September 29, 2021
If I told you that in every disease, these 3 factors must be present for it to develop, which 2 would you say you have control over?
If you chose 2 and 3, keep reading. You have more say in number 1 than you may have thought.
Disease continues to be one of the most complex topics in medicine. Just like darkness is to light, disease is to health- the absence thereof. It’s easy to take for granted until it’s gone. However, unlike a power outage, disease isn’t so random. Today I’m talking about some of the most important factors that lead to disease, and those that combat it.
There’s one word that helps us understand number 1 in a way that challenges our previous notions of genetics. It is a subject that has gained popularity relatively recently, and it’s game-changer when it comes to looking at nutrition and disease. That word is Epigenetics, with the prefix epi- meaning “over” or “upon”. I think about the concept as “to override” or to “mark upon” your genetics. Put simply, it’s the study of how our behaviors and environment can affect the way our genes work. This means we may have more control over our genes than we once thought. So just because you may have a family history or genetic predisposition to disease, that doesn’t guarantee your fate. You may actually be able to override those genes, and here’s why:
Take a trip with me back to high school biology, when the biggest concern on your mind was who you liked that week, what team you were playing on Friday, or how many minutes there were until lunch time. If you can turn your attention away from the cute guy or gal at the table next to yours and try to focus on the board for just a sec, you’ll see the two lines curving in and out of each other with the perpendicular lines in between that models DNA, housing all your genetic information and social security number (okay, kidding). Your DNA is made up of a unique sequence that defines who we are, and there are no two alike. And while you can’t choose your DNA (just like you can’t choose your family) or change it, the concept of epigenetics explains how you may be able to change the way the way your DNA is actually expressed.
The order of amino acids in our DNA sequence are the instructions that tell specific types of cells to make different kinds of proteins that take action in our body. These can be enzymes, antibodies, hormones, structural proteins in muscle and skin, or transport and storage vehicles. The amazing thing we’ve discovered about genes is that they are fine-tuned by things called biomarkers, which are like little notes, or revisions, on a DNA sequence so that when it’s being transcribed by the RNA strand, it may be altered from its original state. You know, like when you place a to-go order and leave a modification in the comments. The preset food item comes through the system, but the chef sees the note and amends the typical recipe. Or, instead of just modifying, epigenetic markers may even prevent transcription of the gene, meaning it is silenced and never gets the chance to generate an action in the body. Order cancelled, if you will.
And guess what these biomarkers are made of? Components of the FOOD YOU EAT.
So this is a GREAT thing if you have a genetic mutation or variation (remember substitutions, deletions, etc?) that makes you more predisposed to diseases such as obesity or type 2 diabetes. You definitely want to put a muzzle on those malignant genes, yeah? So HOW in the world can you do it?
Research has found that the diet and lifestyle are major players in helping to regulate gene expression, along with other environmental factors like sleep, physical activity, stress management, and toxins. Right now, we’re going to focus on the food aspect, which begins with eating a diet rich in bioactive compounds (foods that promote good in the body). These include methyl groups and ligands, which are the building blocks of biomarkers which help accomplish the goal we’re going after – turning off or editing those undesirable genes.
So, to recap what we’ve learned so far, here’s what you can take away from this little lesson on epigenetics:
Mahan, K., Raymond, J. (2017). Krause’s food and the nutrition care process. (14th ed.). St. Louis: Elsevier.