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Heather Makar
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A conversation between your foods and your genes

Nutrigenomics is an emerging scientific field that opens up new worlds of personalized nutrition and individually targeted eating plans for optimal health. What exactly is nutrigenomics? It’s the study of how the various nutrients in our foods interact with our genes. It’s not just about eating the foods that are most compatible with the way each of us is built individually, but also about eating the foods that allow our gene expression to shift over time so that we grow healthier.

An integral part of epigenetics

Nutrigenomics is an integral part of epigenetics, or how our genes can change the way they express themselves over our lifetime to create a state of health or a state of disease based on various inputs, such as food choices, air quality, level of stress, and countless other factors that we are exposed to on a daily basis. Nutrigenomics sees the communication with our genes as a two way street: our genes need certain macro and micro nutrients for a base level of function, and our food choices tell our genes the various enzymes, amino acids, and other signaling molecules to produce as a reaction to those food inputs.

The power of you

Whether this genetic reaction to our foods is positive and creates health, or negative and creates disease, is directly under our control. There are many ways to exert this kind of control over our own health destiny, and one of the biggest ones is on the end of our fork. Nutrigenomics is, after all, the study of how our genes and food intake interact, so it makes sense that as this field grows, we learn more about which foods are positive influences and which foods do damage. We also are learning more about the various gene mutations that can make some healthy foods less optimal for some people, and other variants that help others handle harmful foods more efficiently.

An example

This concept is new to many people, especially those without a background in clinical nutrition or epigenetics, so let’s dive in to one of the best examples understood today: broccoli.

Most people know that broccoli, a cruciferous vegetable in the brassica family, is a nutrient dense food that can be beneficial for health. Researchers have confirmed that it can help fight cancer, and be protective against it. It can slow the rate of aging and is highly anti-inflammatory. It’s high in vitamins and minerals that are essential for good health, while being low in calories. (1, 3)

More than that, some of the nutrients in broccoli have been found to interact with certain genes, not only protecting against damage to the DNA strand, but also helping these genes to switch off potentially cancerous mutations. Roughly 20% of the population does not have the gene variants that get to enjoy these more in-depth benefits, though broccoli is still beneficial for them based on its antioxidant and nutrient content. This means that 80% of the population gets an added genetic bonus when eating broccoli or broccoli sprouts, compounding the benefits from these foods. (5)

One specific compound in broccoli, and more potently in broccoli sprouts, called sulforaphane, interacts with a gene called NRF2 in a positive way. This NRF2 gene is specifically involved in epigenetic signaling, since its role as a transcription factor helps to decide if the expression of certain genes is switched on or off. While sulforaphane isn’t considered an essential nutrient in the classical sense of the term, if you’re looking for optimal health and longevity then this compound can play a central role towards those ends. Sulforaphane is particularly good at protecting DNA from the kinds of damage that can develop into cancer. Studies have also shown that the interaction of sulforaphane and the NRF2 gene can improve detoxification pathways and improve certain cognitive skills in those on the Autism spectrum. (4)

If you want yet another reason to enjoy broccoli in your way of eating, note that the sulforaphane present can stimulate your genes to produce more glutathione. Glutathione is known as the master antioxidant, and we produce this compound endogenously, or inside our bodies. Some people are genetically predisposed to produce less glutathione, which could mean greater risk of inflammation, cell damage, premature aging, and disease conditions. For these people, consuming sulforaphane rich foods to enhance glutathione production can translate to a dramatic improvement in terms of disease risk, markers of inflammation, and cellular aging.

There has been some speculation that cruciferous vegetables like broccoli can interfere with autoimmune function, and may cause a challenge for those who already have an autoimmune condition, like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. You can minimize this risk by making sure your cruciferous vegetables are cooked thoroughly, by not juicing these vegetables, and by making sure you eat foods rich in iodine, selenium, and zinc to promote good thyroid health. (2)

Your DNA is not your destiny

Scientists once thought that our genes were our destiny, and that they were an unchangeable template for the health and disease that we would experience in our lifetime. These examples illustrate that our genes are more like switches, where the conversation we have with our genetic makeup is spoken in terms of the various inputs we provide, such as compounds in food, light exposure, and level of stress in our lives. Our genes are always listening, and shifting their expression based on those inputs. If we focus on a healthy lifestyle that includes foods appropriate to our individual constitution, stress reduction, and maintaining a connection to nature including our circadian rhythm, we can enjoy better health and a longer life, no matter what gene variants we carry with us.

Far from looking at genes only as the predictors of disease, we can now see genes as highly responsive to our choices and our environment. Working with our genes is much like working with a computer, where the code is already present and each day we learn more about how to use it. While changes in our health are not instantaneous, improvements can be seen within days or weeks when you make the right shifts in your lifestyle. As you adjust your nutrition choices to better speak the language of your genes, you may begin to notice your energy improve, your pain lessening, your digestion improving, your skin tone becoming brighter, and you may carry your youthfulness with you far longer than what’s considered normal by today’s standards.

Nutrigenomics. Let’s get that conversation started!

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