Getting into your Genes

I’m thrilled to be part of the YOUR LIFE AND CANCER 2020 conference that has already provided so much hope and information to cancer patients all over the world. I was delighted to be invited to talk on one of my favourite topics, Nutrigenetics, along with one of my favourite colleagues, Emma Beswick, founder of Lifecode Gx.

When preparing for my talk the question that was going around in my head was: ‘What is the most important message that people need to understand about their genes?”

Easy…

You can change them!

We are taught that our DNA is an impossibly complex and immutably fixed blueprint for life, but that’s only partly correct. True, the structure of your genes is fixed – but the way they work is fluid.

I find it helpful to think of genes more like a piano keyboard – capable of playing a million different tunes depending on a billion different inputs. Broccoli will give you one melody, pizza another!

If you went to school in the last century you were probably taught that your genes are concrete code that dictates everything about you – including how long you will live and what you’ll die of. That’s partly because some genes do code for very definite characteristics: blue eyes or brown hair, for example. But our knowledge back then was sketchy to say the least. Although we’ve known of the existence of DNA for around 150 years, we only discovered its all-important structure in the 1950s. The Human Genome Project to sequence and map all of the genes in the human DNA was completed in 2003. This is very new knowledge, and there is still a lot to learn.

It’s with that in mind that we venture carefully into the field of nutrigenetics, examining the relationship between nutrients, diet and gene expression. Although the research is relatively new it’s undeniably powerful. Once you get your head around the idea that everything is genetic, it’s obvious that learning how to influence gene expression is a game changer.

In fact, everything we eat provides information for our genes, telling your body if it’s summer or winter, feast or famine. When we eat fresh, organic, and nutrient dense whole foods the body gets one set of instructions, when we eat deep-fried Mars bars the message changes. Suddenly, the difference between eating fresh food and Frankenstein food is not just a matter of waistline or guilty conscience, it’s fundamental to the way your body works.

I spent most of 2016 with my head buried in books and research papers relating to nutrigenetics and, to a large extent, I haven’t stopped. It’s the most fascinating aspect of nutrition I’ve ever studied. It helps that it’s broadly intuitive: I haven’t yet read any papers that contradict the received wisdom. In general, good food, regular exercise, plenty of sleep, low stress and sensible sunshine all help our genes to work well – no surprises there! The obverse is also generally true but there are always anomalies: the grandfather on your mother’s side who smoked 40 a day his whole life and never got ill; the aunt on your father’s side who grew her own veg, walked 5 miles a day and died of breast cancer in her 50s. That’s where it gets interesting.

Nutrigenetics can help us to understand some of these inexplicable cases: maybe a strong set of glutathione genes coming down the maternal line, and a complex set of Phase 1 oestrogen detoxification genes in the paternal line. This sort of knowledge can help us to influence our own health and target vulnerable areas – and I’ll be addressing some of these in the next few blog posts and in the talk on Sunday.

There are lots of good reasons to look at your nutrigenetics but, for me, the most exciting is that we can look at genes that control pathways that are clearly linked to cancer risk factors and target individual differences that may improve your chances of recovery, help treatment work better, and make up for inherited health issues.

Tune in next Sunday morning at 10:00 am, and listen to a lively conversation between me and Emma Beswick that may make all the difference to “Your Life and Cancer”.