Something I hear all the time from my family, friends and clients, ‘The doctor said I have high cholesterol. So did my mom and dad so there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s just genetic.’
While there’s a sliver of truth to that statement, certain genes are passed on from parent to child; the reality is, it’s simply not true. Let’s talk a bit about genetics for a second.
The way heredity works is that mom and dad get together and each donate a half a set of genes to their child. Baby has a brand new ‘blueprint’ that is all his own. This blueprint dictates what color baby’s eyes will be, his hair color, how tall he’s going to get and the shape of his nose. But that’s not all. New baby’s genes also dictate what foods he might like or dislike, what type of exercises and activities might be best for his body, and what diseases he has the potential to develop.
Photo cred: http://www.clipartpanda.com/clipart_images/structures-called-genes-7925135
Our bodies, like everywhere else in nature, prefer to stay in a state of balance that in science we call ‘homeostasis’. When we expose our genes to substances that have the potential to offset this balance, disease sets in. The picture below indicates a shift in our lifestyle as a society that is upsetting to our genes. The below was taken circa 1949 at a swimming pool in Wayne County, WV. As you can see, very few obese people are in this photo.
Fast forward to today when over 2/3 of our nation’s adult population is overweight or obese with BMIs greater that 25 or 30kg/m2.
1949 – Dreamland Pool – Wayne, WV
The point is that in a mere 50 years, our genes haven’t changed. However, the food environment that we live in, and our fast paced, convenience driven lifestyles certainly have. This has caused a profound impact on the expression of our genes.
What we’ve known for thousands of years, and now what science has the ability to explain, is that while our genes may ‘load the gun’ it’s our lifestyle that ‘pulls the trigger’. Let me explain with a life size example…
Mom has a history of heart disease having sustained a heart attack at age 68 and a stroke at age 72. Dad lived a long life and never experienced a single heart event. Babies (twin brothers) now carry a family history of heart disease. That is, they have an increased risk for developing high blood pressure, sustaining a stroke, or heart attack. But let’s look further. Mom was also a smoker. Her diet was rather limited and didn’t include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, which we know provide our bodies (and genes) the material they need to fully express and protect our bodies from disease.
Dad, however, traveled a lot in his younger years. He lived in Italy, Japan, and settled in West Virginia, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables with very little processed foods. While he didn’t smoke, he did consume a moderate amount of alcohol. They give birth to twins with exactly the same genes. They both have one half of dad’s genes and half of mom’s. Beyond the genes they’ve been blessed with, they also have the information of how lifestyle plays a part in gene expression.
Sibling A grows up and takes a desk job in a big city. He lives a fast paced life drinking coffee with cream and 4 packs of sugar every morning, fast food lunches, takes more than his fair share of smoke breaks and doesn’t have time for exercise. He’s a heavy alcohol drinker at more than 2 drinks/day, and falls asleep watching the nightly news on the couch each evening, lucky to get 5-6 hours of sleep each night. By age 45, he’s taking 3 medications to control his blood pressure, taking a statin drug to try and manage his cholesterol, and has just recently discovered that he has metabolic syndrome and borderline diabetes with a fasting blood sugar of 120mg/dL.
Sibling B stayed at home after graduating high school and decided to take over the family business. He runs the farm, grows a garden, raises his own chickens and eggs, and trades pork for beef yearly. He hunts deer in the fall and turkey in the spring. He doesn’t smoke because he knows it makes it harder to hike up and down the mountain when he goes trapping. Sleep is important to him so he has plenty of energy for bailing hay and fixing fence. He attends church when he can, but feels spiritual in his own right walking his land. He goes out for dinner from time to time but most often he knows where his food comes from and the care that was taken to raise it. Following a recent check up with is primary care provider; his blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar were all normal. He takes no medication. He has no real health complaints other than minor bumps and bruises from a hard day’s work.
What’s occurred here? Both have identical DNA, but they lead entirely different lives. Sibling A, it’s clear that he’s very out of balance with nature; relying on artificial stimulus (caffeine, nicotine, alcohol) to keep him going on so little sleep and poor nutrition, while sibling B is living much more in tune with nature (aka his genes). He has little to no external stimulus and relies solely on his body to keep him in tiptop shape (remember, his genes are already programed to do this). He has learned to fuel himself the way nature intended with lots of colorful vegetables from his garden, fish from his pond, and some but not much meat from his farm and hunting adventures, relying very little on processed foods from the grocery aisles or fast food restaurants.
As a result, sibling B feels great. He takes no medication, and only sees a doctor one time a year with a $25 co-pay. Sibling A has exceeded his deductible of $2500 by March due to frequent specialist visits. He is maxed out on out of pocket expenses from his medications at $500/month, not to mention his ‘fun money’ is quickly depleted each month on his daily pack of smokes and bottle of wine with a price tag of $20/day. This has added to the stress he feels at work.
As depicted in this example, thanks to an emerging science called epigenetics, the great debate of ‘nature vs. nurture’ has nearly come to close. We now know that it’s not either nature (how our genes are programed at birth) or nurture (how we live our lives) that dictates health outcomes, it’s both!
While this case is an extreme example, it’s very suggestive of that fact that our genes are not our destiny. What this illustration explains is that while mom or dad may have dealt us a deck of cards that weren’t exactly stacked in our favor, living in tune with nature, we can modify our genetic expression to reach our maximum human potential, living long and fruitful lives.
Photo cred: https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org
In my office, I offer clients tools to take this idea a step further, putting into practice the science of nutrigenomics. That is, the study of how our genes and our foods interact to predict our risk for developing disease. Of all the subtypes of epigenomics, nutrigenomics is one of the most promising sciences, seeing as how food is the number one substance that washes over our genes on a daily basis.
The nutrigenomic test I use with my patients has allowed me to modify my own lifestyle to further lessen my risk for heart disease based on my results. After a quick sample of saliva is collected in a test tube, the test is sent off for analysis and a panel of 45 genes that relate to the foods we eat and our health outcomes is analyzed. The completed analysis allows us to fine tune a meal plan that’s unique to the individual’s needs, taking into consideration any other lifestyle factors.
For me, it meant less sodium (goodbye Taco Bell bean burrito) and not too much caffeine (more tea, and weaker coffee) to lessen my risk for heart disease. Not only do I feel confident I’ve lowered the chances that I’ll develop a disease that took my grandmother, but I also noticed that I feel less puffy and get a better night’s sleep since making the changes. For other clients, the test results showed us that increasing a variety of whole grains would lessen their risk for type II diabetes, and that more fatty fish could protect their heart and other organs.
Can you think of examples of how this scenario has played out in your life? What changes have you or would you be willing to make, knowing your family history? Beyond your family history, would knowing what your genes have to say help you to modify your lifestyle choices? If so, let’s connect. There’s nothing I enjoy more than helping people help themselves.