Nourish your health … or should it be nourish your genes.

I am sure you know nutrition and lifestyle choices impact the quality of health.

However did you know that nutrition and lifestyle choices can influence your health through your genes?

Enter stage left a new term, nutrigenomics.  An important new area of study that will be instrumental in helping us uncover new strategies for preventing or treating disease.

Want to know more?  Read on.

Genes & health?

1.  We know mulitple factors influence and contribute to the quality health.  These factors include our genes.

2.  We know our risk of developing disease is influenced by our genes, the genetic material we inherit from our mothers, fathers, grandparents, great grandparents and so on.

3.  And we now know a gene or a gene mutation has the potential to increase your risk (predisposition) of developing a specific disease and/or disease process.

Let me explain.

Genetic material?

A gene is genetic material, it contains information that is used by the body to produce cells that will ultimately enable us to develop a function.  You can think of function as something that needs to happen in the body for day to day good health.

You can think of genetic material as being like raw ingredients that when expressed correctly (i.e. ingredients being combined to create something using a recipe) will give your body the ability to do something.

However things can go wrong in the expressing of the gene (reading of the recipe).  If the gene expresses correctly you get the function, if its expresses incorrectly you can get something different, including an increased risk of developing disease.

What is Nutrigenomics?

Nutrigenomics is the study and research of how nutrition influences gene expression (reading of the recipe).  A field combining the study of genetics and nutrition.

It seeks to understand the complex interaction between human genes (human genome) and environmental and behavioural factors that can influence how a gene expresses and its impacts to our health.

At the most fundamental level biologists now agree the ability of a gene to express its genetic material correctly is influenced by the nutrients it is receiving or has/has not received.

It means what you eat and/or do not eat as well as the lifestyle habits you adopt/do not adopt can influence whether a gene expresses (is read) correctly.  And so influences your potential risk of developing disease.

Some key insights?

1.  Micronutrients (think vitamins and minerals) in foods contribute to impact metabolic reactions that determine everything from hormonal balance, immunity status, our ability to use our macronutrients (protein, carbs and fats), to grow, to produce energy and the functioning of our immune systems.

2.  Gene expression can be impacted by overt genotoxicants, chemical agents that cause nutritional deficiencies which in turn lead to damage of genetic information.  Damage that can cause mutations within a cell which has the ability to result in a disease such as cancer.  

3.  Genes contain DNA, specific instructions for how a gene is to express functionally.  However polymorphisms can occur in genes, this is a variation in the instructions, it is like being given the wrong receipe or code.  Polymorphisms account for 90% of all human genetic variation.  Some polymorphisms may be harmless, some are not.  Polymorphisms can alter the function of genes.  Polymorphisms in what we refer to as house-keeping genes, genes used in the basic maintenance of the cells can alter our the risk of developing a disease.  We know know nutrients or dietary factors can alter the “effect” of polymorphism and increase or decrease risk of disease.

4.  There are genes that are regulated by dietary factors and hence the nutrients from our diet can play a role in the onset, incidence, progression, and/or severity of chronic diseases.

5.  The ability of nutrients to influence the expression of genes for a particular person (or groups of people) provides the basis for understanding the value of personalised treatment, i.e. personalised diets/eating plans for individuals.  Dietary intervention informed by individual nutritional status, requirements and genotype can help inform how best to prevent, mitigate or potentially cure chronic disease.

6.  Through Nutrigenomics we have become aware of specific interactions between food and inherited genes that have resulted in ‘inborn errors of metabolism’.   For example, we know many with Asian heritage have a defective aldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme.  It is required for ethanol (alcohol) metabolism.   As a result when those with an asian heritage who have this defect drink alcohol, they experience unpleasant and unwanted side effects.

 Nutrigenomic diseases?

Nutrigenomics has enabled us to identify specific diseases and health conditions more likely to be influenced by genetic make up and nutrition status.  It is these diseases and conditions which are receiving most focus in nutrigenomic research.  They currently include:

  1. gastrointestinal conditions or digestive diseases, including cancer
  2. diseases classified as inflammatory diseases
  3. osteoporosis.

We have also learnt that nutrient imbalance can be an influencing factor in a range of other diseases and/or health conditions including:

  1. ageing
  2. chronic fatigue
  3. immune disorders
  4. diabetes
  5. cardiovascular disease (CVD)
  6. stroke.
  7. osteoporosis
  8. alcoholism
  9. cancer

And we have also come to understand that there is an interplay between genes and environmental factors including diet in a range of health conditions that include diabetes, heart disease, obesity and many cancers.

Influence of what we eat?

The bottom line is that the gene-diet interaction can influence development of disease.

An example.  There can be a gene-diet interaction influenced by red meat consumption.  Research indicates high consumption of red meat may increase the risk of colorectal cancer.  We also know dietary fibre provides can offer protection and potentially decrease the risk of developing bowel cancer.

What does this mean?

It gives new meaning to the term you are what you eat.  Aim to adopt healthy eating as your mantra.  Enjoy your food and nourish your body, or in this case your genes.

Wishing you good health.

ciao Jan