What we eat and how we live, affects the way our genes respond.
Put very simply, our genes receive information from the nutrients in our food and then translate that into a protein that is used by our cells to function metabolically. The genes themselves do not decide the function of the cell; instead, they carry the information or blueprint that is needed to assemble the proteins that actually confer structure and function.
This vastly simplified description is called 'gene expression'. This effect is far-reaching, and evidence supports the hypothesis that our early life environment, including maternal nutrition, may impact our future risk for disease.
On a molecular level, the victims of the Dutch Hunger Winter (1944-1945) provided a tragic, but vital experiment for human health., particularly gene expression. Pregnant women, it turns out, were especially vulnerable and the children they gave birth to have been affected by the famine throughout their adult lives. When they became adults, they were a few pounds heavier than average and in middle-age they had higher LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. These adults experienced higher rates of obesity, diabetes and schizophrenia and died at an earlier age.
The concept of 'one size fits all' is no longer relevant in the era of personalization. Family members sitting down to the same meal will all respond in different ways once the food has been chewed and swallowed. Even taste perception is genetically determined!
We are indeed unique, and even though we are all expected to function in the same biological way, we differ in how we produce enzymes as well as in how we metabolise nutrients once they reach our different gut microbiota and body systems.
You may have inherited your mother's blue eyes and body shape, but its not a gloomy prediction that you will also have to suffer from the same autoimmune disorder or heart disease as she has.
The world is obsessed with 'clean' eating, yet obesity and chronic disease remain problematic. Chronic inflammation and lifestyle stressors impact our daily lives and our brilliant bodies, and incredible cellular processes, do not always have the capacity to keep up with continual onslaught. It would be lovely, but impractical, to counteract this by heading of to a gorgeous yoga retreat every month!
FOOD IS INFORMATION, AND INFORMATION IS POWER
All the information about us is stored in our DNA, which is, in turn, housed in our genes. Each gene has instructions to make a specific protein, and these proteins act as chemical messengers (mRNA) carrying instructions to your cells (for example, whether a liver cell is to become a liver cell, or a skin cell is to become a skin cell, or the colour of your eyes or skin, etc).
In order to perform their essential job of making proteins, genes need to be activated. Considering there are about 24,000 genes in the human genome, some of which have functions we cannot explain, that leaves a lot of room for error.
The human body is a complex, interconnected system that results in domino-type effects that have far-reaching consequences.
Over the last decade we have learned that food is far more than just basic carbohydrates, proteins and fats. The research into the wonders of phytochemicals has resulted in exciting science and a very clear reason for 'eating the rainbow'.
Phytochemicals are a large family of antioxidants that are further sub-divided into multiple categories. There are about 6000 different polyphenols that have been identified so far, in plant foods.
Nutrigenomic recommendations include bioactive ingredients and functional foods that have been shown to activate gene expression. A functional food is described as " any modified food or food ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond that of the traditional nutrients it contains"
The Dutch Hunger Winter is a sad example of epigenetic gene expression, but did you know how special and wonderful broccoli can be?
Sulphoraphane, the bioactive compound found in broccoli (particularly broccoli sprout) has been shown to induce phase 2 antioxidants enzymes, crucial for the process of liver detoxification. Sulphoraphane and fermented foods may also enhance the Nrf2 cellular protection pathways that protect us from many chronic diseases.
Cranberry juice has been used for years by women suffering urinary tract infections. Scientists have now proved that 300 ml of cranberry juice per day, taken for six months, can alter bacterial flora in the urinary tract.
So, remember to have some broccoli and other brightly coloured fruit and vegetables every day to support that wonderful and complex body and keep your genes happy.