Nurture your DNA. Genetic wellness: personalize your diet
by Tom Ballard, RN, ND
This article was originally published in May 2019
If your general approach to diet is the one that’s most supported by research — a variety of fresh, organic, whole foods — that may be all you need to be free of the common chronic diseases of modern life, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, insomnia, anxiety and acid reflux.
However, if your healthy diet isn’t enough, you may benefit by moving from a healthy diet to a personalized diet.
Just as personalized, whole-system medicine focuses on your individual needs, personalized nutrition moves you from “eating healthily” to eating a diet that addresses your personal nutritional needs.
Personalizing your diet
How do you find the diet that fits your specific nutritional needs? There are two ways.
Trial and error. Health-conscious people often do this. They ask themselves questions about their intake of protein, carbohydrates, fats, coffee and other dietary elements and try to figure out the combination that works best for them. This approach can be successful if the person has a good understanding of nutrition, consistently monitors outcomes, and doesn’t have too many complicating factors (allergies, chronic illness, medications, toxic exposures).
I’ve consulted with many patients who discovered a food that makes them feel unwell (often an allergy or allergy-like reaction) or a choice that improves their energy, mood and stamina. (For example, “If I start the day with at least 20 grams of protein, the rest of my day goes great.”)
Genetic testing. With the unfolding of the human genome project and affordable home testing, it’s possible now to individualize your diet using your personal genetic information. Yes, I know you likely were taught that genes determine destiny, but they don’t. Genes are the blueprint, but lifestyle helps determine how the blueprint is built.
The intersection of genes and diet
In contemplating why nutrition is fundamental to health, think about two concepts.
First, one function of genes is to code for enzymes that make and activate vitamins. A good illustration of this is vitamin D. Your body expends energy making sure you have enough of it in every cell of your body. If you don’t eat vitamin D, then it will be manufactured from cholesterol. Your body has evolved a process to turn sunlight and skin oil into vitamin D. It’s not just “presto-chango” vitamin D, but a series of steps for producing the active form of vitamin D.
The same goes for all vitamins and many other nutritional factors. Your body has carefully-controlled pathways for converting inactive, storage forms of vitamins and other nutrients into active forms. Each step of this activation process is facilitated by an enzyme, coded by a gene.
Second, enzymes require vitamins and minerals to do their work. Without the right vitamin or mineral, an enzyme is less able to do its work. For example, to manufacture serotonin, sometimes called the “happy hormone,” several enzymes are required. If those enzymes don’t have the vitamins and minerals they need to do their work, then you may become low in serotonin.
To me, these two factors — many genes are utilized in the production of essential nutrients, and vitamins and minerals are required for enzyme function — underscore the importance of nutrition.
Genetics: What can go wrong?
Now that we’ve established that genes and nutrition go hand in hand, let’s explore what can go wrong. The general answer is that not all genes are created equal.
Every one of us has inherited hundreds of gene variations (in genetics, known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs). Like The Three Bears, some of us have genes that are too slow, some too fast, and some just right. This can become rather complex because of the thousands of interactions between genes.
For example, you may have a gene that is slow at producing vitamin B12, but your gene for breaking down vitamin B12 is slow, so the net effect is that your levels are normal.
On the other hand, theoretically your gene for making vitamin D could be normal, but the gene coding for the enzyme breaking it down could be fast, resulting in low vitamin D.
This complex soup of genes and enzymes is affecting not only your vitamin levels, but your fatty acids, proteins, minerals and other chemicals. By modulating your diet, you adjust for gene variations.
Applying genetics to diet
By understanding your genetics, you can make more focused dietary decisions.
Yes, your general diet of whole, unprocessed, organic food is the foundation, but individual elements will vary because of your unique set of genes.
You, for instance, may make a great vegetarian because you have efficient genes for maintaining protein, vitamin B12 and iron levels, but have a genetic problem breaking down the amino acid glutamate, predisposing you to insomnia and agitation.
Your partner, on the other hand, may be poor at making vitamin D and breaking down histamine, which is contained in fermented foods and causes “non-allergic” food reactions.
Genetic testing and interpretation allows you to look deeper into your dietary soup and determine your personalized needs.
If you’re not as healthy as you’d like to be, in spite of eating a generally healthy diet, then consult with a practitioner familiar with genetic nutritional counseling.
I’ll add a word of caution. Genetic testing and interpretation are both new and complex. Privacy issues are also evolving fast; discuss any concerns with your practitioner and be aware that genetic testing done outside a medical setting will not necessarily have the same privacy protections. While the general principles I’ve set out in this article will continue to be true, the details are changing on a daily basis. Genetics is like Aladdin’s lamp: it contains a lot of promise, but you still have to be careful what you wish for.
Genetic health reports
New genetic health report providers are springing up monthly. Beyond privacy concerns, here are a few guidelines:
- Consider a genetic health report if you have a complex health problem that has defied the usual diagnostic and treatment options.
- Find a practitioner with experience.
- Most genetic counselors are trained to work only with rare single-gene diseases.
- Be wary of interpretation services also selling supplements. (Lifestyle and nutrition should be your first treatment options, supplements are secondary, drugs are last.)
- While testing a single gene may be helpful, surveying a large number is more likely to provide insight on your specific health issues. Companies can test anywhere from one gene to hundreds.
- The report should list the tested genes, their function, potential problems, and natural treatment options — to nurture your genetic nature.
Tom Ballard, RN, ND, graduated from Bastyr University in 1982. He’s the author of “Nutrition-1-2-3,” “Genetic Health Reports,” and the soon-to-be released “Genetic Wellness: The DNA Program for Overcoming Chronic Disease.”