The great promise of the human genome project was that when we fully understood the entire human genetic code, we could then begin to modify disease risk. Unfortunately, with that approach therapy would be limited to very complex and expensive treatments such as genetic modification.
Fortunately and unfortunately things did not go quite as planned. There are about 150,000 enzymes, proteins and other chemical structures that make up and run the human body. This is a far greater number of chemical structures than make up lower organisms. It is our more “complex” chemical structure that makes humans unique from other living creatures.
It was assumed that there was a distinct gene for each of those 150,000 chemical components, each gene having the code to make that structure. However, when the human genome was mapped looking at the structure of each gene, only 30,000 were found. The conclusion is that basically each gene must be capable of producing an average of 5 different effects or functions. This is where the fortunately or unfortunately comes in.
What determines the end product of what any gene produces is “epigenetic modification”. This concept is that the end function of a particular gene is primarily determined by the environment that the gene is placed in within the cell. Things that affect the environment the gene is in include dietary factors, other lifestyle factors such as smoking, nutrient availability, disease and many more. Best estimates by various groups of researchers suggest that only 10-20% of disease risk in a broad group of the common serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes can be explained by hard-wired genetic differences, and 80-90% is determined by patterns of genetic activation related to environmental and lifestyle factors.
The “fortunately or unfortunately” comes in here. If our lifestyle results in our best genetic expression, it is an opportunity to be healthier. If our lifestyle results in our worst genetic expression, we will be unhealthy. In effect, our health is more about health behaviors than about genetic wiring. Epigenetics has been called the “bridge between nature and nurture”. Nature, of course is “it is just the way I am”, and nurture is “I am what I am doing to myself good or bad”.
The short video at the link below is a great look at the epigenome.
Our DNA chain within each cell is many times longer than the diameter of the cell. To fit it into the cell, the DNA “wrapped” into very complex set of coils called histones.
Because histones contain many genes wrapped in bundles not easily accessed by signaling chemicals within the cell, the different genes they contain must have some way of being “tripped”. This is done by histone tails which are like fuses that can be turned on or off activating or silencing different genes. This is where nurture comes in.
The chemical mix of our life (food, nutrients, chemicals, etc) that we expose the cell to determines which pattern of histones become activated and therefore what genes get turned on or off.
When epigenetics is understood, it is realized that what happens to our health is not hard-wired by our genetic material. When the phrase “it runs in my family” is used, it is not quite true. What is likely to run in the family is the learned behavior more than the hard-wired genetic trait. However, the more generations that practice the poor health behavior causing their genetic expression to be unhealthy, the more this “learned” genetic expression may become hard-wired into the next generation. Literally, our children and grandchildren somewhat become what we have eaten!
The video at the link below talks about this concept. It is a good short piece that should really make us think!
All of this knowledge has led to a wealth of research into the nutritional factors that both cause our worst possible genetic expression and thus disease, as well as into the ability of different nutrients to induce the best possible genetic expression and thus treat or prevent disease.
An example of the research looking at the negative effects of diet on gene expression is the FUNGENUT Study.
The study examined the impact of two different types of carbohydrate on 47 middle aged adults with metabolic syndrome which is a common collection of heart disease and diabetes risk factors (high triglycerides, low HDL or good cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, increased belly fat). Two test periods were used; 12 weeks of rye ingestion and 12 weeks of oat/wheat/potato ingestion. The sustained intake of the two different types of carbohydrate had pronounced impacts on gene expression.
At the end of the 12 weeks of rye intake, 71 genes involved in abnormal insulin signaling that is implicated in causing metabolic syndrome were down-regulated (quieted). In contrast, the oat/wheat/potato diet caused the up-regulation (turned on) of 61 of these genes. Literally, what the subjects ate for just twelve weeks changed their genetic activation in either a positive or negative way!
The other area of intense study is on the ability of different nutrients to cause positive changes in gene activation. While better appreciated micronutrients such as B vitamins have positive roles in activating beneficial gene expression, this role seems to be more relegated to another class of nutrients called phytonutrients. This is a broad group of several thousand plant based nutrients such as flavonoids, flavones, etc. These nutrients seem to be naturally suited to activating patterns of favorable gene expression.
An example of this research is an excellent study that compared the effect of the phytonutrient berberine on diabetes. The study compared the berberine to two diabetes drugs metformin (Glucophage) and Rosiglitazone (Avandia). Berberine had broader positive effects lowering blood glucose, HA1C and triglycerides compared to both drugs.
There are several other benefits to phytonutrients versus synthetic drugs. Phytonutrients have almost no potential to induce serious negative effects. Drugs on the other hand have broad potential for negative effects. A very relevant example is the recent requirement of the inclusion of a Blackbox warning on all forms of Rosiglitazone warning of an importantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease with drug use.
Another great feature of phytonutrients is their “pleiotrophic” effects or the ability to cause other positive effects at the same time. While the statin drugs used to treat high cholesterol increase the risk of developing diabetes about 20%, berberine both lowers cholesterol levels and improves diabetes. The link below is a study of the ability of berberine to increase liver cholesterol receptors that remove LDL or bad cholesterol from the circulation.
Phytonutrients impart both rich color and sharper taste to plants. As they are spread around the plant kingdom, eating a broad diversity of plant food seems to be natural and important. This was insured by “seasonality” and has been removed by modern practice. Fortunately nature put a denser amount of many helpful phytonutrients in herbs making it easier for us to get them. A knowledgeable herbal therapist can be one of the most important health consultants.
Truly, things developed within nature’s “natural laws” seem to be far better suited to human health than synthetic chemical made by man. The essence of all of this seems to be:
Humans are largely not pre-wired to be diseased. We can induce the expression, or we can choose to facilitate health by our nutrition and other lifestyle habits. Seems like an east choice.