Duke University researchers conducted a study in which a gene variant was linked to an increased risk of heart disease. In fact, the study showed that carriers of the gene, under stressful situations, released about twice the amount of cortisol. Cortisol, better known as the stress hormone, is responsible for many functions in the body, such as regulating immune function, controlling blood pressure, and releasing insulin.

How does cortisol promote heart disease?

As with most physiological functions in the body, every reaction is controlled. And if a reaction occurs excessively, it may lead to the overstimulation of cells and inflammation. In the case of extended cortisol activity, the body experiences a prolonged state of stress. Several adverse effects occur as a result of prolonged cortisol: (1) poor immune function and inflammatory response; (2) an increase in body fat, especially in the abdominal area, and (3) poor glucose regulation, just to name a few. Chronic inflammation, elevated blood sugar levels, and obesity may result in heart disease or metabolic syndrome.

How do I know if I have the gene variant?

There are many diseases for which genetic testing is available and recommended, especially if the parents are known carriers for the disease. For example, BRCA genetic testing is available to women who have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer. Newborn screening tests are also available to look for specific conditions in infants. While certain genetic tests are available, it wouldn’t be practical to test for every condition, which is why it’s quite unlikely that individuals who are carriers of this gene variant will be tested outside of a clinical study setting. This is a relatively new study, and it has shown only an association (not a cause) between the gene variant and heart disease. So it’s not likely that you will be getting tested for this as a routine medical procedure.

If I can’t get tested, why is the study important?

One of the things that I share with my patients is the importance of prevention. Whether or not you know if you’re a carrier for this gene or any other condition, you can do your preventative footwork through diet. What this study shows is that stress gene carriers are more likely to experience an exacerbated form of heart disease. However, you can prevent or improve your condition if you’re suffering from heart disease, whether it’s linked to this gene or not. Research studies are important because they raise questions about the mechanisms of disease and allow scientists to explore new treatment modalities.

What can I do to improve my heart health?

Heart disease is the number one killer of Americans. Although genetics play a part in the framework of disease, it’s only a small part (diseases with a genetic association make up a very small number). Most diseases are caused by environmental triggers, like diet and lifestyle choices. Take the typical American or “Western” diet—it is packed with unhealthy fats, loaded with calories, and filled with processed carbohydrates; this diet is a prescription for chronic inflammation and disease. By changing the way that you eat—adding cruciferous vegetables, eating antioxidant-filled fruits, and steering clear of fast food and processed foods—you’ll be well on your way toward reversing the process of inflammation that is destroying your health.

For a long time, people believed that our DNA was written in stone, but the notion that diseases are inherited and passed on from generation to generation is incorrect. This is an archaic belief rooted in the idea that you cannot change your health; yet, nothing could be further from the truth. As an integrative oncologist with over 25 years of experience, I’ve seen the amazing benefits of eating foods that are packed with phytochemicals. A plant-based diet contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients that will eradicate pesky compounds in foods that put inflammation into overdrive. These wonderful properties that are found in foods help to turn on important genes that drive health, while turning off genes that promote sickness.