We are just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding what the exact influence of genetics is on our health. Research into epigenetics is starting to provide some interesting answers. Epigenetics, or “control above genetics,” studies how environmental factors influence gene expression, the process of genes transmitting instructions to molecules in the body. Epigenetics is part of a new understanding of gene workings which challenges the long-standing belief that DNA controls biology.
The study of epigenetics is super exciting and important to anyone on the wellness/fitness bandwagon because it suggests that your fate is not determined by your genes and your DNA does not have to limit your potential. For example, if your parents had heart disease and you have the genetic predisposition to get heart disease, this does not mean you are doomed to get heart disease! Genes are just potential, not a diagnosis. While your genes may set you up for a certain type of disease or health issue, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to get that disease. Epigenetics shows us that “genetics load the gun but environment pulls the trigger.” This means that there must be an environmental signal to trigger gene expression.
Triggers can come from thoughts, emotions, diet, physical activity, stress management and the environment we live in. These things send signals that determine whether genes become active or lie dormant. Genes are just opportunities or possibilities waiting to response to life experiences. Therefore, our daily choices in nutrition and lifestyle have some say in whether we live a long, happy, healthy life or struggle with various health issues and get chronic disease. I think epigenetics is pretty awesome because it puts us in the driver’s seat. We can improve our health and our lives through direction action!
As a holistic nutritionist, I am very interested in how diet can affect the expression of genes so let’s dive deeper into that….
You may have heard of phytonutrients, which are plant molecules found in plant-based foods which have protective and healing qualities and affect our health all the way down to the transcription level of our genes. I often tell my clients to “eat the rainbow.” While having a lot of different colors on your plate makes the meal more enjoyable and satisfying, the main reason I recommend a rainbow diet is that fact that plant pigments (colors of fruits, vegetables, etc.) contain disease-fighting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory molecules that promote gene expression of immunity and protection against free radical damage and inhibit inflammatory processes.
For example, blueberries contain anthocyanins which are antioxidants that fight cancer, help you lose weight and give you glowing, young-looking skin. Tomatoes are one of the best sources of lycopene, which is tied to enhanced immunity and cancer risk reduction. While each phytonutrient does have a specific action, these bioactive compounds work best synergistically to protect and enhance the body’s natural self-healing. The body works as a holistic system with many overlapping functions so each phytonutrient contributes to a bigger process within the body. Instead of focusing on individual nutrients, we should be looking at our diet as whole to determine genetic expression and ultimately our daily, and long-term, health.
When we consider diet through the lens of epigenetics, eating the same foods week after week with little variety of ingredients makes it difficult for genes to function optimally. The goal is diversity of these phytonutrients to maintain all processes within the body and regulate gene expression. My suggestion is to try one or two new plant-based foods each week! Experiment with fruits, veggies, beans, grains, herbs, spices, etc. that never normally make it in your shopping cart. Google a recipe including the ingredients you’ve selected – perhaps it’s jicama, dandelion greens, pomegranate, adzuki beans, amaranth or sumac. And then have fun whipping up something new and take pleasure in the fact that you’re nurturing your genes in the process! For plant-based meal inspo, check out some of my favorite recipes here.
If you’re interested in learning more about your genetics, you can check out some of these direct to consumer tests, such as 23&Me, Ubiome and Cube. You’ll get some great info, but you may need a practioner to put that information together in a way you can use it, i.e. make specific recommendations for diet, exercise and supplements. I’m here to help!