The message of my new book, The Gene Therapy Plan: Taking Control of Your Genetic Destiny with Diet and Lifestyle, is that ecogenetics is happening all the time, wherever you are, whatever you do, or whatever you eat. The book also details the many actions that each individual can take to make sure that genes express in their healthiest ways and that health is maintained at optimum levels.
Ecogenetics is the study of the factors that affect gene expression — for good and for bad — and is the next revolution in medicine, already with us, thanks to increasing scientific evidence documenting the factors that affect and change the genetic component of our health.
The “eco” in ecogenetics refers to the environment, the whole panoply of conditions, both external and internal, in which we live. Your body is taking in bioactive agents from the environment by breathing and eating, and these bioactives are interacting with your cells and, ultimately, with your genes.
The problem is that many of the things we take in are harmful to us. There is enormous scope for doing injury: With an estimated 25,000 genes in the human body, that’s a huge site for potential toxic damage. In fact, we do suffer enormously from the interaction of our bodies and the world. Only five percent of cancers are inherited, and the remaining ninety-five percent are linked to environmental toxicants.
Imagine a war going on inside your body in which the enemy is an army of pesticide residues, carcinogenic chemicals, refined sugar overload, and dangerous fats — led by a clever general (our body’s natural immune response) in charge of fighting inflammation. In today’s world, this is the combative situation that our bodies are faced with every day.
Our Bodies, The Battleground for Our Health
The result of this bombardment is that we are living in a country where one in three Americans will hear the words: “You have cancer.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that 18% of our children have either a learning, emotional, or developmental disability. The incidences of diabetes and asthma are skyrocketing. And all of this is due, at least in part, to the environment’s effect on our genes. Frankly, we aren’t living on the same planet on which our grandparents grew up.
Back then, it was almost enough to eat a few daily portions of fruits and vegetables to live a long, healthy life. No more. Our bodies mirror the toxin-riddled external environment in which we live. From the moment we begin to develop in the womb, our DNA, endocrine system, and neuro-cardiology circuits are being assaulted by exogenous materials.
Bottom line: Today’s lifestyle is the greatest danger to our genes. We live on a polluted planet; eat ecogenetic food laced with pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals; are encouraged to consume far too many calories; and exercise hardly enough. In fact, given the ecogenetic situation we have created for ourselves, it’s no wonder there is an epidemic of obesity, learning disabilities, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
What To Do
The only question remaining is, what we are going to do to confront the reality we have made for ourselves?
However, the situation is not all bad. Indeed, I am, at heart, a great optimist. My patients frequently ask, “Is it too late?” Today, I might as well ask, is it too late for us and for the Earth? No, not by a long shot! My first suggestion is to take a deep breath, relax, and remember what I call my “organic axiom”: Worrying about everything causing cancer probably causes as much or more cancer than what you’re worried about.
The Ecogenetic Solution
If external forces are causing much of the havoc to our bodies, then ecogenetics shows us the many actions that each of us can take to offset and prevent genetic damage. In fact, there are actions that I outline in my book that each of us can take to initiate and maintain good genetic expression. This is the heart of ecogenetic medicine.
Yes, we are living on a toxic planet. Yes, the toxic exposure plays a role in many of the maladies we suffer. However, short of colonizing Mars, this is the planet we will remain on. Be sensible. Remember the first rule of toxicology — the dose makes the poison. So take practical steps to minimize the dose. Eat organic as much as possible — without driving yourself crazy. Use non-toxic detergents, bath products, and other household items as much as possible. Do your best and enjoy each day!
The other point to make, and the one which my book discusses throughout, is that our ecogenetic situation is a two-way street. Toxic assault can seem like an endless minefield, or like a tidal wave we can’t resist. But there is a silver lining to these dark images if we think of our condition in the right light.
Choosing Our Own Course
Just as we are vulnerable to bioactive agents that can harm us, so are we open to well-chosen bioactives that can help us. We have a remarkable power to choose our own course, right down to our genetic expressions. One of the profound findings of recent genetic research is that we are not slaves to our genes. I like to say, our bodies are not static, destiny is not fixed.
