Your genes determine a lot about you. They provide the blueprint for your metabolism, your height, and your predisposition to certain diseases. Nutrigenomics can help you achieve the best health outcomes possible by making optimal dietary choices. It may seem like everything is preordained and that you’re at the mercy of your genes. But new research reveals that while your genes provide a blueprint, your choices determine the outcome. Let’s learn how nutrigenomics can help.
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What Is Nutrigenomics?
One of the strongest determinants of your future health is your nutrition. Poor diet is the leading cause of chronic disease and causes nearly a quarter of all heart disease deaths. Nutrition is the one factor that you interact with daily. As such, your diet has early and profound effects on your health. It can cause both short- and long-term changes in the way your body functions. It does this by altering how your genes behave. Depending on which genes it affects, your diet can either increase your risk of developing an illness or lead you to better health. This relationship between food and genes takes centre stage in nutrigenomics. Nutrigenomics studies the interplay between food and genetics. It looks at how food and nutrients affect gene behaviour. Meanwhile, nutrigenetics examines how genetic variations affect individual responses to food. Nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics can tell if you may respond to diets differently than others. They can identify your food intolerances and susceptibility to disease. This information can then guide dietary interventions based on your genetic profile.
The Beginnings of Nutrigenomics
The Human Genome Project (HGP) was a revolutionary undertaking. It took 13 years for 20 research institutions across six countries to decode the complex human genome. The HGP taught us that humans have 20,000 genes and that all 7 billion of us have 99% of the same genes. The remaining 1% of the genes are what makes us different and unique. Following the completion of the HGP in 2003, interest in how this 1% influences individual responses to drugs and nutrients started.
The Core Principles Behind Nutrigenomics
Many of us think of food as energy, calories, and sustenance. But according to the latest research, food is more than that. It carries essential nutritional information that actually “talks” to our genes. Nutrients affect gene behaviour in many ways, directly or indirectly. One way that nutrients affect gene expression is by activating transcription factors. By activating transcription factors, nutrients trigger genetic switches located along the genome. Like light switches, genetic switches control the level of gene transcription. This means that nutrients can determine how much protein a gene can produce at any given time. Nutrients can turn on or inhibit the wrong genes and cause illness. They can also go the other way and promote protective genes that keep you healthy.
- Dietary fat regulates genes involved in inflammation, immune function, hormone production, and cholesterol levels. Diets rich in saturated fat are highly inflammatory. Meanwhile, omega-3 fatty acids are known to reduce inflammation.
- Carbohydrates regulate genes involved in blood sugar homeostasis and fat metabolism.
- Methionine, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and various polyphenols are essential in DNA methylation. DNA methylation plays a role in brain development, normal cell growth, cancer suppression, and healthy aging.
- Vitamin C is important in cell growth, repair, and protection from free radical damage.
- Flavonoids may decrease plaque formation in the coronary arteries by acting on TNF and COX genes.
- Quercetin may increase the growth of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Challenges and Limitations of Nutrigenomics
Science has only just begun to unravel the links between diet and genes. Here are some of the current challenges and limitations of nutrigenomics:
- Lack of placebo-controlled human studies. Most studies in nutrigenomics have been done on animals. This is because human studies are time-consuming, expensive, and have unavoidable ethical implications.
- Lack of standardization. Different laboratories often interpret the same results differently.
- Premature health claims. Media, marketers, and even some experts tend to hype up preliminary, unreplicated study results. This can be misleading to the public.
3 Factors That Influence the Nutrient-Gene Relationship
The quality of your diet plays a big role in gene expression. But the nutrient-gene relationship isn’t that simple. Several factors are integral to it.
1. Genetic Variants Can Affect Individual Responses to Nutrients
Some gene variations can affect your ability to absorb, metabolize, and process nutrients. Let’s take beta carotene as an example. Beta carotene is a precursor to vitamin A, commonly found in yellow, orange, and green leafy fruits and veggies such as carrots, spinach, and broccoli. When consumed, beta carotene converts into vitamin A, the form the body can use. The enzyme responsible for this conversion is called BCMO1. However, mutations to the BCMO1 gene can disrupt the conversion process. Those who can’t convert beta carotene into vitamin A may need to take supplements.
2. Your DNA Can Dictate Your Food Preferences and Eating Habits
If you’ve ever wondered why it’s hard to change your eating behaviours, you can now blame your genes. In a 2017 study, researchers found that gene variants significantly influenced eating habits. For example, they found an association between high chocolate intake, larger waist size, and a mutation in the oxytocin gene. Meanwhile, low fibre and vegetable intake were associated with the obesity gene.
