Your Food, Your Genetic Expression, Your Health
By all accounts it seems that it was Jeffrey Bland, PhD who coined the phrase “Food is Information”. It has taken almost two decades for this concept to influence our everyday conversation about holistic health, wellness, and Functional Medicine. We get both excited by and mired in the myriad research endeavors into causative factors of disease, nutraceuticals to treat or reverse disease, and even the direct application of specific microbial strains to influence our physiology. Both this year, 2017, and last year at the Integrative Health Symposium NYC the conversation kept coming back to food. Apparently we need reminding!
Often spoken of as the “Godfather” of Functional Medicine, Dr. Bland was really way ahead of his time. Thankfully he is a pioneer, persistent, and full of incredible common sense that allows him to make educated intuitive leaps that later research has fully supported. In his book Genetic Nutritioneering written with Sara H. Benum, M.A. in 1999, he posits 4 important points which fostered new verbiage and definitions:
1. Genes interact with nutritional components to signal change in expression
a. We now call this Nutrigenomics
2. Nutrients can alter the way that genes regulate physiology
a. This effect is through Epigentics
3. Epigenetic effects are transferred from mother to offspring
a. This is termed Transgenerational
b. It often affects three generations: Mom, fetus, and fetal germ cells
4. Phytochemicals affect our physiology and health
a. This is through Signal Transduction
b. Many specific nutrients work through Hormesis
Dr. Bland reminded us of these breakthrough concepts in his keynote speech February 25 at the culmination of the three-day NYC IHS. And then he went on to further tie it all together.
As health and wellness practitioners we, ourselves, can become bogged down in the labyrinth of “right diets” and conflicting theories, and even conflicting research about diets. To listen to multiple thought leaders in Natural and Functional Medicine is to learn that: A High Fat diet is really good for you now; except when it isn’t, which is when you have Metabolic Syndrome and specific genes and microbiota that turn choline into inflammatory poison, in which case you should eat a Vegan Diet; except that a diet deficient in choline and good fats is a definite risk factor for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and sugar and carbs are even worse for the brain; except that we need certain carbs to feed and grow a healthy microbiome and nobody in the developed world is consuming enough fiber, and to be healthy we need to limit carbs to 50g daily; no, that’s net carbs after subtracting the fiber; but if you have a glutathione deficiency 100g daily after fiber is better; except if you have dysbiosis, and especially SIBO, in which case all fiber and carbs is bad; but only for the short term because fiber and brightly colored fruits and vegetables and a reasonable amount of healthy fat from fish, avocado, some seeds and nuts and olives is the foundation of a healthy diet with which we can all agree! Confused? Imagine our patients’ confusion! Now throw some food allergies into the mix...
It is a huge amount of information to process and integrate. In busy health practices we want the quickest and most direct route to get our patients better. We want to know exactly what food, what dose of vitamin or herb, what standardization. In short, we want a formula. There are formulas out there, but they are not simple. Why? Because the people to whom we are applying them are not simple. Food is the greatest controllable causative factor in health and disease. It is also the most difficult therapy to apply because of lack of patient compliance. Sometimes this is due to lack of understanding, an inability to prepare food, lack of resources in both finances and sourcing, or a lack of support. Often, though, it is due to the initial addiction cycle that poor food has established in the microbiome and the physiology of the patient. They are not just unwilling to make the right food choices, their microbiome is not letting them. This is why we have supplements. They are the tools we can use to help our patients alter the signaling in their bodies so that they can gain control of their choices.
What does our microbiome affect? Well, our GI microbiome plays a part in digestion and assimilation of dietary nutrients; it plays an enormous role in the GI-governed immune function, purported to be 2/3 of our total immune system; it plays an enormous role in regulation of inflammatory pathways not only in the gut, but throughout the entire body; it is responsible for sending signals through the gut mucosa and into our central nervous system that interact with our own human receptors and transmitters in a complex opera; and it seems to produce neurotransmitters, hormones, and enzymes that can even alter our genetic expression—perhaps even affect replication. Most mind blowing of all is that all of this, for better or for worse, is dependent upon what we feed our microbes. Period. In the effort to determine what method of extraction and what dose of food-derived nonnutrient molecules will best influence our cellular mechanisms, is it possible we overlook the likelihood that many of the herbs and nutraceuticals we are utilizing are not entirely dependent upon their bioavailability to the bloodstream, but exert an effect via the microbial interface in the gut? Certain pathways such as Nrf2 and BDNF can be activated independent of the level of absorption of active compounds into the bloodstream or across the blood-brain barrier. * Curcumin, resveratrol, berberines, silymarin, and quercetin are great examples of this. Others, such as sulforaphanes, have potent bioavailability in the bloodstream, but foods with suforaphanes have potent activities in the gut as well. Whole Coffee Fruit Concentrate has been shown to increase BDNF production by the brain, better than isolated compounds in coffee, but how is still in question.** We have to consider the pathways by which our microbiome influences health outside our guts because of microbial interaction with the foods and herbs we consume. It is tremendously exciting.
Our nutrient intake of both macro and micronutrients both directly and indirectly influence our health. There is no one way, there is no one path, it is a symphony. DNA is in our genes, and we get them from our parents, but the transcription of DNA to RNA to proteins is absolutely nutrient dependent. The formation and function of enzymes to metabolize and catalyze is dependent upon the raw materials available, including amino acids, macro and trace minerals, and key vitamins. The microbes in our individual systems are, themselves, responsible for all manner of productions, including certain vitamins, short chain fatty acids, hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes, and they facilitate metabolic and detoxification pathways. It is lifestyle, diet, pristine or toxic exposures, and even thought patterns that greatly influence how our hard-wired DNA will be expressed. Over this we have tremendous control, we have choices, and we have tools. Dr. Peter D’Adamo also lectured at IHS NYC and blew minds wide open with his new program. He created software, called Opus23Pro and Utopia, to analyze raw data from genetic sequencing like 23andMe in combination with raw microbiome data from Ubiome. The programs also take into consideration current epigenetic factors. As we study healthy, vigorous people using the same tools as we use on the unwell, we will come closer to understanding what is a “normal” range, and how to achieve and maintain that. Simply analyzing DNA is not enough. Analyzing stool and blood is not enough. We must combine all these data together, and brilliant programs like this give us the opportunity to view our patients with new eyes. What an amazing contribution he has made to the field of functional medicine where we must understand all the factors contributing to a patient’s disease or wellness. As Hippocrates was credited with saying, “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”
*Sulforaphane and other Nutrigenomic Nrf2 Activators; A Review Article by Christine A. Houghton, Robert G. Fassett, Jeff S. Coombes; School of Human Movement and Nutrition Science, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia; Accepted 6 December 2015; Copyright 2016 by Christine A. Houghton et al. **Stimulatory Effect of Whole Coffee Fruit Concentrate Powder on Plasma Levels of Total and Exosomal BDNF in Healthy Subjects—an Acute Within-Subject Clinical Study; Tania Reyes-Izquierdo, Ruby Argumedo, Cynthia Shu, Boris Nemzer, Zb Pietrzkowski; Food and Nutrition Sciences, 2013, 4, 984-990. http://scirp.org/journal/fns