Diet to fit your genes
Improving your health can be a journey of soaring highs and frustrating lows. We usually set out on this journey motivated, full of hope, with a specific goal such as weight loss or increasing energy levels. We tend to depend on a one-size-fits all strategy, such as the latest diet, exercise routine or supplement, to get into shape. Yet for the most part we ignore the cellular basis of our health that makes us unique: our genetic blueprint and how this interacts with diet and lifestyle.
After trying a new diet, supplement or exercise activity for some months, all too often any positive changes plateau and tend to decline over the longer term as you feed your DNA the wrong diet or you lapse back to your habitual diet or lifestyle. How often have you or your friends complained about not keeping weight off or feeling overly tired despite having a good diet and exercise routine? Your wellness journey becomes frustrating and all too often you give up, never knowing why you didn’t achieve what you hoped.
One of the common reasons why the wellness journey falters is you are not working with your body’s natural predisposition towards diet, exercise and lifestyles. In other words, the genes that influence your fundamental wellness processes and pathways such as weight, inflammation, methylation and cardiovascular functioning are not being affected and/or supported by your diet, supplements, exercise and lifestyle choices, and vice versa. If what you eat and do are contrary to your natural genetic blueprint, affecting the way your genes are expressed, then the journey is unlikely to go smoothly.
Working with your genetic potential
Over the past decade or two since the human genome was mapped, researchers have made major advances in the field of genetics, especially the links between nutrition, our genes and wellness/disease. While we have known for much longer how diet affects health — for example, lactose and gluten intolerance — little was known about the influence of diet on the way genes were actually expressed (converted into key proteins and enzymes, for example). This exploration led to the field of nutrigenomics: the study of how foods (nutrients) affect genes and their variants (including their expression into proteins and enzymes) and how individual genetic differences can affect the way we respond to the nutrients in our foods and supplements. In other words, it’s based on the notion that what you consume in your diet to varying degrees affects the genetic messages your body responds to and thus your health.
Individuals have varying nutritional requirements due to their genetics, environment and lifestyles.
While we all share the same genetic code, the same genes, we each have our own unique individual variations within these common genes that contribute to our unique physiological and psychological makeup. In fact, your genes by themselves usually don’t lead to definite expressions or symptoms alone. Most often it’s a number of variants (called single nucleotide polymorphisms, SNPs) that contribute to a health outcome. Beyond the genes, it’s the influence of environmental factors such as diet, lifestyle and toxins that usually up- or down-regulates how your genes are expressed.
Individuals have varying nutritional requirements due to their genetics, environments and lifestyles. Within our own lives, we have varying requirements as we move through different life stages. Certain micronutrients are more important during our foetal and early childhood stage, while other vitamins and nutrients are needed in later life stages to prevent or manage chronic degenerative disorders. Gene expression is influenced by certain nutrients and the current Western diet tends to be nutrient deficient. Given the importance of diet on health and the development of disease, it’s critical to understand your genetic blueprint for how your genes are expressed.
I asked several natural therapy practitioners using nutrigenomics about its usefulness in their clinics. Linda Funnell-Milner, nutritionist at the Family Wellness Centre in Sydney’s northern beaches, believes it will play an increasingly important role in providing better health outcomes. “It’s a wonderfully useful tool in helping me to provide nutritional advice,” she says. “Nutrigenomics is more about long-term dietary strategies than short-term diets.
“People are constantly told that if they follow the government dietary guidelines they will have all the nutrients they need. Clearly, this fails thousands of people every day. I am yet to meet an ‘average person’ and nutrigenomics testing reveals the individual needs. I think clients can see from genetic reports that this is not just a subjective opinion of the practitioner. They can objectively view their baseline health issues. In a sense, this makes them more accountable for making the changes.”
The genetics of wellness
Feeling well consistently over long periods of time means more than maintaining your ideal weight, being fit and eating well (these are the obvious measures of health, but that doesn’t mean that you are healthy at the cellular level or that you are listening to the needs of your body, or understanding your genetic risks to wellness).
According to Dr Elvira Zilliacus, genetic counsellor at Helix Personal Wellness Solutions, a genomic wellness company in Sydney, the basis of our health is at the cellular level where our DNA codes for proteins and enzymes that are key to every aspect of our health: “Being very targeted with your nutritional intake, through applying nutrigenomic knowledge, means you’re feeding your body the nutrients it needs at a DNA and cellular level.”
Some of the important wellness-oriented variants genetic testing can identify include those associated with immune functioning, cardiovascular health, detoxification, inflammation, methylation, weight management, energy metabolism, vitamin metabolism, allergies and oxidative processes. If you’ve had frustrations with trying to get healthier, trying various fitness and dietary options to little or no effect, then perhaps you need to get to know your genes and work with them.
“We’re in the early stages of fully understanding how our genes interact with our diets. The research is quickly evolving, but it’s still new.”
