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Changing Your Genetic Destiny

By K.S. Mitchell
Posted On Mar 26, 2012

By: J.P. Faber
Can your behavior—how you eat and exercise and deal with stress—change how your genes express themselves? The new science of epigenetics says that you have more power than you realize.

A decade ago Marie Miano was worried. She had reached the age when her father had died of a heart attack; her mother was then also dying of cancer. She herself was in terrible physical shape, overweight and exhausted all the time.

“I thought something would happen. It was New Year’s 2002, and my husband and I were sitting on the couch,” she recalls. “His father had died three years before, his mother had died, my father had died, and my mother had cancer. We looked at each other and said, ‘If we don’t do something now we’ll be just like them.’”

Marie, now 59, is the image of health. Rather than continue with what amounted to a destructive lifestyle—bad eating habits, no exercise, lots of stress—the Southern California businesswoman chose to undergo a regimen prescribed by Beverly Hills anti-aging physician Andre Berger, MD. This included daily exercise, a healthy diet, hormone replacement therapy, and a slew of nutrient supplements.

“Today I feel great,” says Marie. “I went from feeling like I was in my 70s to feeling like I’m in my 30s.” She also looks fit and trim. More importantly, she did not succumb to cardiac disease or cancer, her genetic predispositions.

“The genetic code you inherent from your parents is the deck you are dealt,” says Dr. Berger. “You could face spontaneous health issues—like getting cancer because you live next to a power line—but most of what you face in life, in terms of your physical health, comes from your genes, and whether those genes are up-regulated or down-regulated by the environment.”

Genes that are up- or down-regulated? In scientific terms, this refers to something called genetic expression. In layman’s terms, it just means whether your genes are turned on or off. In the case of Marie, she had parents who died from cardiac disease and cancer, so she has genes that predispose her to these diseases. But, by changing her diet and lifestyle, she was able to avoid turning on those bad genes. It turns out that a great deal of whether a given gene expresses itself depends on input.

“You are dealt your genetic issues, but all the genes in your body can be modified in terms of their expression,” says anti-aging physician Mark Houston, MD, who practices in Franklin, Tenn. “Some are dormant until you put them in the wrong environment.” That wrong environment includes everything from bad food to air and water pollutants to unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Dr. Houston uses the example of Native Americans, whose ancestors were hunter-gathers with no history of diabetes. Today many consume a modern American diet of sugary, processed foods. “They will get diabetes,” he says, “and the same goes for heart disease and dementia. You can alter genetic expression through nutrient intake.”

Case in point: The famed Framingham Heart Study, which tracked 5,000+ residents of Framingham, Mass., for three generations, showed that those who regularly consumed fish oil cut their risk of Alzheimer’s disease in half.

Exercise is another influencer for genetic expression. Five years ago scientists discovered a so-called ‘fat gene’ that increases the risk of obesity by 12 percent or more. Some form of this gene is found in two thirds of people of European or African descent, and in almost half of Asians. In a study released last November, however, it was shown that as little as one hour of vigorous physical activity a week reduces the effect of the fat gene by 30 percent.

“In certain instances, in order to have a positive benefit, you have to up-regulate a gene,” says Naina Sachdev, MD, an anti-aging and cosmetic physician who practices in Portland, Ore. “In other cases you have to down-regulate the gene.”

The On & Off Switches

To understand why this is the case, you need to understand a little about how our cells work. Our cells do not act by themselves. They are in constant communication with other cells, and they act—or don’t act—in response to a complex chemical soup that surrounds them. This soup carries important chemical messages, such as the stress hormone adrenaline that pumps us up for a fight-or-flight response to danger. The same goes for a given gene. It needs to be turned on or off.

“Cells need to be told what to do. On their own they do nothing,” says Dr. Mark Engelman, a researcher in genetics and chief science officer of NOVO biotech corporation. “The only reason a gene fires is because of the signals it gets.”

Author Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire) describes the process as a lock-and-key arrangement. “When a cell in a network is activated by its chemical key, it responds by doing a variety of things: sending a chemical signal to other cells, switching a gene on or off, or becoming more or less active,” he writes. “Depending on the network involved, this process can trigger cognitive, behavioral or physiologic changes.”

The new field of epigenetics explores just this concept: How your environment and lifestyle can influence your genetic code. This new science was born from research that began in the 1980s—in particular several groundbreaking studies that showed how, if a pregnant mother ate poorly, her child would be at higher risk for cardiovascular disease as an adult.

True followers of epigenetics believe you can pass down these genetic changes to your kids. Here we are interested in the science only at its most basic: The idea that epigenetic ‘markers’ sit on top of each genetic strand in our DNA, and act like switches with the ability to turn each gene “on” or “off.” And while many inputs affect these switches, nothing does so quite as much as our nutrient intake.

Lifeguards at the Gene Pool

“If you want to up-regulate or down-regulate your genes you can do it through exercise, hormones therapy, stem cells or drugs,” says Dr. Sachdev. “Then, of course, the most promising way is nutrigenomic medicine.”

Nutrigenomic medicine is just what it sounds like—the effect of nutrition on our genes. It is the ultimate extension of Hippocrates’ quote, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” with a bit more scientific detail.

“Nutrigenomic medicine is the ability of certain nutrients to change the way your genes are expressed. You cannot change your genes, but the way your genes are expressed can be influenced,” says Dr. Sachdev.

One example, says Dr. Sachdev, is how nutrients can affect the way estrogen is metabolized by the female body. Another example is how athletes can help their mitochondria—the tiny factories inside every cell—produce more energy by taking micro-nutrients like magnesium, CoQ10 or L-carnitine.

While such micro-nutrients can be consumed as supplements, all exist in natural food stuffs. Pyrroloquinoline quinone is another antioxidant that helps protect your mitochondria factories from damage. It can be found in parsley, green peppers, kiwi, and papaya. Green tea also has some.

To understand how genetic expression works, says Dr. Sachdev, just imagine two women, one with a genetic pre-disposition for cancer, the other with no pre-disposition. “The woman who is pre-disposed to get cancer, through nutrition and exercise, may be able to avoid cancer. The other woman—with no pre-disposition, but who smokes and doesn’t exercise and has a poor diet—may get cancer.”

If we grasp this, says Dr. Sachdev, “it is ultimately very empowering. It gives us the power to change our genetic destiny.”