Food - our genetic light switch?
Tom Cameron, DVM
Remember the old saying “you are what you eat?” What you eat affects mood, energy, and weight. More importantly, diet has a huge effect on genes, how they behave, and how healthy we are.
Genetics is a hot topic today. Scientists are working with genes in medicine, agriculture and industry. Medical researchers hope to cure diseases by removing offending genes while scientists have produced medicines like insulin, Interferon (an immune system supporter), vaccines, and human growth-hormone using genetic engineering.
Genetics is also a complicated topic. Let’s look a little closer. Every cell in the body has a control center called the nucleus - the genetic storehouse for chromosomes. Chromosomes are long, coiled threads of DNA containing our genes. Each chromosome is made up of some 300 million gene pairs, called nucleic acids. If stretched end to end, the DNA in a human body could circle the moon and back many times! Huge amounts of information is stored in chromosomes.
Everyone (our pets included) has a set of genes. Our genes make us who we are, each a unique individual. Hair color, height, and health are a few characteristics determined by our genes.
Out of all information in chromosomes, only 2% is inherited - i.e. the traits passed on to us from our parents. The other 98% of this blueprint is flexible and adaptable, both during our lifetimes and over several generations. This flexible DNA gauges and reacts to the environment around us, guiding how our genes respond.
We are stuck with our genes - nothing can be done to change that. And while it is true we can’t change our genes, we can do a lot to affect how they act. In most cases, our health, and our pet’s health depend on how we treat genes!
Genes are like machines - they can be switched on or off. Turning on healthy genes makes good things happen, like building strong proteins. Defective genes, when activated, result in weak protein construction, sluggish enzyme activity, and a poor immune response. The more we do to “turn on” our best genes, the better our health will be.
And guess what has the biggest influence on genes and DNA? FOOD! More than anything else, we interact with our environment through food. Specific nutrients in foods can activate desired genes, or de-activate defective genes. How our genes act depends, in a big way, on how we live our lives - what we eat, drink, think, and how we live. For instance, eating foods with trans fats results in inflammation. Consuming olive oil reduces inflammation while improving energy, and skin health. Foods have a major impact on our health!Nutrients in foods attach themselves directly to DNA in chromosomes, turning them on or off.
Say your father had diabetes. Your genetics make you a good candidate to also develop the disease. There are things you can do to prevent those diabetes genes from turning on, like eating a low carbohydrate diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, minimizing processed foods, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthy body weight. These practices promote the activation of your healthiest genes, and can keep the bad ones from rearing their ugly little heads.
1. Shanahan C, Shanahan L. Deep Nutrition - Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food. Big Box Books 2009; p313.
Another example: Mice with weak genes. A certain breed of mice, known as Agouti, have multiple genetic defects: bright yellow hair, obesity, diabetes, short lifespans. As long as they eat conventional mouse chow, they give birth to babies with the Agouti gene and all those symptoms. Researchers at Duke University fed Agouti mice foods fortified with Vitamin B12, folic acid, choline and betaine. When mated with an Agouti male, Agouti females gave birth to normal, brown mice, with none of the characteristics of Agouti mice. As long as these normal mice with Agouti genes ate fortified foods, they gave birth to physically normal mice. They still had Agouti genes, but these foods “silenced” the defective genes, and their unhealthy traits never surfaced.
Food is the most important - and controllable - factor affecting both our, and our pets, health. Scientists have proven that food affects how our genes express themselves, with heavy impacts on health.
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