An update in Nutrigenomics

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the New York Association of Naturopathic Physicians annual conference which focused on nutrigenomics: Nature Vs. Nurture

What is Nutrigenomics? It is the effect of nutrients on genetic expression. Today we understand that genes are influenced based on their environment (‘nurture’). It was not long ago that the model of genetics considered genes to be the root of disease (‘nature’). The scientific community that follows this cutting-edge research agree that nurture may be more important than nature when it comes to etiology of disease. I’m not saying that it’s one or the other, but a complex interaction of both, which further varies based on what disease you are talking about. For example, Huntington’s disease is a genetic disease that one either has or doesn’t have- no amount of nutrigenomic shift will change this. However, for most metabolic diseases there are MANY genes at play, and a nutrigenomic analysis may be beneficial.

Let use the agouti mouse study as an example. Genetic twins raised on 2 different lifestyles – good vs bad to keep it simple. The one on the left developed metabolic disease and even different hair color – a product of poor nutrition and lack of activity, while the other mouse was considered normal. This proved that environments will influence genetic expression – ‘Epigenetics’.

You may have heard of an alphabet soup medical concern known as MTHFR deficiency. MTHFR stands for MethyleneTetraHydroFolate Reductase, which is an enzyme that helps create an active form of Folate (vitamin B9) which helps re-methylate homocysteine into methionine which is then used to build neurotransmitters. MTHFR has become very popular in the last decade, and many healthcare practitioners are testing their patient’s genes to see if they can blame certain neurological diagnosis’, such as depression or anxiety, on this genetic mutation. On paper it sounds great; if a patient doesn’t have a good functioning methylation system, give them more methylated vitamins. However, this does not work out clinically. Some patients will report getting worsening of symptoms, some even suicidal.

We need to look at MTHFR as one piece of the machine, and evaluate the other genes that are up/downstream. For example, the CBS gene is downstream from the MTHFR gene, and if you speed up the MTHFR function with certain nutraceuticals, but the CBS gene isn’t functioning optimally- then you can generate excess methylation (or methyl-pooling), which is what causes the aggravation and worsening of symptoms. Usually MTHFR issues can be dealt with by examining other genes. Taking a methylated vitamin is not a harmless act. It can make genetic issues even worse. In fact, cancer loves extra methylation because it can speed up genetic turnover – the backbone of cancer growth.

We are entering an era of precision medicine, which allows a healthcare practitioner to analyze someone’s genome, and assess which nutrients and doses may help generate an environment for optimal health. You can get your genome by spitting in a tube and sending to a private lab company such as 23& ($99) or ($79); less than 15yr ago this was impossible/thousands of dollars. Then share this information with a qualified healthcare practitioner to run it through an analysis program that will tell where your genetic weaknesses are.

Bottom line: let’s stop measuring one gene and blaming disease on that, it is 2017, we can do better.

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