Of course, genes are extremely important in predisposing us to a whole range of behaviors and states. But they do not, as we used to think, determine everything we do or everything that happens to us. On the contrary: What we now know is that everything we do determines the context in which our genes operate. This means that genetics is not fate — we are not doomed to live the lives, or to die from the diseases, we inherited. By manipulating our environment, we also determine our fate. Seen in this way, ecogenetics and nutrigenetics are the sciences of how we determine our fates through ecogenetic food.
Given that we are both vulnerable to epigenetic corruption and free to modify our epigenome for the better, how can we best employ our freedom in order to minimize our vulnerability and maximize our health? The nutritional advice offered in my new book is my answer to the problems and opportunities of epigenetic change.
You’ve heard the old adage “You are what you eat.” Well, this is the fundamental truth of nutritional epigenetics — the explanation of how the ecogenetic food we buy at the grocery store or order at restaurants gets broken down into nutrients that either activate or deactivate gene expression. The goal of nutritional epigenetics is to pattern these switches for the health of the patient: to select ecogenetic foods that silence disease-causing genes and activate genes that promote good health.
To take a simple example — vitamin D binds to its vitamin D transcription receptor. In postmenopausal women, nutritional deficiencies in vitamin D can lead to osteoporosis and a greater likelihood of fractures. So increasing supplemental and dietary intake of vitamin D will help to minimize the risk for fractures. But not every woman who is postmenopausal is at a higher predisposition for developing osteoporosis. Variations in our genetic makeup, as well as differing environmental experience, will determine whether or not we develop conditions like osteoporosis.
Personalized Nutrition: The Ecogenetics Blueprint for Health
This is precisely what makes ecogenetics so great — it is not a one-size-fits-all model. Ultimately, ecogenetics allows clinicians to utilize sophisticated gene sequencing tools that provide individualized information regarding gene-disease correlations that are triggered by an individual’s diet. Doctors, in turn, can use this information to identify the types of bioactive ecogenetic foods that will optimize your health. It’s a personalized dietary approach, which is what this book now offers.
Even without gene-sequencing, which obviously cannot be performed by a book, ecogenetics provides an unprecedentedly close degree of personalized and targeted advice. It’s a blueprint for health, based on the most basic, up-to-date science. All of us are constantly affecting our epigenome with what we eat, and therefore constantly interacting with various health- and disease-processes that are ongoing in our bodies. Ecogenetics acknowledges this fact and allows you to do something direct and informed about it. Given the disease you know you have, you can eat to optimize the fundamental conditions for health in that specific case. And given the diseases you don’t know you have, you can still eat according to the best available evidence for protection from the most common dangers.
Moreover, because eating is a central but not the only means of influencing our ecogenetics, it is important to remember that the book is also a tool — one that I hope patients will use in conjunction with their other tools for health, and especially in consultation with their own doctors about how best to proceed. The constantly updated ecogenetic medical advances contained on my website, genechanger.com is a great starting point for anyone confronting a health challenge (and as you will see in The Gene Therapy Plan, I believe that this includes virtually everyone).
A New Definition of Health
One of the insights of ecogenetic investigation is that even people who would normally be regarded as needing only “general” or “preventive” advice — those we would think of as “healthy” — are not really healthy in the traditional sense. Rather than being simply “healthy” or simply “diseased,” genetics and ecogenetics are teaching us to think of ourselves as ecogenetically “well-managed” or “poorly managed” — in other words, that each of us exists in supportive or unsupportive gene-environment frameworks. In short, the ecogenetic medicine revolution also means that we need to begin to think under a new definition of what health is.
Ecogenetic medicine is an exciting evolution — both troubling in the vulnerability it implies and empowering in the degree of control over the health benefits it offers us. Eating — either badly or well — becomes a much more direct avenue into how well we are doing in the world. But the consequences of accepting this new view of health are perhaps even more radical than you might at first think.
If we are this open to environmental contamination and also this free to promote our own well-being, what is the balance of the effects for health or disease? If changes in the epigenome are so routine, can we even regard them as “contamination” — or do we need to rethink the whole definition of what it means to be living a healthy life?