Friday, January 22, 2016

Learning about Nutrigenomics and Epigenetics can be Empowering!


“We are, quite literally, what we eat as well as what our parents and grandparents ate”
                                    ------------- Dr Randy Jirtle, Geneticist.

     Remember when Hippocrates declared “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”? He knew a fundamental truth which mankind has started re-discovering only over the past one and a half centuries. In the last decade or so it has actually been a golden age for Nutritionists as more people are willing to work towards wellness than ever.

     Also over the past decade, researchers have been focusing on a mind-boggling new field in Genetics - the fact that you can turn on or off certain genes simply by the way you live! This field is called Epigenetics, the study of changes in gene expression caused by outside influences rather than existing gene structure. More importantly, many of these changes are heritable – they are passed on to your children… and their children.

     Quite simply, your lifestyle, food habits, emotional experiences (happiness / stress), physical traumas, exercise, chemical / pollution exposure, etc. can switch either beneficial or harmful genes ON or OFF.

     We are born with a set of genes which determine our physical characteristics like eye colour, hair texture amongst all the other things which make us human. These genes are responsible for every biological reaction that goes on in the body. They are essential for everything from our heartbeat to hormone levels. The basic nature of these genes doesn't change easily. But gene expression / activation / protection which is influenced by the factors in the previous paragraph, then directs critical body processes affecting aging, preservation of normal health and modifying your risk for chronic disease.

     Nutritionists have always maintained that while you are stuck with certain bad genes, these don't really determine your health – only you can....through the way you live. That philosophy has been validated by Epigenetics research which shows that you have more control than you think over whether you will develop disease or stay healthy.

     The implications are life-altering…….while we all have disease causing genes that can potentially be activated, not everyone has the same ones. For example, some people have a version of a gene that makes their coffee intake a risk factor for heart disease while others have the version that effectively deals with caffeine in coffee such that it actually lowers their risk of heart disease.  That is why different studies on the same topic have found different results – some studies say the caffeine in coffee is good for you while others find it is not – because of different genotypes of the subjects! Same goes for alcohol and chocolate. So the lesson here is ...... if you don't have the habit, don't start it for the sake of your health – it is not worth the riskwhat if you don’t have the right genes?

     The study of the effect of food and it's components on gene expression has been termed 'Nutrigenomics'. Some findings which have come out of Epigenetics and Nutrigenomics........

- Regular exercise switches on around 100 cancer-preventing genes and switches off at least 70 cancer-promoting ones.

- Regular exercise turns off genes that encourage storage of excess fat, especially on the liver.

- Don't drink sugar – rich sports drinks while exercising. This suppresses genes which promote fat-burning!

- Folate or Folic acid which is one of the B - complex vitamins is considered an important gene- protective nutrient – include natural sources of folate like green leafy veggies and whole pulses and fresh lentils for the whole family regularly.

- Other vitamins and amino acids have been found to positively influence genes, they are Riboflavin, B6 and Choline, Serine, Glycine, Methionine and Cysteine. These compounds are omnipresent in a varied and healthy diet.

- Regular olive oil consumption reduces the expression of 98 genes involved in the inflammatory responses which cause heart disease and auto-immune disorders like Arthritis.

- Eating low glycaemic index carbs (whole grain cereals and pulses) during pregnancy benefits the foetus by decreasing it’s risk of developing diabetes in later life.

     So how do we now utilise this information? It would be easy to get excited and try to keep track of the latest research on the subject but in reality, developing affordable genetic testing for the general public in India will take a couple of decades...don't hold your breath. Firstly, they have to isolate all the modifiable genes which runs into hundreds of thousands. Then comes figuring out the effect each gene has and calculating the health implications thereof. Extremely complex computer algorithms have to be formulated to process all this data which then has to be interpreted by geneticists.

     Ultimately, the purpose of such exhaustive research is to customize nutrition advice to an individual’s genetic makeup. Such a personalized plan would take into account individual nutrient deficiencies. Customized nutritional supplements may replace every pill in the medicine cabinet, finally validating the industry that makes them. However, if I’m around when all this happens, I would still advise you to get most of your nutrients through natural dietary sources!

     There is no need to wait for a test to tell you what you know you should already be doing..... reduce consumption of processed food, unhealthy fats, sugar and salt; include more natural foods and whole grains instead and while you are at it – GO ORGANIC. Start exercising at least 4- 5 times a week. Live an active, fulfilling life that includes time for leisure, meditation and hobbies. Reduce commute time if possible and definitely exposure to pollution and household chemicals! Also, ensure that you eat responsibly before and during pregnancy and even throughout nursing. It's that simple, preventive action is always the best.

     Also, don't worry about single nutrients and their impact on your genes – that's the problem with nutrition research – they try to isolate the specific data related to one nutrient at a time but miss the big picture – do you eat a single nutrient at a time or a balanced diet delivering many known and unknown beneficial and life-sustaining nutrients?


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