I recently attended the American Nutrition Association’s annual summit, where the theme this year was Healthy Aging and Longevity. You’ll recall that I mentioned in my first newsletter that most Americans experience an average of 16 years of reduced quality of life because of poor health before they die. Whew! That’s a long time to feel lousy or not be able to participate fully in your life.
The issue is not necessarily, “I want to live a long time,” but “I want to be vibrant and active until my body says it’s time to go.” Sure, both would be great! Even so, thanks to cellular pre-programming, we can’t know for sure how old we will get, though with our modern medical interventions humans are living more into the “oldest old” category (and just a reminder of the average of 16 years of reduced QOL).
Where is this programming? It’s in our built-in roadmap: DNA. The kicker is that our DNA behavior is not set in stone. We can influence our health outcomes by knowing about our genes. As soon as DNA is exposed to experience - and that first exposure happens in utero - the results of DNA expression can be altered. With that alteration comes a cascade of changes in health.
So without further ado, let’s talk about genes through my nutritionist lens!
Here are a few cool things to know about genes:
Our genes are natively designed to interact with nutrients in our food in a particular way.
But no two humans are exactly alike. Some people have gene variants that may cause them to need more of a nutrient in order for their bodies to benefit from it (but not always!). Two examples are folate and vitamin D.
Some people have a different genetic interaction with a certain nutrient than the general population, and so giving more of it to them to support their health could backfire. Vitamin A (especially for smokers) and vitamin E (for people who have a stronger response to it, leading to higher all-cause mortality) offer intriguing insights into this.
What we eat, our experiences, and the lifestyle choices we make (e.g. sleep, movement, mindfulness, stress resilience, toxin exposure) can actually “open up” or “shut down” gene expression.
This process is called epigenetics. Genes are set for what they produce, but epigenetics alters how they produce. For example, thanks to environmental inputs, genes that speed up cell division could be more “open” at the same time that genes that fight cancer are more “closed.” This makes that person more likely to develop cancer. Fortunately, the reverse is also true!
A highly studied aspect of epigenetics is methylation. Methyl groups are tiny one carbon molecules with three hydrogen atoms attached, written like this: CH3. They have a metabolic role supporting critical biochemical processes, like clearing out old estrogen, making mood chemicals called neurotransmitters, and repairing broken DNA strands (and, gosh, so much more).
Epigenetic action is a huge role for methyl groups. They attach to genes to inform how they express themselves. For example, every cell contains exactly the same DNA, and they need to define themselves so we have the right cells in the right spots. Methyl groups shut down genes that aren’t right for a cell, so a liver cell is a liver cell, not an eye cell.
Too much methylation (hypermethylation) can be a contributor to some diseases, like breast and ovarian cancer. Too little methylation (hypomethylation) can be a contributor to ADHD, autism, hypertension, thyroid disease, and more.
So, how do you know what to do?
We can’t control a lot of methylation - it’s built in to make our cells work right. However, a bunch of it is influenced by our choices and behavior - epigenetics. For example, certain foods support methylation so that it’s reliably, consistently health promoting - all those methyl groups landing just where they should. Behaviors like routinely not getting enough sleep, overconsuming alcohol, or chronic stress put methyl groups where we don’t want them.
The key takeaway is that too much or not enough methylation, or methylation of the wrong genes, can do a number on our health. Our food, experiences, and lifestyle choices influence the methylation of genes and cause epigenetic changes in gene expression.
Risk vs Outcome
As I mentioned, a lot of people think their genes are their health destiny. That view takes intricate, nuanced, and complex processes and boils them down to an either-or statement. I have great news! Your genes are not necessarily your health destiny!
Our genetic makeup developed over millennia and is even being shaped now. An example is the lactase gene that allows people to digest the lactose from dairy. Most people’s lactase genes are automatically turned off (methylated) when nursing ends, but some people can digest dairy just fine. Genes like this have variants - meaning they were altered permanently in some people due to environmental circumstances. We don’t always know why genes act as they do, but there are some super smart people working on that!
A key point is that genes interact with the environment, and that interaction can end up making them more or less active. So when we hear that someone has a gene variant that is associated with a disease, that does not automatically mean that the person will get that disease. What it means is that there is an increased risk of developing that disease. However, the actual outcome may be perfectly lovely health.
Knowing about our risk factors and degree of risk allows us to know where we might want to place added attention. Since our external inputs can change our gene expression, knowing about our genetic risk factors allows us to figure out where we want to change our environment.
How can we find out about how our genes interact with our environment?
I offer a test by 3x4 Genetics that is designed for exactly this purpose. It’s not like 23&Me or Ancestry. It specifically tests genes that mesh with food, specific nutrients, exercise, metabolism, sleep, inflammation, detoxification, and more. This means that having this information gives you actionable information to help you stay well long into old age. Will you benefit from more folate to prevent cardiovascular disease? What about zinc and B6 to stabilize your mood? Click here for a list of FAQs, including those about privacy and genetic testing.
You can order your test on your own, but the best interpretation of the report and what choices to make to improve your health is best done with a 3x4 practitioner - and that’s me! I have access to more details and nuances when the report comes to me through my practitioner portal. Importantly, this report is like all other testing: it should not be taken in isolation from your medical and social history, signs and symptoms, food and lifestyle choices, and other lab work.