3. Your Mother’s Dietary Choices Have a Lifelong Effect on You
Maternal diet best illustrates the profound and lasting effects of poor nutrition. Studies show that poor nutrition during pregnancy can cause genetic and physiologic changes in babies. These changes have lifelong consequences for the child. In animal studies, maternal nutrition predisposes children to diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Also, poor maternal diet choices can influence a child’s future eating habits. These genetic changes don’t just have lifelong consequences for the child. Its effects can be felt across generations. For example, in a 2019 study, researchers found that a high-fat diet can have transgenerational effects. In the study, fruit flies on a high-fat diet quickly developed cardiac lipotoxicity. This is a condition where fat accumulates in heart cells. Their descendants also suffered from the same condition, even on a healthier diet.
Benefits of Nutrigenomics
Through nutrigenomics, you learn how your genes work. You also learn how your food choices affect your body at the molecular level. More importantly, nutrigenomics empowers you to take proactive steps towards better health. So, what could this look like in a real-life context?
Personalized Dietary Recommendations
Let’s say a nutrigenomics test shows that you carry a mutation of the HLA (human leukocyte antigen) gene. A mutation of the HLA-DQ7 gene indicates gluten sensitivity. This means that your body experiences strong reactions to gluten. Gluten sensitivity can cause symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and vomiting. You could experience these symptoms for years without really understanding why. If you test positive for gluten sensitivity, you may benefit from a gluten-free diet.
Does caffeine make you crash while your neighbour gets boundless energy? The difference could be in your genes. More specifically, you could be a carrier of the CYP1A2*1A gene. This means that, unlike your neighbour, you break down caffeine more quickly. As a result, you don’t get to feel caffeine effects for as long as your neighbour does. This might seem unfair, but your neighbour, being a slow metabolizer of caffeine, could be at a higher risk of heart attacks. If this is the case, they may need to limit their daily coffee intake. A nutrigenomics test can help them understand their risk.
Other examples of real-life applications of nutrigenomics:
- Carriers of an ACE receptor mutation are sensitive to the effects of table salt. They develop significantly higher blood pressure after a high-salt diet than non-carriers. If you carry this mutation, you may benefit from a low-salt diet.
- Lifestyle modifications, including personalized diet and physical activity, may switch off the genes associated with obesity.
- A gene-guided Mediterranean diet may decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes in people with obesity.
- Mutations in the PCSK9 and APOB genes may increase blood cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. If you’re a carrier, you may need dietary changes or medications to control your cholesterol levels.
Better Eating Habits
Studies suggest that people who know about their genetic risk are more likely to maintain healthy diets. For example, a 2019 Canadian study found that a nutrigenomics-led weight management program resulted in greater weight loss. The program was also associated with better adherence compared with general advice. In a 2014 study, participants with ACE receptor mutations maintained a low-salt diet for up to a year. Again, adherence to a nutrigenomics-guided diet was longer compared to generic dietary advice.
Enhanced Disease Prevention and Management
With nutrigenomics, you’re not just following cookie-cutter nutrition advice and hoping it works for your body. Rather, nutrigenomics enables you to look into your genome to get insights into what your genes need to be healthy. At this point, you’ve learned how nutrigenomics-guided interventions can improve adherence. But more importantly, adherence makes a treatment plan more likely to work. Sticking to healthy habits appears to inhibit genetic predispositions as well. In a 2018 study, researchers found that adherence to healthy eating habits decreased genetic risks associated with weight gain and obesity.
How Does Nutrigenomics Testing Work?
Nutrigenomics testing is a non-invasive test that can be performed right at home. It involves a quick swab of the inside of your cheek to collect a DNA sample. After your DNA sample is sent to the lab for analysis, you can expect your results within a few weeks. A nutrigenomic test can analyze from 40 to over 70 genes. Since your genome doesn’t change, you only need the test once. Some laboratories may have the capability to analyze a wider number of mutations. The most commonly tested genes have implications in:
- Neurologic health
- Cardiometabolic health
- Athletic performance
- Reproductive health
- Gastrointestinal health
- Chronic pain
Learn the Language of Your Genes
You are a product of the interactions between your genes and the food you eat. As science learns more about these interactions, you learn more about yourself and how to talk to your genes through personalized nutrition. At SRx Health, we tailor our services according to our clients’ unique genetic traits and needs. The SRx approach is not only precise and personalized but also sustainable, allowing you to take an active, engaged role in your own health. Personalized nutrition is not only the future. It can decode the language of your genes right now. Get started by reaching out to us.