Research into genetics and their role in our everyday health is an up and coming movement in medicine today. Patients are inquiring whether they are destined to develop a disease due to a strong family history. Can a person avoid heart disease, obesity or cancer, even though their relatives had those conditions? Yes, genetics play an important role in health, but it is unclear just how much of one’s health is predetermined by genes. Exciting advances are being made each day with promise to improve health and treatment options. While some health conditions are determined solely by genetics, some are affected less than originally thought, with most falling somewhere in between.
A person’s unique genetic makeup impacts both their mind and body. That genetic makeup is a combination of what was inherited from each parent. Genes encode for proteins, the building blocks for everything in our body, and give specific instructions on how cells should operate, divide, etc. Each gene has a specific function and most functions in our body rely on multiple genes to work.
What happens when something goes wrong? Disease can occur when there are either extra genes, missing genes or if genetic mutations transpire. Mutations occur when genes are changed or damaged. Mutations can be inherited or developed over time.
While mutations can predispose a person to certain conditions, they do not always lead to disease. Genes can mutate based on a person’s environment, meaning that poor lifestyle choices can impact our genes and create mutations. An individual can also create conditions where those mutations never cause disease, if the right lifestyle choices are made. Genetic testing may be helpful in determining risk factors for developing certain diseases and guiding treatment plans for patients. Let’s take, for example, the gene COMT. This gene can impact a person’s likelihood of experiencing anxiety or depression. COMT is responsible for recycling our neurotransmitters (brain chemical signals) and based on our individual genetic make-up it can be either upregulated (working faster) or down-regulated (working slower). Genetic testing may give insight into why individuals are pre-disposed to experiencing certain symptoms, guide treatment and help predict which medicines or supplements may be beneficial. The knowledge of a genetic predisposition toward a disease can be motivating to take control of lifestyle choices in order to prevent the disease from developing or further progressing.
“Each gene has a specific function and most functions in our body rely on multiple genes to work.”
Another commonly tested gene is the MTHFR gene group. This set of genes influences the body’s ability to methylate or activate folate (a B-vitamin), which impacts the body’s ability to detoxify and can affect everything from cardiac risk, muscle growth, mental functioning and fertility, to name a few. Individuals can have one or more mutations in this gene group, which may slow down the methylation pathway and lead to various mental and physical symptoms. Testing is available for MTHFR mutations, however results can be challenging to interpret. The good news about testing is that if mutations are uncovered, there are ways to support methylation pathways to minimize the impact and promote optimal health.
New and promising genetic tests are also emerging that look at genes that provide information about the best diet and exercise plan for an individual. These tests give information such as how a person’s genes impact their ability to process macronutrients, (vitamins and minerals) as well as if they would benefit more from gentle or vigorous exercise. This can help when patients plateau on a workout routine or are having difficulty losing weight.
Scientists are busy studying genes, and making progress daily. There is still much we don’t know about how genes work, how they become mutated and what can be done to correct mutations. The possibilities for genetic testing and gene therapy treatments are expanding every day. Regardless of the genetic risk factors an individual has, it is important to control what is controllable, meaning lifestyle choices. Improving gastrointestinal health, eating a more natural health-promoting diet, incorporating an exercise routine, managing stress and avoiding or reducing toxic environmental exposures all positively impact health and functioning of genes. A person can have a genetic mutation but never be impacted; so digging into the details is crucial. Genetic testing may provide useful information to explain symptoms and guide treatment, but there is much gray area surrounding this topic, so it is crucial to discuss any results you have with a knowledgeable, genetic-savvy practitioner.
Jennifer Kurinsky, ND is a Naturopathic Doctor practicing at Grand Rapids Natural Health. Her passion is teaching her patients how the body, mind, and spirit work together, what happens when balance has been lost.