Your genes and your health
We always feel sorry for anyone who is sick and in pain. But aren’t you especially sorry when that someone is YOU and it goes on forever.
In the beginning, whenever that was, it was just an aggravation. Then, slowly but surely, it got worse and worse until the ugly diagnosis by the doctor. “You have ****, an autoimmune disease, and here is your prescription.” Medications don’t usually heal a condition; they just attempt to slow down the destruction and mask the symptoms.
Many people with chronic sickness have one or more autoimmune disorders, conditions that occur when your body’s immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue by mistake. There are more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders and all of your body parts including your brain are fair game.
So why does this happen? What causes it and, more importantly, what can we do about it? In autoimmune conditions there are primarily two causal factors at play.
The first factor is genetic. While it is possible to have a “gene mutation” unique to you or your family, mutations are more rare. More common are gene “variations” called polymorphisms. We all have one or several of our genes that vary from those of other people. There may be a small percentage of other people who share your gene variation(s) or there may be many. In other words we are all different to some degree.
Polymorphism sounds like something out of science fiction I know but it really isn’t. As an example, polymorphic gene variations are what make some folks have blue eyes and others with brown eyes. But other variations can impact the way your body metabolizes micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals in food), the way your immune system works, a lot of different stuff – sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a bad way. An autoimmune response in your body would be a bad way.
Scientists have already discovered many polymorphisms that contribute to or conversely prevent conditions not currently categorized as autoimmune, conditions like diabetes and cancer.
The genetic make-up of the body is like an orchestra. Sometimes the violins are playing, sometimes not. In a pinch another string instrument like a viola could stand in playing the same notes. But what if the orchestra is missing both instruments? Or if the violins chime in when the musical score calls for a trumpet or drums? Chaos ensues.
Most of your genes (like the various instruments at any one time) are usually resting nicely asleep, awaiting the time when their services are required. The human body is magical and it has the ability to work around variations in most cases – unless your lifestyle and food choices (and perhaps chemicals/medications) are triggering activation of a gene or genes that would otherwise stay asleep and cause no problem. And worse yet, when the various vitamins and minerals required for the magic to happen are absent.
So here is what we know. Our genes are important but the real issue is that our lifestyle and diet can change the expression (activation or deactivation) of our genes and influence the importance of our genetic variations. This brings us to my favorite subject, lifestyle and diet.
The standard American diet (SAD) is uniquely positioned to activate or deactivate genes at the wrong time. And our diet is markedly absent essential vitamins and minerals needed to make magic happen. You might consider this a double whammy.
There are some 30 essential vitamins, minerals, amino and fatty acids. Let’s just take a look at one of those.
Somewhere between 45% and 80% of Americans (depending on who you ask) are deficient in magnesium. Magnesium is an essential mineral (which means you must eat it) and a co-factor required for enzymes involved in DNA repair. DNA is the essence of life. containing the genetic information necessary for the production and reproduction of cells. So if magnesium is deficient then DNA repair is suffering. A bad thing!
Enzymes are not optional; they are required for your body to work properly. Your personal genetic variation(s) could make a mineral deficiency even worse for you than it might be for others.
Heaven knows calorie deficiency is not a problem in the SAD diet. But unfortunately, we tend to consume our calories in low nutrient stuff like processed foods (bread, pasta, sugar, etc.) The genetic triggers are often found in such foods and most of the magic vitamins and minerals are not there. So if magnesium isn’t in those sacks and boxes at the store, where is it?
Magnesium along with folate and vitamin K (and all three are REALLY critical nutrients) along with some others are in dark green leafy vegetables, avocados, to some degree every vegetable that grows above the ground. So you can see that failing to eat those vegetables could be a problem.
The best way to keep our genes under control, avoiding autoimmune and other conditions triggered by those genes, starts with a diet that excludes foods likely to trigger your personal genetic reactions and includes the essential vitamins and minerals.
Foods to exclude almost always include processed foods of any sort with particular emphasis on processed grain starches. Various proteins in grain always seem to be guilty. Finding your particular dietary source of autoimmune requires eliminating the likely suspects and finding out how your body reacts. Sickness is always identified by symptoms. So what food eliminated makes your symptoms go away?
There are books that can help you with finding the right foods/environmental triggers. Examples would be “The Autoimmune Solution” by Dr. Amy Myers and “The Autoimmune Fix” by Dr. Tom O’Brien. I have read both but there are others. And there are a few doctors well qualified to help.
Gee, you may say, I hate to read and I can’t afford any special doctors. Is there not some way I could just test for my polymorphisms, my gene variations that might be the beginning of a problem?
Yes, it is possible to test for known polymorphisms and I have just ordered a test kit for myself. I am diabetic and I have high blood pressure. My diabetes is fully under control with diet but blood pressure, not so much. So I never stop looking for the cause of my high blood pressure and a way to fix it. Whether I find anything helpful is still to be known.
Despite enormous strides, science has only just scratched the surface in the field of genetics. And while I am personally entertained by analysis, analyzing your own test results might take more personal investment in time and brainpower than you are willing to make. So consider another option.
Think about it. A century ago the level of chronic disease in the American population was minimal; today chronic disease is massive. We can’t usually blame our genes for our health deterioration; it can take millions of years for any significant change to genetic makeup. We are still playing with the same set of genes.
The thing that has changed over 100 years is our diet and environment, including the prevalence of chemicals in the soil, water, air, and medications So my recommendation is this. Ditch the processed food and eat your vegetables. The odds are that may be all you need to do.
If diet doesn’t work to resolve your symptoms then you may have to break down and read the book or find that special doctor you are trying to avoid.
In case you need more convincing here is link to a video by Dr. Rhonda Patrick providing more information on the relationship between polymorphisms and micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals). Fair warning, it isn’t simple.
Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All About the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. Pat is a resident of Montgomery County, AR, president of Ouachita Village, Inc. board of directors (Montgomery County Food Pantry), and president of the Mount Ida Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org; phone number is 870-490-1836; visit her website at allaboutthefood.org