With the advent of a growing scientific field of study called nutrigenomics, the old adage “you are what you eat” is proving to be much more than folk wisdom. Nutrigenomics takes into consideration the relationship between diet and genetics, and identifies the beneficial or detrimental health effects of various dietary components. What researchers have discovered is that there is far more to dietary health than proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and that simply meeting the minimum daily requirements for vitamins and minerals isn’t enough for optimal health and disease prevention.
The essence of nutrigenomics is that variations in genetic make-up and gene expression define our individual specific nutritional requirements, including how well we absorb and utilize nutrients, and even the amount of food that we need to consume for optimal health. Genetic variations also determine the specific ways in which individuals adapt to environmental challenges, diseases, drugs, and therapies.
Conventional thinking holds that health is determined genetically, and for this reason, that little can be changed. In other words, whatever hand of genetic cards we’re dealt at birth is our destiny. Well, that simply isn’t true. The genes that an individual inherits are merely one factor in the manifestation of health or disease. Many other factors, particularly diet, play a significant role in gene health. There is no question that we affect the expression of our genes through our dietary choices. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that we can tailor our diets to influence our genes.
For example, one defective copy of the tumor-suppressor gene p53 is thought to predispose a person to develop cancer. With age, if we lose function in the second copy of the gene, cell proliferation may become irregular. The most common genetic mutation in human cancers (that of the p53 gene) is responsible for 30% to 70% of all cancers. Studies show that the foods most strongly associated with p53 mutations include high glycemic-foods, red meat, and foods containing trans-fatty acids—all of which make up the typical modern “fast food” diet. Unfortunately, fast food comprises far too much of the American diet—a recent study released by the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that fare from fast food restaurants accounts for more than 11% of the calories consumed by Americans.
On a positive note, mutations in the p53 gene can be prevented, or even repaired, by foods or food concentrates rich in specific compounds such as quercetin (found in apples, black and green tea, dark leafy greens, and red onions), proanthocyanidins (found in grape seeds and skin), resveratrol (found in grape skins and some berries), and isothiocyanates (derived from cruciferous vegetables). Food compounds such as these regulate oncogene and tumor suppressor gene expression through multiple mechanisms, including epigenetic processes.
We’ve known for a long time that eating a diverse, whole foods diet is the best way to stay healthy. Thanks to nutrigenomics, we now have a greater understanding of how the phytonutrients found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and even some protein foods such as raw dairy products and organic eggs affect our cells. I am intrigued by the ability of nutrients to modify gene expression and the interplay and communication between nutrient-dense, health promoting foods and herbs and our cells. I have always found magnificence in the innate wisdom of the body; our cells take up phytonutrients for healthy replication, and are able to protect and repair themselves if damaged by stress, the environment, or excessive catabolic activity, such as endurance exercise. And as a researcher as well as practitioner, I find it gratifying that science supports what I have long known—that the body has a remarkable ability for self-regulation and healing if it is supplied with the proper nutrients.
Human diets of plant origin contain hundreds of compounds that cannot be considered nutrients, but nonetheless play a significant role in health and healing. Many of these beneficial plant compounds are the result of plant adaptation and evolution. Plants face a number of challenges, including engineering their pollination and seed dispersal, finding food, and defending themselves from environmental and other threats. They have had to adapt to and coexist with herbivores and pathogens in their immediate environment that would otherwise destroy them. As a result, plants have evolved to produce secondary biochemical pathways that enable them to synthesize various chemicals, often in response to specific environmental stimuli, such as herbivore-induced damage, pathogen attacks, or nutrient deprivation. These secondary compounds increase a plant’s overall ability to survive and thrive: some compounds have antioxidant and free-radical scavenging properties; others protect against UV damage; and yet others defend against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Some compounds even protect the plant’s growing space against competing plants. It is many of these secondary plant compounds that also provide protection to humans. When we ingest plants or concentrated plant extracts, our ability to withstand stress through the mechanisms of protection, adaptation, improved immune response, and epigenetic repair is enhanced.
Many whole foods and herbs contain a wide variety of active phyto-nutrients, including carotenoids, coumarins, flavonoids, lignans, plant sterols, polyphenolics, phthalides, sulfides, saponins, and terpenoids, all of which have been recently researched and found to possess important actions in health promotion and disease prevention. The recent upsurge of interest in this area of research indicates that many diseases can be lessened by 50% or more—or better yet, prevented—through simple dietary modifications and appropriate supplementation.
In my practice, I recommend a diet rich in a diversity of valuable plant compounds, as well a supplemental program of phytonutrients that may be difficult to obtain in sufficient amounts through diet alone. The foundational program I recommend incorporates an array of well-researched plant-based compounds including the following botanicals:
- Turmeric (Curcuma l.), 95% curcuminoids, 75% curcumin
- Green tea (Camellia s.), 95% polyphenols, 60% catechins
- Grape seed/skin (Vitis v.), OPC’s, 95%, in the seed and total polyphenols, 30%, in the skin
- Japanese knotweed (Polygonum c.), 20% resveratrol
- Ginger (Zingiber off.) 5% gingerols
- Rosemary ((Rosemarinus off.) 6% carnosic acid, 1% rosemarinic acid, 1.5% ursolic aicd
All of these compounds have demonstrated broad-spectrum, multi-targeting, health promoting and disease preventive benefits. The other important aspect of these compound-rich foods, spices, and herbs is that many have been regularly consumed by cultures throughout the world known for their health and longevity.