I also want to emphasize that learning about your genetics isn’t necessary to begin healing right now. It’s just one more tool in the toolbox.
How cool is it that our genes are not our destiny?
Tip of the Month
You know I’m a fan of microbes - but they really have to be the right ones! There are the “good” gut healing microbes in foods like yogurt and kombucha. There are the happy bugs in our guts that help us digest our food and underpin our positive, even mood. And then there are the nasty ones that make us sick, giving us digestive problems and infections.
Kitchen sponges and scrub brushes host that last kind. They get wet and dipped in all kinds of yuck. Then they sit around on a dish or in the sink until the next time you use them. All that time, pathogens (bugs that make us sick) land and grow on them. This is especially true when you clean items that held raw animal protein, like chicken, beef, or fish.
Hot tip! Every time you run the dishwasher, put your sponge and your scrub brush on the top rack. Dishwasher water is hot enough to kill the bad bugs, and the surfactant in the soap lifts them away. If you don’t have time for the dishwasher, toss your sponge in the microwave for 20 seconds. It won’t be deodorized (pew!), but it will be disinfected.
I’ve been receiving some questions from readers, and in this newsletter I’m highlighting supplements. Not all supplements are created equal, and not every supplement is right for every “body.”
A reader wrote to me:
“Why are plant based supplements better than drug store or carefully groomed sources of supplements?”
Supplements are a super useful tool in my work. Typically I use them therapeutically for a defined length of time to support healing in conjunction with food choices and lifestyle practices. Once my client has met their health goals, we remove them and maintain only the few that I determine will support the client long term. I always encourage my clients to return for a ‘tune up’! Supplements are not magic bullets - not another way of creating a ‘pill for an ill.’ It’s important to understand them so you’re taking the right ones for you.
The short answer about “plant based” supplements is that they aren’t necessarily better. It’s rare - maybe impossible - to find a vitamin supplement that is truly 100% food (or plant) based. Many or most of them have added commercially produced synthetic vitamins (minerals can’t be synthetic). If a supplement makes health claims based on being manufactured from whole foods to justify their higher price, read the label. In fact, always read the label to know what you’re actually consuming. Synthetic vitamins are standard. The only one I know for sure can be deeply problematic is synthetic folic acid (and it’s everywhere) - read my July ‘23 newsletter. Also, the “whole food” claim may be due to additional ingredients rather than the main focus of the product.
Beware of any supplemental “whole food” product that makes broad health claims - consider the price, the seller (is it an MLM?), and (again) read the label. Are there added synthetic nutrients? Does it seem too good to be true? Is a full list of product ingredients hard to find? What about their supposedly great research? I have tracked down touted research for MLM products only to find smoke and mirrors.
What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You!
I’m sure you’ve noticed that many supplements (including greens/reds powders, all-in-one protein powders, and multivitamin-mineral products) have additional elements, such as herbs or spices (e.g. turmeric/curcumin, cinnamon). The reverse is true, too - an herb- or protein-based supplement might have additional vitamins and minerals.
There can be problems with this approach, such as:
Where Can I Get Good Advice on What’s Right for Me?
Many times the consumer and medical professionals wing it based on a shallow understanding. For example, very few people understand that calcium supplements intended for bone health can actually worsen heart disease by causing calcium to be deposited in soft tissue. Bone building requires several synergistic nutrients as well as particular physical stressors to make bones stronger, not just calcium. Another one is iron sulfate for anemia - constipation central and low absorption! There’s a better option. Mistakes with supplements happen all the time.
A few days ago my own mom’s eye doctor recommended an AREDS multivitamin-mineral to help prevent the progression of macular degeneration. He didn’t ask and so didn’t know that she was already taking a potent multivitamin. The double dosing could have been dangerous for her. He also didn’t compare it to her medication, and the high dose of vitamin E and other antioxidants may be contraindicated with some of her medication. I was so glad that she checked it with me first!
Avoiding this type of confusion is where a Certified Nutrition Specialist can make all the difference. A CNS knows:
Here’s Your Most Important Take Away
The most important thing to remember is that supplements that are right for one person may be useless or even flat wrong for another.
Supplemental nutrients or herbs can have powerful effects on health status. They can make all the difference to improving one person’s health and create terrible unintended health consequences for someone else.
And I love a good doctor, but most of them simply don’t have appropriate nutrition training to make worthwhile supplement and food recommendations. It’s just not their area of expertise.
In spite of the ready availability of supplements in stores and online, I 100% recommend that everyone seek the guidance of a clinical nutritionist.
Do You Have Questions About Your Supplements?
As I said, supplements can be really confusing, and not every healthcare practitioner knows how to recommend them. I offer a free 15-20 minute consultation where you can ask me any questions about the supplements you are taking!
I am Mary Virginia Coffman (I go by “Mary Virginia”), a clinical nutritionist who focuses on mental health, digestive health, metabolic health, and nervous system regulation. My unique combination of clinical interventions, education, and coaching will help you feel well in body, mind, and spirit.