Getting into your Genes

Genetic malfunction has been identified as a feature of nearly all cancers and many billions of research hours and dollars have been spent looking for a genetic solution to the disease. It’s complex subject but one where we can all benefit from a greater understanding.

It’s worth noting that all humans have the same genes, no matter whether we are black or white, tall or short, healthy or unhealthy our basic gene sequence is the same. OK, boys have a bit less DNA than girls due to the loss of the leg on the Y chromosome, but that’s the only difference. However we all have different varieties of those genes, called alleles, that determine blue or brown eyes, attached earlobes, tongue rolling or whether or not your pee smells of asparagus after you eat it!

Not many genes have an individual effect – they mostly work in groups which is why we can look a bit like both parents, and why there is such diversity in the world. When our genes behave differently we don’t only look different we can also have different health and life expectation. These gene variations, commonly called ‘single nucleotide polymorphisms’, or SNPs, are of particular interest to health researchers. A whole new paradigm of personalised medicine is based on defining these individual differences in order to support optimal health. Eventually it will be computerised and you’ll be able to get advice at the press of a button (or the blink of an eye) but for now you have to rely on people like me — trained and registered nutrigenetic counsellors — to tap into the benefits.

The most important thing to understand about genes, no matter what you were taught during your education, is that they are not an immutable blueprint. In fact your genes are more like a piano – they can play a different tune depending on who or what is pressing the keys. Feed them broccoli and you get one tune; deep fried Mars bars play another. Your genes are constantly interacting with your environment, second by second, and your emotions, environment and inputs change the way they work. It’s an emerging field of science called epigenetics.

Our new understanding of how genes really work puts health care back in your control: even if you have a gene for Alzheimer’s or breast cancer we are learning how to intervene to lessen the risk by influencing the faulty gene to behave better, or even by silencing it. One day, this new understanding will help us to handle all kinds of diseases that are currently considered to be ‘genetic’, but we’re not there yet. So what can you do?

The Basics

There are three key areas of genetic theory that are of interest to cancer patients and researchers.

1. Genetic Associations

The most famous gene associated with cancer is the BRCA gene. Its stands for BReast CAncer Early Onset, which is a clue to its function. We know that women with BRCA1 & 2 gene mutations are at higher risk of cancer, and most (but crucially not ALL) of them will develop breast or ovarian cancer in their lifetime. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know very much about how to reduce the risk that BRCA poses and currently the best medical option is surgery to remove the organs at risk. More research is needed to identify how women with BRCA who don’t get cancer manage to escape the disease but the assumption is that their diet and lifestyle are in some way more supportive of health. BRCA is an inherited gene variant that you are born with, that has been passed on to you by one of your parents, and there will be a copy inside every cell in your body. If you have this mutation it is more important than ever to take advice on how to live in a healthy way.

2. Genetic Mutations

The runaway genes inside tumour cells that switch on toxic metabolites and switch off cell death are caused by damage that happens after you are born, during your lifetime — damage due to poor diet, unhealthy lifestyle choices and toxic exposure (e.g. to x-rays, smoke, pollution, aflatoxin, PCBs, alcohol, sugar, nutrient deficiencies, poor detoxification, viruses,etc.) These mutations occur only inside the cancer cells, not in the rest of your body. Changes to ‘oncogenes’ have been the subject of decades of research and we are starting to realise that once a tumour is established the genetic damage is unstoppable: each new cell within a tumour is likely to have different genetic fingerprint making a gene-targeted solution to cancer that has already happened unlikely.

3. Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms

Inherited polymorphisms, as explained above, have a profound affect on our health. For example, they control our ability to absorb, transport and utilise nutrients; they make us more or less prone to inflammatory disease; they affect the way we process hormones and toxins; and they impact the quality of our gut flora. Nutrigenetics is the study of the way gene variation impacts dietary response and the role of food and nutrients in gene expression and it is particularly relevant to breast cancer. When you understand your own polymorphisms you can take steps to support your health in highly specific ways to make up for inbuilt errors of metabolism. For example if you have a genetic tendency to low B12 levels you can supplement this vital nutrient (closely associated with cancer) to make up for your tendency; if you discover that you have a predisposition to higher levels of inflammation (also associated with cancer) you can prioritise anti-inflammatory foods in your diet. Nutrigenetic knowledge can help you make lifestyle and treatment choices too, helping you understand if you are suited to a vegetarian or vegan diet, or whether some medications might be more helpful than others. In my opinion, nutrigenetics is the most empowering area of nutritional therapy. It can show you what you need to pay attention to – and it can also help you to find areas where you can be more relaxed because your genes are working well.

Methylation and Breast Cancer

One area of great interest to breast cancer patients is the nutrigenetics of a biochemical process called ‘methylation’. This biochemical reaction happens billions of times a second in your body. It’s so critical to life that genetic ‘glitches’ in the methylation cycle can have a profound impact on your health. Scientists have discovered that there are some key genetic polymorphisms that control methylation and that by altering key methylation nutrients we can improve the way the body does it. Since the various pathways affected by methylation include

  • hormone production, hormone receptors and hormone detoxification and elimination
  • DNA synthesis and repair and gene expression
  • liver detoxification and elimination
  • production of glutathione – the body’s most important antioxidant and detoxifying molecule.

Applying Nutrigenetics

In my work I have found significant correlation between these genetic polymorphisms and the case histories of my clients. It has led me to recommend nutrigenetic testing to most women with early onset disease or those who are not responding well to treatment.

There are lots of online services that offer to tell you all about your health and your DNA – it’s a bit like reading a crystal ball. This branch of nutrigenetics is a one-size-fits-all solution based on gene association studies. While it may be useful for people in overall good health, it is not individualised and not focussed on breast cancer. If you are working with me, you need something a lot more powerful than that.

The nutrigenetics service I provide involves taking a DNA sample with a simple cheek swab. You send the sample to my chosen lab – Lifecode Gx – and they will send me a suite of genetic panels that tell me what I need to know about:

  • your methylation pathways
  • your oestrogen pathways
  • your detoxification pathways
  • your antioxidant defences
  • your ability to tolerate, absorb and utilise key foods and nutrients

I will analyse these findings and compare them with my own research and produce a report for you that highlights key things you can do to reduce your risk of breast cancer diagnosis, recurrence and progression. This is far more specific, personal and in depth than you can get anywhere else. It’s a lot of work for me but I think it’s worth it. The tests included in this service would cost you £882 if you were to buy them direct so this package offers great value, despite being quite costly.

What it can do for you

Understanding your own nutrigenetics puts you in a uniquely powerful position to be able to understand your personal risk factors for cancer. I believe it gives you several key advantages:

  1. An insight into why you may have developed cancer in the first place.
  2. An understanding of the cancer-related biochemical pathways that need your attention
  3. An appreciation of the areas where you don’t have to worry quite so much.
  4. A highly personalised and focussed diet and lifestyle strategy.

Next steps

If you want to proceed with nutrigenetic testing please go to my booking page at and choose the nutrigenetic option. (It’s better if you follow the basic Power Through Breast Cancer programme first.)

I will arrange for the test kit to be sent to your home and the results will come to me in 3-4 weeks after the lab receives the swab. It will take me a little time to prepare your report from the test results so I suggest booking an appointment in around 6 weeks.

Next Steps