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 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.