“Today having power means knowing what to ignore.” — Yuval Noah Harari
Aging and death are inescapable facts of life, but how we live right to the very end is not. Whether we are living a life that is happy and fulfilled or a life that is weary and depressed, the locus of control is always in our hands. Obviously, most people want to live a healthy, disease-free, thriving life. However, the line between health and sickness grows more and more ambiguous as modern society marches towards the future.
With the dawn of science and technology, mankind has invented a fast and more efficient way to produce more food to meet the ever increasing demands of a human population that continues to grow exponentially. As our population grows, so do our ways to come up with methods to make food production more and more efficient. We have not only subdued the earth, we altered the very food we consume down to the genetic level. We as a species have eliminated the problem of famine but this convenience has huge detrimental effects not just to our environment but to our bodies as well. What was once a nomadic, hunting and gathering species, has now become a sedentary and fast food civilization.
“Exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.” — Jack Lalanne
According to Dr. Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition, “As groups of modern humans move from hunter-gatherer to agricultural-based lifestyles, their bodies shrink.” She further explains that bioanthropologists who study nutrition suggest that our forebears may have enjoyed a wider variety of foods that fare better nutritionally than any of their descendants who settled down to invent agriculture.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” — Hippocrates
It is 2018 and people are not eating real food. Every aisle in our grocery stores is packed with fake food items and most of us are not even aware of it. Liberal supply of these processed and refined food items plus chronic nutrition misinformation makes it difficult to distinguish which ones are friends from foes. So many of the modern diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and cancer are already considered lifestyle diseases by experts and rightfully so! It becomes really challenging to triumph over these illnesses if our mass media, school cafeterias, grocery stores directly promote them. The food we eat, the toxins we are subjected to, our mental health and patterns of thinking, and relationships all directly impact our health and well-being.
“The most important thing you can do to heal your body is focus on quality food.” — Mark Hyman, MD
We cannot control the environment, civilization, and period in history that we are born into and the kind of toxins and pollutants that we are subjected to. Nor can we control the opinions and reactions of the people around us that may stress us out. What we do have control over is ourselves. We can learn different ways to manage stressors and to make educated decisions to choose and promote health.
One of the easiest environmental stressors that we can control is food. Dr. Mark Hyman articulated it well when he said that “Food is information. Quality matters more than quantity. Weight loss and health depend far more on the type and quality of the food you eat than the calories or amount.” Choosing the right type of foods not just affects how our bodies look on the outside but also how our genes express our inherent health.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin
Our Genes Can Learn
As a graduate of B.S. Biology in the University of Santo Tomas, I had been taught the traditional scientific information about genetics. Every cell in our body contains a nucleus which houses our chromosomes. These chromosomes, all 23 pairs of them, contain our genetic material called nucleic acids or more popularly known as the DNA. What’s interesting is, only 2 percent of our DNA contain our genes and the remaining 98 percent had long been referred to as junk. According to Dr. Cate Shanahan, it is only in the last two decades that scientists found out a special function for this so-called junk DNA. This discovery is where the new branch of genetics, called epigenetics, stems from.
Arturas Petronis, head of the Krembil Foundation of Epigenetics Laboratory at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says, “We really need some radical revision of key principles of the traditional genetic research program.” Another epigeneticist puts our misapprehension about Evolution in perspective: mutation and natural selection in evolutionary change is just the tip of the iceberg. Epigenetics is the bottom of the iceberg.
“Your genetics load the gun. Your lifestyle pulls the trigger.” — Mehmet Oz, M.D.
Epigenetic researchers study how genes turn on and off. They found that the mysterious 98 percent, the DNA brain, is where all the learning is happening. By turning on and off, the genes regulate themselves in response to the environment. In other words, how our genes will express themselves —to make us healthy or sick— is dependent on the outside factors that they are subjected to. This is very promising since now we have the power to alter our genes or, better yet, we now have the power to alter the mechanism of our gene expression! Imagine having the ability to deliberately make our bodies express certain traits we weren’t aware we had.
To learn more about this interesting field, I had to meet up with someone who knows what she’s talking about.
Hannah de Veyra @ohhannahnanana, my sister from another mother and one of my trusted go-to persons when it comes to health and medicine, is a licensed nutritionist and dietitian. She is an alumna of the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a Nutrition degree and units in Food Technology. She is currently a fourth year student of medicine at the St. Luke’s College of Medicine. Let’s listen to what she has to say!
Hi guys! Hannah here! Thanks so much for your kind words and generous introduction, Chard. You know it’s a two-way street! So, let’s jump right into our first collab!
