Nutrigenomics is the study of how nutrition influences gene expression which in turn can lead to the development of particular disease. That definition may seem a bit complex, but thinking of every day examples can help us understand the concept a bit better. Do you know a friend that seems to eat whatever he or she wants but always stays thin? Yet, you look at food and gain 5 pounds? Or someone who ate bacon and drank whiskey every day and lived to be healthy at 90 years old? Whereas someone else had a similar lifestyle and died of a massive heart attack at 45? All of these individual reactions to lifestyle choices are controlled by how our genes react to our environment.
Each of these people has a different combination of genes that causes their bodies to react to the same food and lifestyle choices in a completely different way. That’s why it seems like your friend never gains weight, yet you do while eating the same type of diet. These individual differences make it very challenging for practitioners and scientists to make diet and lifestyle recommendations that will benefit all people in the exact same way. But, with the science of nutrigenomics we may be able to better understand these individual genetic differences and what sort of diet, exercise, lifestyle programs are best for YOUR genetic profile. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could receive tailored nutrition recommendations individualized for you to help prevent diseases you are predisposed to, rather than adopting “blanket” may or may not work for everyone?
The Human Genome Project
Nutrigenomics is a science that began with the mapping of the human genetic code, referred to as the Human Genome Project. This project was initiated in 2001 as an international, collaborative program to map out and better understand human genes. Our DNA determines everything about us from hair color to what diseases we are predisposed to. DNA strands or genes are made up of four chemical bases, which are combined into pairs of various lengths, and can result in over 20,500 possible combinations. The goal of the Human Genome Project is to map out the sequence of each DNA strand and connect it to various physical, inherited traits in the human body. With this map we should be able to determine which exact sequence of bases codes for brown hair or a pre-disposition to developing diabetes.
Turning Genes “On”
Just because a certain disease runs in your family, like diabetes or heart disease, it does not mean you have a 100% chance of developing the disease. Whether or not you will develop the disease is caused by a complex interplay of lifestyle factors and genes. Nutrigenomics attempts to identify the specific lifestyle choices that make certain disease-causing genes turn “on” causing the disease and the factors that keep them turned “off”, preventing the disease completely.
The Future of Nutrigenomics
Although major strides have been made in this fascinating field, there is still a lot to learn about the impact of nutrition on gene expression. So far, it has allowed us to determine some specific dietary components that impact genes, but studying the human diet is very complex. Since this is an emerging science, it may be a long time before we can determine with 100% certainty exactly which the exact diet each individual should follow to prevent all genetically-linked diseases. In the meantime, there are several individual nutrients that have been identified as capable of changing gene expression and reducing disease risk for specific populations. This is the first article in a series on nutrigenomics which will explore what we know about how food and nutrients impact our genes and how you can begin to harness the power of nutrigenomics to take control of your health.