Methylation is a critical cellular process that’s often deficient in many people, leading to various issues including chronic fatigue. Nutritionist Linda Funnell-Milner had two clients with under-methylation issues. “Both men were very healthy athletes but lacking in energy and tired throughout the day despite great diets,” she relates. “Following a genetic test, we discovered that both had a variant of one of the MTHFR genes. They listened to my advice about the importance of methylation in wellness, especially energy metabolism, and took various forms of folate and other supplements and experienced noticeable improvement in energy levels.”
If a client is prepared to make some diet and lifestyle modifications, a genetic assessment can be life changing. As Dr Zilliacus explains, “There are some simple examples where bypassing a less effective gene variant has led to dramatic results. I’ve had a few clients now that have carried a gene variant that reduces your ability to metabolise nitric oxide to dilate blood vessels (eNOS). This can lead to awful migraines. We’ve added high-nitrate foods into the diet such as spinach, beetroot and dark chocolate, side-stepping this bottleneck, and the migraines have significantly reduced or gone altogether.”
Personal genetic testing
Nutrigenomics offers the knowledge platform about the gene-diet relationship while genetic testing provides the means to identify what health-related genes and their variants you have. As more and more research is undertaken into the effect of specific nutrients on genetic expression, and vice versa, genetic testing becomes increasingly effective in identifying ways to up- or down-regulate your wellness genes.
According to Dr Zilliacus, “I think personal genetic testing is a new way of engaging with your own wellness. It takes you to a much more intimate understanding of your health potential and allows you to really take control of your health. I think we’re in the early stages of fully understanding how our genes interact with our diets. The research is quickly evolving, but it’s still new. At the moment it’s being largely driven by consumers, who are looking for something more out of their healthcare. I see a lot of frustrated people who have been to many health professionals — traditional and complementary medicine — and have not been able to find an answer to their health problems.”
You will need to find a practitioner with a clinical knowledge of nutrigenomics who can guide you with genetic testing and effectively interpret the results. In consultation with a practitioner, a genetic test (based usually on a sample of your saliva) identifies what gene variants you have and how they may affect key wellness processes and pathways such as inflammation, methylation and detoxification. You can order genetic test kits online through various genetic wellness businesses. However, before you go into testing, it’s critical to do this in consultation with a suitably qualified practitioner.
Are there any issues or doubts about testing? Dr Zilliacus hears of very few concerns in her clinic. “Most people I see have very few concerns about personal genetic testing. The clients I see are looking for a very targeted approach to their health treatment and genetic testing allows this. If there are concerns, it is usually about cost or privacy.”
Costs vary but, as Dr Zilliacus points out, “The cost of a genetic test is a one-off cost and you can refer back to the report at any time as a person’s health changes. It can also potentially save a lot of money by being more focused on supporting the client’s health potential. It reduces the ‘trial and error’ practitioner shopping that many people with chronic or undiagnosed conditions do.”
Fine tuning your wellness journey means working with your genes so you can prevent diseases and ill-health from occurring in the first place.
Nutritionist Linda Funnell-Milner is a firm believer in the value of genetic testing. In what circumstances does she recommend a test? “Where I suspect metabolic issues manifest at the same time as their nutrition journal is showing that they have a good diet and should not have low energy. It may or may not specifically be a metabolic disorder, which is a genetic condition that results in metabolism problems. A genetic test can help identify potential imbalances in the energy metabolism area.”
As to other warning signals that suggest genetic influences, Funnel-Milner says they include: “Where there is a history of infertility or miscarriages as well as other hormonal imbalances. Where a client has had all the normal blood tests, seen doctors, has a good diet but has drawn a blank and has unexplained problems such as weight loss, weakness, chronic fatigue. Where a parent has identified challenges such as MTHFR, in some types of cancer, hemochromatosis, excessive drinking with metabolic syndrome.”
Nutrigenomics has received increasing attention from medical and natural practitioners because of its potential for preventing and treating chronic diseases by changes in diet specific to an individual’s genome and physiological needs. It’s not just applied to treating specific diseases through diet but for increasing important cellular processes that underlie our wellbeing. Fine-tuning your wellness journey means working with your genes so you can prevent diseases and ill-health from occurring in the first place.
While it’s important to remember that genes are not destiny, they — and their variants — do provide information that can lead us to make more informed decisions about our health that can change our lives for the better. As nutritionist Funnell-Milner says, “It is very important to understand we are not completely defined by our genes; that environment, nutrition, exercise and managing stress play a big role in modifying and managing potential problems.”
Applying the science of nutrigenomics through genetic testing, however, increases the potential for wellness and preventing, mitigating or treating chronic disease through small but highly targeted dietary changes. If you’re regularly feeling fatigued for no apparent reason, have body aches and discomfort or find it difficult to lose weight, then perhaps it’s time to get to know your genes better.