 'above or 'outside'.' Epigenetics literally refers to the layer of information above or outside the genes.
This layer contains various chemical compounds that are attached to various places along the DNA sequence. These may be inherited and may be responsible for certain traits being passed down from one generation to the next. But during our own lifetime, we also control epigenetics to a certain degree. Environmental factors can cause modifications to these chemical compounds and subsequently alter whether the instructions coded in that gene are interpreted properly.
In some cases, whole genes can be turned off and not read at all. In other cases, the gene may be turned on or read differently, such that the resulting protein that is formed doesn't function the way it should. The different combinations of which genes are turned on and off make us all unique. But they can also dictate the state of our health. For example, it's thought that the 'switching off' of specific genes, which would normally protect us from the unregulated growth of abnormal cells, contribute to the development of cancer.
Nutrition, sleep quality, stress level, physical activity and environmental pollutions are some examples of factors that can affect how our genes are expressed.
The specific field that deals with the interaction between food and our genes is known as Nutrigenetics, which is my particular field of interest.
You may have noticed that some lucky people can eat whatever they want, while others have to constantly battle a bulging belly even when they eat very little. Variations in DNA make some people more prone to weight gain on a high fat diet compared to others on the same high fat diet. You may have also noticed that some people can rapidly process carbohydrates, allowing them to tuck into plates of pasta without putting on weight, while others bloat at the mere sight of a crisp.
Studies have shown that a genetically matched diet led to better results compared to standard weight loss programs.
It's not just about weight loss, though. Nutrigenetics can also test a person’s ability to deal with lactose from milk, process caffeine and alcohol and absorb important micronutrients required for the optimal functioning of our body. It can identify those predisposed to type 2 diabetes, celiac disease and high cholesterol, allowing you to modify your diet and prevent the condition developing in the first place.
All around the world, healthcare systems are rapidly evolving to adopt models of disease prevention instead of just disease treatment and symptom control. Nutrigenetics and bespoke nutrition plans are a big part of this movement. Personalised medicine through genomic sequencing is becoming increasingly accessible. It is likely only a matter of time that it will become as commonplace as taking a full blood count when visiting the hospital.
This guest post is written by Ireland-based Dr. Denise Karlyn Hee, a medical doctor practicing nutrigenomic medicine and certified integrative nutrition health coach. If you’d like to find out more about this topic or consult with Dr. Denise, feel free to message her via her RingMD profile (profile here).
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