If you’ve never encountered the wellness philosophies of Donna Gates, gut health guru and founder of Body Ecology, prepare to see everything differently. Donna’s take on living well covers a whole spectrum, from daily habits to the inner workings of our genetic makeup. She understands that gut health is the foundation to longevity, and most importantly, that not all gut health protocols work the same for everyone. Below, Donna dives into nutritional genomics – a fascinating exploration of how our genes affect our nutritional needs and what we can do to get to know them a little better…
How Genetics + Nutrition Are Key To Longevity + Preventing Disease
For over 25 years, I’ve been teaching that each and every one of us is unique, that there isn’t just one diet for everyone. Maybe a health expert recommends a specific way of eating as a one-size-fits-all diet, or you hear about the latest craze diet that worked so well for so many, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work well for you, and your genetic makeup.
Two fields (that have been researched in laboratories for at least twenty to thirty years) have put an end to the one-size-fits-all concept of one diet fit for all. Nutritional genomics and the study of the microbiome (the inner ecosystem) are two of the greatest discoveries in human history. By learning about your gut and genes, you can truly take control of your own health.
Research shows time and time again that what you eat rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome—so what you eat today alters your gut microbiome for tomorrow. Nutrition can truly be one of the keys to longevity and helping prevent disease.
What Does The Microbiome Do?
The microbiome is made up of bacteria, yeast and viruses. The bacteria makes vitamins, protects you against infection and also runs your metabolism. The digestive system is often called the second brain. The gut manufactures a huge amount of neurotransmitters—80 to 90 percent of serotonin is made in your gut. The microbes have an enormous influence on our brain. The microbiome has the ability to recognize invaders and strangers there to harm the body and send alerts. Microbiome interact with the environment of our gut, our immune system, and influence and interact with our genes. (They actually have their own genes.)
And while certain bacteria help keep the gut healthy, an unhealthy gut can lead to disease. Digestive issues are linked to many issues. Disease begins in the gut, and health does as well. If food isn’t digested well, leftover food becomes toxins in the body. The microbiome bacteria protect us from toxins, and beware, even organic food can have toxins on them.
Signs of gut toxicity to look for:
+ toxic emotions
+ foggy brain
+ interrupted sleep
+ lack of energy
+ weight gain
+ loss of sex drive
+ hormone imbalance
What Is Nutritional Genomics?
Nutritional genomics is the study of matching our genes with our food and lifestyle choices to create optimal health. It can be an insightful tool to target exactly what type of nutritional intervention you need. This way, you can create the right lifestyle and diet changes so the wrong genes don’t get expressed, causing what could be a particular disease.
The food we eat actually talks to the bacteria in our gut and to our genes as well. Also, the bacteria have their own genes. Nutritional genomics is the end of argument about what is the best diet, exercise, sleep amount, weight gain fluctuations, eating certain foods for optimal health, etc. But remember, there isn’t a best for everyone, but just a best for you.
We can also refer to it as DNA testing. DNA testing can tell us what we’re at risk for in order to use certain tools to prevent certain diseases. It can tell us what’s happening in our bodies and our risks for the following:
+ obesity and cardiovascular disease
+ diabetes, metabolic syndrome
+ how the body handles free radicals and oxidation
+ how the body detoxifies
+ how the body handles stress
+ how much sleep is needed
Do you think you really need all of those vitamins and supplements you’re spending a fortune on? Most likely, not. You only need the ones that will help those genes work efficiently. DNA also tells us about interventions and how to fix genes that aren’t working properly. It will tell us which medicines will be safe for us to take and how our genes will respond to them. Imagine, if you have cancer, you’ll be able to find out if there is an effective gene drug to help treat it.
It’s really important to know you are in control of how your genes are expressed—we’re not victims of our genes. If your father or mother or aunt has cancer, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get it, and not if you are willing to do the right things to act on prevention.
The Difference Between Nutritional Genomics + Nutritional Genetics
Genetics is the study of specific genes and the role those genes are playing in our inheritance. But we’re discussing genomics, which refers to your entire genetic make-up, also called your genome. It includes how all of your genome—your genetic make-up—interacts with your environment, lifestyle and diet.
Chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and cancer all have epigenetic factors that play a substantial role in their manifestation. Lifestyle examples of these factors include how we eat, our stress levels, how we sleep, vitamin D intake, how we adapt to our climate, mental health, etc.
The epigenome is a sort of biochemical control panel that sits on top of the genetic code and turns the expression of this code either on or off. Epigenetic activity can determine what your genes do and do not express. It has been shown in several studies that epigenetic activity influences not only your DNA but also your child’s DNA. An epigenetic change can be inherited and passed on for four generations. Epigenetic markers and patterns can shift throughout a person’s lifetime, according to environment and food consumed. You are in control of your own gene expression.
Getting To Know Your Genes
We inherit one copy of a gene from mom and one copy of a gene from dad. If you have a problem with a gene, and it comes from dad (or one parent), then you are heterozygous for that gene (meaning you have one copy). If dad gave you that gene and mom had it too, and she passed it on to you, then you’re homozygous for that gene (meaning you have two copies of that gene). If you have two copies of a particular gene that has risk attached to it, then you have a greater risk.
+ A normal gene that is functioning properly is called a wild type gene.
+ A SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism), variant gene isn’t a wild type, but it’s not functioning like a normal gene. They’re very common. Each of us has somewhat under 300 million SNPs. A common SNP is the MTFHR gene.
+ If you have two copies of a SNP (a mutation), there’s a higher chance of developing that disease unless you do something about it, especially as you age. As we age, those protective genes aren’t protecting us as well any longer.
+ It’s also important to pay attention to one copy of a gene (heterozygous), but again, you are in control of the whole health picture.
Intervention with what you eat is one of the best ways to express your good genes—remember, we talked about there is no one-size-fits-all diet. However, the microbiome responds best to a diet that includes 80% of vegetables and low sugar. Too much sugar or too much fat actually kills the microbiome, having a negative impact on the cells.
One of the principles that I teach is the principle of uniqueness (what is good for me may not be good for you). You may have genes for high blood pressure, and you learn that potassium is good for you and you want to eat potatoes which are high in potassium. But, you hear they’re generally not good for you—well, they are good for you and your genes.
You’ll want to check out certain genes for inflammation, like TNFa, IL6 and CRP. Certain disorders such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity and early aging can be linked to inflammation. Another panel of genes to focus on are detox/methylation genes. How well we detox what comes in to our body is crucial.
Factors That Influence Our Genes
Environmental factors like stress, diet and the toxins around us influence our genes—they adapt to these factors. In a small but very important way, certain compounds in our food change the expression of our genes. Genes are actually set at birth but occasionally can be altered, and this is one of the reasons why we’re not exactly like our ancestors. Again, we really do determine which genes are being silenced or expressed.
How To Get Tested
I recommend getting the 23andme tests, which you can order yourself, but testing through them is not covered by insurance. Genova Diagnostics also does DNA testing, which you may be able to submit to insurance. A genetic wellness consultant or functional medicine practitioner versed in genetics can then read the results and point you in the direction you need to go. These tests look for the genes that are inherited that have more risk, SNPs (a change in normal DNA), and also the genes that you want to express (ones that protect us from certain risks).
Learn more about genetic testing here and how nutrition can affect your genes. I wish you the best of luck in uncovering how best you can express your genes.
The Chalkboard Mag and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. All material on The Chalkboard Mag is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programs.