You’ve probably heard the terms Genomics and Nutrigenomics from popular genetic testing companies like 23andMe, Ancestry.com and Helix. These companies sequence and analyze your DNA from a saliva sample to provide you with the raw data. These tests can tell you a lot more about yourself than just your ancestry.
Why are Genomics and Nutrigenomics so important? Well, aside from physical accidents, genetics play a role in NINE out of the ten leading causes of death in the USA. Diseases influenced by genetic variants include cancer, heart disease, diabetes and more.
That raw data derived from your saliva is your tell-all story. It gives insight into what color your hair could be, whether you think cilantro tastes like heaven or soap, and if you're predisposed to diabetes. It can even tell you if you have any mutant genes (spoiler alert: most of us do).
The good news is that knowledge is power. You can now obtain a basic understanding of genomics and Nutrigenomics, and how they directly affect your raw DNA. With this knowledge, you may not only be able to restore your health with proper personalized nutrition and fitness, but also prevent future disease.
To understand how nutrition affects your genes, we need to first start with the basics. Wish us luck as we consolidate your 10th-grade biology class into three paragraphs…
What is DNA?
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a compound that holds the instructions required to both develop and direct the activities within nearly all living organisms. The double helix (aka the Google-able picture of DNA), are the two twisting strands of DNA molecules.
What makes up DNA?
There are four chemical units that make up each DNA strand, which are:
- cytosine (C),
- guanine (G),
- Adenine (A)
- and thymine (T).
These chemicals on opposite strands will specifically pair up with one another. For example, T always pairs with A, and G always pairs with C. The order of these units is what gives meaning to the information encoded in that specific part of the DNA molecule, as does the order of the letters.
We're essentially built on a four-letter language like a very simple robot. A copy of our DNA set exists in each cell, equating to only about 3 billion DNA base pairs or letters in each of us. This is what makes the entire genome (or genotype), the sum total and unique combination of our genes.
What do genes do?
Each gene carries instructions on how to make, produce, and synthesize a specific protein, or a set of proteins. That determines how the body is supposed to be built, as well as how it's supposed to function. This happens with the help of enzymes and messenger molecules.
Keep in mind, this all occurs on your 23 pairs of chromosomes. For a total of 46 chromosomes within the nucleus of your cell… And, you thought your closet was crammed?
Enzymes and mRNA
The enzyme then copies or transcribes the information in a gene’s DNA into messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). The mRNA then travels out of the nucleus into the cell’s cytoplasm, (the area of a cell surrounding the nucleus). It’s there that mRNA is read by the ribosome, a molecular machine. The ribosome then uses the information to link together tiny molecules called amino acids in the right order to form a specific protein.
Proteins & Mutations
Proteins are what make body structures like our tissue and organs. They also carry signals between cells and control chemical reactions.
Genetic conditions can occur when the protein creation is altered by a genetic mutation. Gene mutations cause permanent alteration in the DNA sequence (your personal four-lettered language). These can range in size, affecting only individual cells or many.
Mutations are either inherited (thanks mom and dad) or acquired. When inherited, they're in virtually every cell of the body, as they occur during the formation of sex cells, or fertilization.
If the mutation(s) is acquired due to environmental factors (i.e. radiation), it is present in only the certain cells affected. These mutations cannot be passed on hereditarily.
A mutation is called a polymorphism if it affects more than 1% of the population. Polymorphisms account for differences in blood type, eye color, and can influence predisposition to certain diseases or disorders. While some mutations are relatively benign, others can cause an abnormal protein to be produced. This abnormal protein can disrupt the body’s usual function, possibly leading to diseases including mental and physical concerns.
While we can’t do much to change our genes, we can change our gene expression to avoid polymorphisms and further mutations.
How? By getting the right nutrients, sleeping, avoiding toxins, exercising and relaxing.
What Are Nutrigenomics?
Now for the fun part. Nutrigenomics explains why one person can eat a box of donuts, and not gain a pound, while another can seemingly gain weight just by walking past said donuts.
Or, why two people can smoke cigarettes for the majority of their life, and only one develops cancer.
Nutrigenomics is the study of how food or nutrients affect our genes and how this may affect our health outcomes. Such as, the onset or prevention of disease. Nutrigenomics research began over 15 years ago, with the completion of the Human Genome Project.
The Human Genome Project taught us that all human beings are 99.9% identical in their genetic makeup, however, that remaining 0.1% is responsible for a large number of differences between one another, including our response to diet.
The focus of Nutrigenomics is on single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). SNPs are DNA sequence variations accounting for 90% of all human genetic variation. SNPs that alter “housekeeping genes” (involved in the maintenance of the cell) may increase or decrease the risk of developing health concerns.
By knowing whether or not you carry a genetic predisposition (SNPs), you may be able to prevent or at least delay the onset by modifying your diet or exercise.
For example, those of us with the MTHFR C677T polymorphism SNP (30-50% of us) tend to notice a huge difference in energy when they begin to take Methylfolate (B9). MTHFR is responsible for repairing DNA and switching genes on and off. If it isn’t working properly, it can lead to health issues, such as birth defects and cardiovascular concerns. This is just one way that Nutrigenomics can work in your favor.