Let’s talk epigenetics. For those who are reading about this word for the first time, let’s begin by dissecting it. The Greek prefix epi- (“outside or around”) in epigenetics pertains to the characteristics that are “added to” our traditional genetic basis of inheritance. Just like what Chard previously mentioned, we all know from basic biology that the control center of our cells is called the nucleus which houses our DNA. For decades, it was taught to us that our DNA is a fixed pre-determinant factor of everything about us from the color of our eyes, our height, our body type, and even our temperament. Don’t get me wrong, this holds true, however, our DNA make-up is not a life-long sentence of what we are to become for the rest of our years. The revolutionary field of epigenetics has led to the discovery that the decisions we choose to make as we course through life can transform our genetic expression. And I repeat for intentional emphasis: the decisions we choose to make.
Mark Hyman discusses in his article entitled, ‘Is Predisposition Pre-Destiny?’ that our genes predispose us to specific diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases by only 10%. The remaining 90% of our our current health status is determined by the environment in which we choose to bathe our genes into. This ‘environment’ consists of the food we ingest and enjoy, our regular physical activity (our exercise regimen or lack thereof), our response to stress, and our exposure to surrounding toxins. Bottom-line is that we can now stop being victimized by the notion that our genetic predisposition determines our destiny when it comes to health and wellness. We can be proactive, take charge, and make a decision to create a conducive environment where our genes can thrive.
So now you may be wondering, how can environmental circumstances possibly affect the expression of our genes? This is where molecular biology plays an important role. Since I am a nutritionist by profession, I will focus on how nutrition modification can affect gene expression.
How Food can Affect Genes
In a systematic review by Sang-Woon Choi, et al., the ability of nutrients and bioactive food components to change epigenetic phenomena was discussed. They found out that bioactive food components such as those food items high in anti-oxidants, phenols, and flavanoids, as well as those high in vitamins and minerals can reverse or even change epigenetic phenomena thereby modifying the expression of critical genes associated with development of disease processes including carcinogenesis and aging. In this regard, nutritional epigenetics has been viewed as a very promising tool to prevent pediatric developmental diseases, cancer, as well as to delay aging-associated processes such as dementia. This study, along with thousands of other studies about the role of epigenetics in optimizing health and wellness further opens and widens our developing knowledge about how we can better take charge of our own well-being.
Chromosome vs. Exposome
Chromosomes are the miniature worlds within our cells which signify the genes that we already have and has the potential to predispose us to specific health conditions. However, what matters more is our Exposome, the bigger world outside of us, the environment to which our genes are exposed every single day. In Dr. Frank Lipman’s new book entitled ‘10 Reasons You Get Old and Feel Fat…: And How You Can Stay Young, Slim, and Happy’ he discusses seven factors that affect your genetic destiny. The top factor is diet for which he highlighted the importance of ingesting real and whole foods consisting mostly of plant based food items, adequate protein, and healthy fat sources. A diet consisting of processed carbohydrates and refined sugars is definitely out of the picture! Second is having a consistent exercise regimen followed by quality sleep, stress management, supplement and medication intake, and last would be meaning, purpose, passion, and community.
You see how vast our exposome is? It is basically how we live our lives, the quality of the food we consume, and even the quality of the relationships we have. All these combined would ultimately determine the trajectory of our lives. Each of these factors has the ability to determine the expression of our genes! The world of epigenetics is truly multi-factorial. There are still more potential discoveries to be made. I hope you guys can somehow view health and wellness in a more holistic point of view after this discussion. Looking forward to more enriching breakthroughs regarding the world of epigenetics and molecular nutrition in the future, Chard!
Thanks for the clarity of insight, Hannah! We are really living in such exciting times for health and fitness! Epigenetics is quite liberating and empowering if you ask me!
I took up Biology in college to satisfy my natural curiosity about how life works. How life functions down from the cellular level to the organism and how it relates to its environment have always interested me. Although I decided to change careers by pursuing fitness, I’ve always carried with me an inquisitive mindset. I have been raised to understand the world through a scientific worldview. But my personal journey opened within me a passion for ancient philosophy. These two things: the scientific and the philosophical form who I am as a fitness coach. Today, I navigate the world with scientific creativity that is rooted in my passion for age-old wisdom.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Health and fitness are two sides of the same coin. Ben Bergeron cannot be more correct in his metaphor that this coin is like how one swims in water. One will not drown if he knows how to swim, and fitness coaches are like swimming coaches. We teach people how to swim or learn ways and methods to stay healthy and fit. However, when one starts drowning or getting sick, doctors like Hannah are like the lifeguards. Their duty is not to teach but to cure. Such is the dynamic of the health continuum and I cannot be more honored to be closely working with Hannah.
This collaboration in my blog will be a first of many as Hannah and I regularly exchange notes, ideas, and insights on the fields of nutrition, functional medicine, and wellness. So stay tuned!
“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” – George Eliot