Genetics. It is a hot topic right now. Well, it has been a hot topic for quite some time, ever since the human gemone project was completed in 2003. We now have the ability to look at someone’s unique DNA and assess risk for a host of health conditions. In many cases, we do not even fully understand the impact of DNA aberrations as many abnormalities have not yet been well studied.
Genetics is also very hot in the nutrition world right now. Why? Because we now have advanced testing that can give us specific information related to how a person’s body responds to various inputs: diet, stress and the environment. We are also uncovering specific genes related to body weight, blood sugar control, brain health, autoimmune conditions, etc. 23andme.com, which you have likely heard of, is one of the leading companies in this arena right now providing raw genetic data to clients across the country.
While this information is useful (and believe me, it can be really, really useful), there is also the danger of believing our genes determine our destiny. It is a common belief that if you have genes for obesity, for example, that at some point you will become obese. That same can be said for alzheimers disease or celiac disease. The thinking is that if your genes point you in any one of these directions, there is nothing you can do to avoid the progression. Might as well eat that doughnut and sit on the couch a little longer because at the end of the day, what can you do to stop it?
Thankfully, that is not true! Lifestyle choices DO matter, and they matter critically when it comes to gene expression. The key point is this: just because you have “bad” genes does not mean that they will express. Take the person with genes for celiac disease. There are actually many people who have those genes and yet never get the disease. How can that be?
Well, in celiac disease, according to Dr. Alessio Fasano, you need three things for the celiac gene to turn “on.” You need to have the gene, obviously. You need to have gluten in the diet. And you need to have an environmental trigger. Ah, an outside trigger! That is one of the key ways genes express. Take a moment and think about what an outside or environmental trigger might be……..
Yep, likely you named a few. How about emotional stress? Physical stress (extremely hard labor, over-exercising)? Poor diet? Substance abuse? Illness? Fatigue/lack of sleep? Toxins?
That brings me to the latest study I read that hit home on this very fact. Lifestyle influences genes. Your genes do not determine your destiny….. necessarily.
The study, conducted in the UK, looked at genetic data and self-reported lifestyle choices from over 360,000 middle-aged subjects. Their primary interest was to see how various lifestyle factors affected the risk for obesity in people with genetic markers predisposing them to excess weight.1
When they analyzed their data, three points stood out. Those with a lower socioeconomic status showed an increased risk for obesity. Presumably this is due to poorer diet choices, increased stress, and other factors related to being low-income. Those with regular exercise showed a significant decrease in their risk for obesity, as well as those subjects with regular alcohol consumption. While clearly more studies need to be done, we can definitely start to see that certain lifestyle choices play a role in how genes express.
What is the take home message then? Drink more alcohol? No, sorry, this is not an article sponsored by Smirnoff. The main message is this: consider your lifestyle choices more than your genes.
Think of it like this, as I learned in a recent webinar by Dr. Ben Lynch. “Bad” genes suggest susceptibility, not cause. Knowing your genes allows you to understand where you are susceptible, but it does necessarily determine your fate. So, as much as you can, take your health into your own hands.
Don’t let anyone tell you diet doesn’t matter. Don’t let anyone tell you exercise doesn’t matter. Don’t let anyone tell you stress doesn’t matter. It all matters. Obviously no one can achieve perfection in any of these areas, but do what you can. It not only makes you feel better, but your genes feel better too!
If your lifestyle just isn’t up to par and you feel lost, please reach out! That is what dietitians are for! The focus of my job is food and healthy lifestyle and I have LOTS of pertinent information to share. Drop me a line!