Is your health dictated by your genes?
By Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND
Should we blame the majority of our health conditions to faulty genes?
Were we born with a genetic code that will dictate our health?
Or, does our physical and mental health depend more on our lifestyle choices and life experiences that we are exposed to on a daily basis?
The nature vs. nurture debate is a classic one. As it turns out, the answer is becoming more evident: they are both important.
The newest scientific findings, especially in the field of research called epigenetics, have shown that nature (aka our environment) is a much bigger player than we would have ever thought possible.
Despite this latest evidence, conventional medical research and practice continues to turn their attention predominantly to diagnostic tools and treatment based on how the DNA influences the development of disease. As a naturopathic doctor, I value this research as it provides an indispensible tool to clinically diagnose and treat patients. For example, alterations in a gene named Breast Cancer 1 (BRCA-1) have been linked to the development of breast and ovarian cancer (and even prostate cancer). Gene markers such as BRCA-1 mutations can help me establish a clearer direction in developing a treatment plan that addresses this underlying predisposition to cancer.
Knowing that a 'bad' gene exists is one thing, but it shouldn't be our first and last stop. Establishing a bigger picture in patient health care requires that we consider ALL factors that affect our genes. As discussed in a previous column titled "NDs and MDs should work together" (see www.monctonnaturopathic.com for previous columns), licensed naturopathic doctors and medical doctors can work together because their roles in patient care are complementary, and therefore diagnostics and treatments become more effective in resolving a patient's health concerns. As a naturopathic doctor, my goal is to also help patients understand how alterable factors (i.e. nature) play a major role in their health.
Epigenetic research has contributed many new insights that are constantly adding to my medical model in patient care.
As discussed in his book "The Biology of Belief," Bruce Lipton Ph.D explains that epigenetics is "the study of molecular mechanisms by which the environment controls gene activity." Based on his research, he describes the precise molecular pathways through which all the cells of our body can be affected by our thoughts and lifestyles.
Epigenetics evolved out of the Human Genome Project, an international assignment that fell considerably short of our expectations. Genome scientists were flabbergasted that only 20,000 to 25,000 genes appear to exist (note that the exact number of genes encoded by the genome is still unknown). Because genes code for protein in the human body, researchers expected to find an amount equal to the number of proteins. We now estimate that there are approximately 100,000 to 2 million different proteins in the body, an amount much greater than 25,000! This realization alone points to a flaw in the theory that cellular health is dictated predominately by our DNA.
Human physiology helps us understand this concept more clearly. For example, liver cells contain the same DNA as brain cells. Somehow, each cell type in the body knows to code only for proteins needed for the proper functioning of that specific organ. Since each gene must make unique proteins and more than one kind of protein, the question we then pose ourselves is how does the body know which protein to make?
Epigenetics tells us that the 'brain' of our cells is the cell membrane (the outer barrier that separates the interior of all cells from the outside environment) vs. the cell nucleus (where the DNA is found). Signals from the environment trigger receptors on cell membranes that, in turn, convey messages into the cell thereby turning on or off DNA sequences. By understanding external factors that influence the DNA on/off switch is the cornerstone of knowing how to stay healthy.
In 2000, Duke University researchers showed that the agouti gene in mice, a gene that makes them prone to diabetes and cancer, could be completely turned off by changes in the pregnant mother's diet. The prescribed diet was rich in methyl donor molecules that can attach to a gene and turn them on or off. Methyl donors are commonly found in foods such as garlic, beets and naturopathic supplements. Researchers were amazed that changes in diet could negate a gene's deleterious effects and produce healthy offspring.
Published in the journal of Cancer Research in 2003, Zhu Fang and colleagues found that a phytonutrient called catechin had a profound effect on certain cancer genes. More specifically, epigallocatechin 3-gallate (EGCG) found in green tea can inhibit deleterious DNA methylation. It is not surprising therefore, that EGCG prescribed in appropriate doses is one of my top choices in patients with higher cancer risk factors or as baseline support in post-cancer recovery. Please consult a licensed naturopathic doctor before using EGCG as it can be contraindicated for certain individuals and if taken in conjunction with certain chemotherapy drugs.
For a full review of these topics, read Ethan Watters article "DNA is Not Destiny: The new science of epigenetics rewrites the rules of disease, heredity, and identity," published in Discover Magazine in 2006.
In my medical practice, the aim I have for all my patients is to have them understand the cause(s) underlying their health condition(s). For any symptom or disease, we must ask the question "why did this occur in the first place?"
Let's look at conditions that affect our mood as an example. Can we say that serotonin or GABA (brain neurotransmitters) imbalances are the cause of depression or anxiety? Chemical imbalances such as those are simply the end result due to many other factors. Lack of sunshine (and low vitamin D levels), chronic stress especially if one feels that life is out of control, emotional trauma or abuse, lack of basic nutrients in our diet, lack of blood flow to the brain due to sedentary lifestyles, boredom, etc... These are the underlying causes of mood disorders. These are some examples of the alterable factors that change the expression of certain genes that manufacture neurotransmitters. Remember, like most other symptoms or signs in the body, serotonin imbalance isn't the actual problem, it's simply the end-result of other underlying causes.
The key to staying healthy is keeping both nature and nurture in mind. Incorporate changes in nutrition, exercise, hydration, breathing, emotional health and stress management, as well as naturopathic treatments such as botanical medicines.
By focusing our efforts on the things that we can change in order to optimize our health, we can promote increased empowerment when faced with any health concerns.
Published by Dr. Gleixner on Thursday, November 4th 2010 in Times & Transcript.
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