Nutrition can help cause ‘good’ genes to switch on and ‘bad’ genes to switch off.
Through nutrition and lifestyle changes you can turn off genes that can lead to DNA damage and disease and turn on genes that repair damage to your DNA and help you stay healthy. That’s the conclusion of the scientists working in the field.
Moreover, the impact of nutrition on genes is the reason why pregnant women are urged to take enough folic acid. It directly affects the genome (the permanent genetic make-up) of the growing baby.
Researchers at the University of Utah Health Sciences have found that several B vitamins, including folic acid, directly affect gene expression in the foetus and that change persists in the adult’s genes, which he or she passes on.
So what we eat can not only affect our health, but our children’s health. And we in turn have been affected by what our parents ate. Not only are we what we eat – but our children are what we have eaten!
You can see this in a dramatic photo example [link: http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/epigenetics/nutrition/] where Utah researchers fed a normal ‘mouse’ diet to a group of mice who were genetically predisposed to obesity. A second group were fed a diet supplemented with choline, folic acid, betaine (often classed as a B vitamin) and vitamin B12. The children of these supplemented mice were a normal size and their health was improved.
In a further example, Utah University cited Swedish research that indicates that grandfathers who were underfed during the war in their pre-adult years, had grandchildren who were likely to live longer – whilst overeating grandfathers were more likely to have shorter lifespan grandchildren!
So your genes can respond both directly and indirectly to the food you eat and the supplements you take.
Nutrigenomics – a new science
The impact of nutrition on your genes goes by the unwieldly name of nutrigenomics. But it simply means that nutrition affects gene ‘expression’. This means some genes are ‘up-regulated’ or increased in activity, others are ‘down-regulated’ – reduced in activity.
Biologists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NUST) have studied the interaction of food and gene expression for over 20 years. They conclude that the ideal overall diet is:
- 33% protein
- 33% carbohydrate
- 33% fat – ideally in that ratio for each meal.
Dr Berit Johansen of NUST says that a higher proportion of carbohydrate “stimulates our genes to initiate the activity that creates inflammation in the body… These are genes associated with development of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, dementia, and type 2 diabetes – all the major lifestyle-related diseases.”
Astonishingly, excess carbohydrate even affects the genes that control our immune system, causing it to react, as Johansen says, “as if the body were being invaded by bacteria or viruses.”
Carbohydrates, of course, include potatoes, bread, pasta and baked goods as well as the more obvious sugars. They also include fruits and vegetables, many of which are definitely beneficial.
Can specific nutrients affect specific genes?
Dr Charles Van Way at the University of Missouri Kansas City believes so. “The line between nutrient and drug begins to blur, and nutrients begin to take on some of the aspects of pharmacologic agents.”
We have already seen that B vitamins, including folic acid, can have a direct effect on genes and long term health. There are others, especially a class of nutrients called phytonutrients – ie. plant-derived nutrients.
Researchers have noted, for example, that certain polyphenols in green tea (called catechins) and green tea extract can up-regulate genes that help prevent cancer. Genistein, a plant compound in soy, can do the same.
One of the key researchers in nutrition is Dr Dean Ornish. Working at the time with the University of California at San Francisco, 93 men with early prostate cancer were given a largely plant-based (phytonutrient) diet and also urged to walk and meditate. After three months, 453 genes (ones that regulated tumour growth and protein production) were less active with just 48 genes involved in cancer growth being more active. Overall, blood tests for prostate cancer activity showed a significant improvement and most tumours had shrunk.
In yet a further group studied by Dr Ornish, 93 people with heart disease were again given a mainly plant-based diet, versus the same number of people on a normal US diet. The ‘Ornish’ group showed modified gene activity in 26 genes, resulting in less internal inflammation and less blood vessel injury. They lost weight, their average blood pressure dropped by approximately 10% and their health improved.
Preventing genetic damage
The secret of staying healthy lies both in helping prevent and in repairing genetic damage. Pollution, free radical damage and the inflammation that gradually increases over time within your tissues, all cause damage to your DNA.
Yet we are programmed for self-repair, so the long-term health and anti-ageing goal must be to reduce damage and support DNA repair.
We are beginning to understand which nutrients do that best. They are the plant-based anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory polyphenols, B vitamins, beta carotene, zinc, selenium and, almost certainly, lycopene and vitamin D3.
To these, add exercise which elevates the level of the fat-burning hormone glucagon. This initiates bio-chemical reactions that stimulate DNA self-repair.
Protective action with anti-inflammatory nutrients
There is a difference between a genetic tendency and genetic certainty.
Although studies at the School of Medicine at UCLA do show that some people’s genes, for example, predispose them to certain diseases or even to gain more weight in response to a high fat and sugar diet than others; they are still only predispositions.
By altering your diet, supported by a well-formulated supplement to get an optimum nutritional intake, you can help avoid these susceptibilities.
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