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Nutrigenomics 101

By Prof Vittorio Sebastiano, epigeneticist at Stanford University.

Nutrigenomics is a cutting-edge branch of science that explores how our nutrition affects our genes - and specifically gene expression. And because gene expression is at the core of our health and wellbeing, this is what makes nutrigenomics such an important and exciting field - and one Karmacist is passionately harnessing.

So, let’s start with gene expression — what is it?

Our genes are essentially instruction manuals, as they provide all the information our cells need to do their jobs. But how and when the cells follow these instructions is what’s known as ‘gene expression’ - and it’s critical for supporting good health.

Why is gene expression so key to health?

We once believed that “having the genes for” a complex disease (i.e. variations in your instruction manual) was the key to explaining why some people are more likely to be affected by an illness such as diabetes. Not anymore. Now we know that gene expression - whether particular genes are activated or not – is also crucial. ​​In other words, having a good gene - but not being able to express it or activate it in the right way - could also lead to illnesses.

Conversely, you might have a genetic predisposition to diabetes - or depression, heart disease, or hundreds of other genetically linked conditions - but if the offending combination of genes is not activated, you’re unlikely to develop the condition.

Combination of genes?

Yes, genes work in teams to carry out ‘duties’ together, for example, performing roles in digestion or immunity.

Key to keeping our body’s systems running smoothly is making sure these teams of genes are expressed at the right time and levels, and under the right conditions - what we might call gene expression patterns.

Which begs the question: how do we optimise our gene expression patterns?

Well, the biggest factor by far is lifestyle: what we eat, how much we exercise, and the levels of stress and pollution in our lives. Experts say as much as 70% of our health outcomes are down to how we live, and not the ‘deterministic’ genes we inherited. So much of our destiny truly is in our hands.

How does nutrigenomics fit into this?

Nutrigenomics examines how diet impacts gene expression. More specifically, it looks at how macronutrients (like protein and fat), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and bioactive compounds (such as polyphenols in plants) influence gene expression.

This gives us a much more precise insight into how specific nutrients can potentially impact particular genes.

So rather than merely having a sense that certain foods are good or bad for us, we can dive down to the molecular and genetic level and dissect the role of specific nutrients. How are they influencing patterns of gene expression? Are they disrupting the balance of these intricate networks, contributing to disease? Or are they promoting an optimal state?

This gives us a rather sophisticated and unprecedented understanding of exactly what we should eat to optimise our health and minimise disease.

How can we see nutrigenomics in action?

Perhaps the easiest place to see nutrients regulating genes is with the bee. The larvae in a beehive are all genetically identical - yet some become queens… because of their diet.

The bees fed with royal jelly grow in size, develop sex organs, and turn into queens. Whereas those without royal jelly become mere workers. This is because royal jelly contains a protein called royal actin that can epigenetically modulate how genes function - and such modulation allows the queen to develop.

That’s nice for bees - what does it mean for us?

If one change in diet is enough to transform a worker bee into a queen bee, think just how important what we eat is for us - and all the vital processes taking place in our body.

Nutrigenomics allows us to choose the specific nutrients our genes are craving to do their job - and keep us as fit and healthy as possible.