What do genes do?

When we talk about genes we are normally referring to the protein coding genes (rather than the somewhat more mysterious non-coding genes). In the simplest terms, these genes contain the instructions for building a protein that controls the way your body works, using a two stage process called transcription and translation.

We normally tend to think of protein as something we eat but they are also the primary building blocks of human life. Proteins are what make us and run us: there are proteins that dictate your eye colour; proteins that build your bone; proteins that carry hormones and nutrients in your blood; proteins that sit in cell membranes letting nutrients in and out; proteins that help you fight infection; and proteins that make you feel happy or sad. The protein coding section of our DNA is constantly busy making churning out proteins to keep our bodies alive.

The precise structure of the proteins we make depends on the genes we inherit. If you received the ‘wild type’ version you will make the ‘normal’ protein for that gene. If you inherited a gene variant the output may be different, or even absent.

Nutrigenetics looks at tiny differences in genetic code, where just one nucleotide in a sequence is different from the ‘wild type’. These ‘single nucleotide polymorphisms’ affect important biochemical pathways that result in clearly observable health differences.

Genetic polymorphisms can impact your health in many different ways. They may for example:

  • increase your need for a certain nutrient
  • reduce your ability to activate key nutrients
  • make it difficult for your body to transport a nutrient around the body
  • slow down detoxification pathways
  • speed up hormone production pathways
  • make you more sensitive to environmental toxins
  • reduce the ability to neutralise carcinogens
  • increase the production of carcinogenic metabolites
  • impair your ability to repair DNA damage
  • change the way drugs are processed in your body

When you are going through cancer, understanding your own nutrigenetics can help you see why your diagnosis may have happened, and it provides clues for supporting recovery and future health.

To learn more about how you can influence your genes following a cancer diagnosis, sign up to Your Life and Cancer 2020 and tune in at 10:00 am on Sunday, 11th October.