In my previous post, I discussed the three fundamentals that we must get right first in order to achieve health and vitality. These are the three steps that I encourage my clients to work on initially because they underpin effective functioning of all of our body systems. To recap, they are:
- eating the right kinds of foods
- optimal digestion
- optimal absorption
This post focuses on the first point of eating the right foods. But everyone knows what they should be eating, right? In fact, I recently read an article that stated that we don’t need more education on what we should be eating; we need help in making changes to our diet and sticking with it. While I agree with the latter comment, I respectfully disagree with the former. I believe that if we better understand the impact and role of certain types of foods on our health, it would be easier to make the important changes to our diet - and keep to them.
When we think of particular foods, we usually consider calorie content, and maybe the vitamin and mineral content. And certainly, adequate vitamins and minerals are essential to efficient and effective body functions. But did you know that certain foods can turn off or turn on the expression of your DNA, making it more or less likely that you could either develop a disorder or achieve better health? This is the emerging areas of epigenetics and nutri-epigenetics.
We now know that our genetic makeup is not our fate. In other words, having the gene for a certain issue doesn’t mean that it will be expressed or turned on, only that it may. In fact, it’s estimated that only about 10% of our genes, such as eye colour, are determinate. The rest are subject to change.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression (whether a gene is activated or not) that does not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence itself. This, in turn, affects how cells read the genes and implement the information. Which, in turn, can benefit or harm health and many biological processes. Epigenetic change is a regular and natural occurrence but can also be influenced by several factors including age, disease state, lifestyle, and environment.
So, what we eat, where we live, who we interact with, when we sleep, or how we exercise, – all of these factors could eventually cause chemical modifications around genes that will turn those genes on or off over time. In certain diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, various genes will be switched into the opposite state, away from the normal, or healthy, state. It’s possible to switch the gene back to the normal position. Environmental factors, such as exercise, sleep, diet, and exposure to toxins and pollution are all elements of our lives that have been shown to play a role in controlling or switching genes “on” or “off” via epigenetics. Changing the factors in our lives that we can control could, possibly, change our health for the better.
Epigenetic markers that can change the on-off state of DNA include:
- DNA methylation which plays an important role in development, ageing, formation of tumours, and other genetic diseases.
- Histone modifications describe a group of markers that occur to histone proteins and the formation of chromatin. Gene expression depends on how tight or loose the chromatin structure is. It’s enhanced when chromatin structure is loose.
Nutri-epigenomics is a relatively new field that looks specifically at the way nutrients and diet can change the expression of our DNA and, ultimately, effect our health and well-being. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the type of foods that effect our DNA to promote better health are whole or unprocessed foods.
Eating fruit has been shown to impact the epigenetic markers in various ways such as influencing the methylation process mentioned above. For example, folate which is found in citrus, grapes, papaya, and banana is thought to play a role in the inhibition of cancer through epigenetic means. Apple peels, blueberries and cranberries contain ursolic acid which is thought to have anti-cancer properties, especially in regards to skin cancer. And resveratrol, found in red grapes, might also be helpful in reducing the risk of cancer.
Vegetables, Rhizomes, and Legumes
These food groups contain vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that might have the ability to help prevent cancer development and improve overall health. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower, Brussels
sprouts and cabbage, are known to contain sulforaphane, a compound that previous research has linked to cancer prevention.
Ginger root serves as both an anti-inflammatory as well as a cancer fighting antioxidant. But it is also thought to influence the expression of genes linked to inflammatory and neuroprotective pathways - reducing inflammation and fighting disease.
Soybeans contain an isoflavone known as genistein that can impact DNA through the mechanisms noted above and is thought to activate tumor suppressor genes and affect cancer cell survival.
Shellfish, Oysters, and Fish
Shellfish such as oysters, lobster, and shrimp contain high amounts of vitamin B12, betaine, and zinc. B12 is a crucial vitamin in body functioning and has a role in methionine synthesis which helps regulate DNA methylation. Betaine is an amino acid and can affect the levels of DNA methylation and thereby also influence gene expression. Shellfish is also rich in zinc, which is essential to the body’s fight against inflammation.
Spices and Herbs
Many herbs and spices are thought to have anti-microbial, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties. Tumeric (and its active ingredient curcumin) is probably the best known for its abilities to reduce inflammation and protect against disease. It can adjust the expression of genes by influencing chromatin structure. Fennel contains an organic compound known as anethole which has been shown to possess antioxidant, antifungal, antibacterial, anesthetic, and anti-carcinogenic properties. It might also be able to control skin health as it is connected to adjusting the expression of a gene related to collagen.
This is only a brief indication of some of the emerging research into how our food impacts our health, far beyond calories, vitamins, and minerals. In my next post, I'll discuss which foods can negatively impact our health through epigenetic means.
In the meantime, what small steps can you take today to increase your health and wellness and reduce your risk of ill-health through simple food choices?