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.

Nutrigenetics – the science of the way our diet changes the way our genes work – is at the core of my practice. It holds the answers to personalised medicine and offers a profound understanding of our individual health strengths and weaknesses, allowing us to target protocols to our past and future health risks.

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. However we each have different variations of those genes that determine our individual characteristics and health risks. 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 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 change the way BRCA is expressed in order to reduce the risk, 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, and there will be a copy inside every cell in your body. If you have this complex 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 cancer cells are caused by damage that happens after you are born, during your lifetime — damage due to poor diet, unhealthy lifestyle choices, micronutrient deficiencies, 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’ and ‘tumour suppressor genes’ 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

In recent years there has been growing interest in a particular kind of genetic variant called ‘single nucleotide polymorphisms’. These are inherited differences in base pairs that change the genetic code and 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 variations impact dietary response, 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. For example, women with oestrogen positive cancer tend to have significant SNPs on oestrogen metabolism genes. We all have lots of different SNPs and learning how to support them can significantly change the biochemical microenvironment in your body.

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

You will receive detailed test reports in all these areas from Lifecode and, in addition, a highly targeted report from me that relates the findings to your breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and future risk.

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

Details of the services I offer are listed under the Consult tab, you can clarify any questions you have using the Contact form and then, when you’re ready, please click on the Booking link above to arrange your first consultation.

I normally suggest that we start with a First Consultation which covers the basic evidence around diet and lifestyle choices for breast cancer, before getting into the more complex and refined information around nutrigenetics. However, if you have already covered your nutritional requirements with another qualified and specialist practitioner you may wish to jump straight into the genetic consultation.