Your body is a war zone, especially in this day and age, with your immune system battling the effects of processed foods that are laced with refined sugar and dangerous fats…plus exposure to pesticide residues, heavy metals and other environmental pollutants. Mix these perils with your genetic makeup, and your risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity or diabetes can multiply.
But you don’t have to think of your genes as time bombs waiting for the perfect storm of environmental factors to light their fuses. Instead, make your genes work for you—not against you.
According to Mitchell Gaynor, MD, founder of Gaynor Integrative Oncology and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, both in New York City, you can turn the genes that promote aging, cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes on or off through lifestyle choices—especially nutrition. He is the author of the new book The Gene Therapy Plan: Taking Control of Your Genetic Destiny Through Diet and Lifestyle, which teaches how to harness the power of ecogenetics—the science of how the environment affects our genes—and nutrigenetics, the science of how nutrients impact genetic disease.
“We’re all born with the genes we received from our mother and father…that part is fixed,” he said. “But what is not fixed is gene expression, which can change throughout your life for good or bad, depending on what you’re putting into your body.”
Generally speaking, gene expression is a process whereby genetic information is copied in a cell and used to create protein molecules that perform specific functions in the body. For example, gene expression can protect the body against cancer growth (via tumor suppressor genes) or cause it (via tumor promoter genes). Environmental pollutants or an unhealthy diet can rally less-than-favorable gene expression.
Another example: if you’re consuming a lot of refined sugar and flour because your diet is heavy in fast foods and processed foods, you’re turning on a lot of inflammatory genes. Dr. Gaynor explained, “Those inflammatory genes are making you gain weight, in part, by causing a hormone called leptin to go into overdrive. Leptin is responsible for regulation of appetite, food intake and metabolism. With leptin impaired, your cells’ ability to properly respond to insulin also becomes impaired. In response, your body produces more insulin, your blood sugar drops and you feel hungry—and eat—all the time, setting yourself up for diabetes and heart disease.”
The antidote is to apply nutrigenetics, according to Dr. Gaynor. “You have to strengthen your detoxifying genes through nutrition,” he said. “We’re talking about nutrients that literally turn on genes that code for detoxifying enzymes.” But first, you need to know where your genetic vulnerabilities lie.
THE VALUE OF GENETIC TESTING
To learn about your genetic vulnerability, simply give thought to the health conditions your closest relatives are dealing with or have faced. Better, you may want to consider genetic testing, especially if you have a number of first-degree relatives (parents and siblings in particular, but grandparents, too) who have had breast, ovarian, uterine or colon cancer, says Dr. Gaynor. Most health insurers will pay for these tests if there is a strong family history.
Don’t wait for your doctor to suggest genetic testing—actively open up a discussion with him or her. A recent survey of breast cancer patients showed that one-third expressed a strong desire for genetic testing. They were worried about being vulnerable to other cancers and worried for their relatives—but 43% of these women had not had a meaningful discussion about it with a health-care professional, either because they did not know how to address the topic or because their doctors never brought up the subject. “The more you know about your risk of specific diseases, the easier it is to design a lifestyle and diet regimen to counter your genetic vulnerabilities,” said Dr. Gaynor.
BEAT DISEASE AT THE GENETIC LEVEL
As for nutrigenetics, he works with his patients on an individual basis to increase consumption of foods that will help promote good gene expression in them and provides general guidance through his book and website. For example, in patients concerned about cancer risk, he emphasizes an antioxidant-rich diet that makes the most of olive oil, ginger, garlic, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc.), rosemary, beets, walnuts, carrots, cooked tomatoes and blueberries. For those concerned about heart disease risk, he emphasizes a diet rich in watercress, goji berries, kale, cruciferous vegetables, pomegranate, almonds, apples, salmon, avocados, scallions and ginger.
Ecogenetics and nutrigenetics, as applied by Dr. Gaynor, are relatively new concepts not yet embraced by conventional Western medicine. But the number of hospitals and doctors embracing integrative medicine (combining alternative and standard Western medicine) to treat the individual rather than just the disease is rapidly on the rise. If you would like guidance in working to optimize nutrition and well-being on the genetic level, Dr. Gaynor recommends working with a specialist in integrative medicine. You can find such a professional near you through the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine.