When I first learned about genes during A level Biology I couldn’t believe how straightforward it all seemed. In his now famous pea experiments in the 19th Century, Gregor Mendel discovered that the laws of genetic inheritance were surprisingly logical and provable. And, when Watson and Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule in the 20th Century, the four letter code that underlies all our genetic combinations turned out to be almost unbelievably elementary. For a long time, we believed that was it – a simple code and a rigid set of rules.
Fast forward to the 21st Century and we now know that it’s ‘a bit more complicated than that’. Your genes are not an immutable blueprint with pre-ordained outcomes. They work more like a piano, playing 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 to change the way they work. It’s an emerging field of science called epigenetics.
One of the most important environmental factors in gene expression is your diet. It has a whole subset of epigenetics called nutrigenetics – the science of the way our diet changes the way our genes work. Nutrigenetics holds the keys to precision medicine and offers a profound understanding of our individual health strengths and weaknesses, allowing us to add a deeper level of personalisation to your recovery programme. And it’s surprisingly simple!
Nutrigenetics is particularly relevant for breast cancer. When you understand your own ‘single nucleotide polymorphisms’, or SNPs, you can take steps to support your health in highly specific ways to make up for innate 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.
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 SNPs in the methylation cycle can have a profound impact on your health. 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
- neurotransmitter synthesis and breakdown – the way you personally respond to stress and manage your mood
Not all nutrigenetic testing services are the same. You need to choose a lab with rigorous and reliable testing, and test reports that understand the clinical significance of the underlying research. You also need to be happy that your data will be kept completely safe. I have teamed up with Emma Beswick at Lifecode Gx because I am happy that they have the have the credentials to deal with this technically complex subject. The DNA test itself is a simple cheek swab that you can do at home and post back to the lab. They will send me your genetic test results so that I can analyse them in combination with your health history and the latest research on breast cancer to create a personalised protocol.
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:
- Insight into why you may have developed cancer in the first place.
- Understanding of the cancer-related biochemical pathways that you need to support.
- Appreciation of the diet and lifestyle areas where you don’t have to worry quite so much.
- Information about essential nutrient deficiency issues
- Information about potential treatment reactions and drug resistance
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 of health where you can be more relaxed because your genes are working well.
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. Either way, you can book a consultation using the Booking link above.