By Ellie Kempton of Simply Nourished
At one point in time scientists believed our DNA determined our ability to prevent and reverse disease. Things have changed. We now know that genes account for about 10 percent of human disease. So if our genes aren’t driving disease what is?
This question is being answered by a new field of study that has recently emerged called epigenetics. Epigenetics [literally translates, “on top of genetics”] studies the impact that the environment, coupled with our food choices, has on switching on and off gene expression. While epigenetics is multi-faceted, the most empowering punchline is this: genes can be turned on and off based on how we live our lives. No longer do you need to feel “pre-destined” to certain conditions. Let’s dig into the details on how this works.
The “exposome” originally proposed by Dr. Christopher Wild in 2005 refers to the sum of all non-genetic exposures starting from the moment of conception. It encompasses the air we breath, our social interactions, the food we eat, and how we work out. In short it’s the word scientists use to describe all of the environmental “triggers” for turning our gene off and on. The reason the exposome is important as a concept is that now we have a definition of what drives human health and disease. In other words if genes cause less than 10% of disease, the exposome - our diet, lifestyle and environment drive the remaining 90%.
Even more compelling is this... recent estimates suggest that 50% of early deaths worldwide are attributable to just 3 things: our diet, indoor/outdoor pollution and active/passive cigarette smoking.
NATURE VS. NURTURE:
There is always a debate on whether our genes [nature] vs our environment [nurture] are more important in determining health. And there will always be a debate. However, the distinction we’ve made between the two as being separate turns out to be inaccurate. Instead, scientist are finding that the two forces interact in highly specific ways to alter gene behavior together. A good analogy to consider is this... Our genes are like a script for a theater production. And the exposome is like the cast. The script of Romeo and Juliet doesn’t change from one production to the next but how it is performed and produced can vary dramatically depending on who is in the cast. If the script is terrible often times a great cast can salvage it which explains why even identical twins are similar but not at all the same.
HOW TO FIX YOUR EXPOSOME
With this new recognition that the exposome is the primary driver of human health and disease, the most important place to start is with the following action steps:
1. Review all exposure to chemicals in beauty products and cleaning products at home. While you won’t have the ability to avoid pollutants out of the home, take control of what you can within your home/regimen.
2. Be consistent with new nutrition habits. No need to do a major overhaul of how you eat but fight weekly to build a new nutrition habit that you practice and cling onto so that your body has the chance to turn on the right genes consistently. A simple example to practice this week is adding 2 cups of vegetables every single day to your meal planning repertoire.
3. Sleep. While every area of health benefits from sleep, the genes that drive metabolism, longevity and disease prevention are highly impacted by sleep alone. It’s as simple as that.
4. Release stress daily + engage in physical activity often. The simple act of being still and taking care of yourself coupled with intentional activity turns off the more “protective” genes driven by “flight or fight mode.” The simple act of a 10 minute quiet time, or even a 10 min stretching sequence reminds your body it no longer needs to “protect” itself from threat. This translates beautifully to the genome.
THE FUTURE OF NUTRITION AS IT RELATES TO YOUR GENES:
While the reality of “molding" your genetic transcription based on how intentionally you live your life is empowering, there is even more context to this story when you look at the world of nutrigenomics. This takes the study of your genes one layer deeper and looks at how certain foods affect you and your specific genetic makeup. Based on research performed around the exposome, we already knew food mattered; but now researchers are confident that personalized nutrition recommendations can be made based on genetic makeup with more accuracy in preventing chronic illnesses. In fact there are already measures
being taken by companies like DNA fit and strategene to provide “roadmaps” of nutrition care.
Interestingly, the genetic variation among individuals is minimal. Most people are approximately 99% genetically identical, with little variation in the roughly 3 billion base pairs that comprise the human genome. However, this approximately 1% genetic variation leads to a wide variability of health outcomes, depending on dietary intake and other environmental exposures [the exposome influence].
Individual genetic variability affects a person’s nutritional status in multiple ways leading to higher specific nutrient requirements, different detoxification pathways and energy requirements. The research that is being done is looking at how specific genetic variations [SNPs] could drive recommendations on specific foods to be eating more or less of in order to thrive.
Because there are several genes involved in the development of illnesses, healthcare professionals paired with software companies don’t yet fully understand the relationship between diet and disease risk, which stifles our ability to make personalized dietary recommendations as a preventive measure exclusively.
Stay tuned though. The research on epigenetics paired with nutrigenomics is going to change the way we practice healthcare. But until we understand how, optimize your exposome with little habits you build and sustain. It turns out your choices determine your destiny. Not your genes.