Can making sustainable long-term changes to our lifestyle really alter how likely we are to develop certain diseases? NH investigates…
Every one of you has inherited some elements of your parents’ genetic makeup. Perhaps it was your mother’s great singing voice or your father’s blue eyes. Either way, your traits – your likelihood to have straight or curly hair, and even whether or not you hate the sound of people chewing – are all influenced by your genes. And, as science has progressed, many people are opting to dig deeper. DNA home-testing service 23andMe can not only tell you where your ancestors came from, but also whether or not you’re likely to develop type-2 diabetes. However, science is going one step further. There’s increasing evidence to show that lifestyle (whether or not you exercise regularly, your diet and even your stress levels) can alter gene expression, which may influence the likelihood of you developing certain diseases.
A keyword to remember when talking about genes is epigenetics. Epigenetics is the external modifications to DNA that turn genes ‘on’ or ‘off’. So, for example, if you have an insulin resistance that runs in your family, then an epigenetic modification is thought to alter whether the switch is flipped on or off. While still relatively new in the world of science, epigenetics is thought to play a key part in our prevalence to certain diseases. In The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine Journal, it’s explained how and why this happens: “Gene expression (the process by which the instructions in our DNA are converted into a functional product, such as a protein) is controlled by molecular signals.” The molecular signals mentioned (transmission of information from one cell to another) could mean a change in environment or a change in lifestyle. So, think of turning into a flexi-eater (where you eat both veg and meat) rather than sticking to a majority carnivorous diet, or finally ditching a stressful job that has been getting you down for a while. You might not think these changes have a big impact, but they do.
Many of us exercise because it helps relieve stress, feels great and because we know it’s full of benefits (like being able to run for the bus when you need it). But did you know that your daily stroll could subtly be altering the cells in your body? In the scientific journal Cell Metabolism, research showed that epigenetic changes that occurred during exercise had an impact on body fat – meaning where your body fat sits within your body can be influenced, as well as whether that fat is stored or used for energy. The influence that exercise can potentially have on our genes is still ongoing, but studies on mammals have shown that going from being sedentary to exercising for as little as an hour, three times a week, can have an effect. However, it’s important to remember that studies did not show a change in the DNA itself, but rather that the way the body reads our genetic code appears to be flexible when responding to exercise.
We all know that what we eat and drink impacts everything in our body, from our mood to our immune system. It may come as no surprise then, that what we eat can also impact our cells. “Sirtuins are regulators of cellular health and metabolism,” says Angela Foster, a health coach and DNAFit certified practitioner (angelafosterperformance.com). “In humans, there are seven sirtuins and these play a role in ageing and metabolic health. SIRT2 is the one that has been most studied in relation to the ability to prolong life.” There are incredible benefits that you can get by including sirtuinactivating compounds (STACs) in your diet, as Angela goes on to explain: “STACs activate the sirtuin genes in the same way that caloric restriction, intermittent fasting and exercise do. By consuming foods that are rich in STACS, you enhance the activity of the sirtuins; this in turn becomes a combination for enhancing metabolism, reducing cellular damage and enhancing youthfulness.”
The foods that contain the highest number of sirtuin-activating compounds (STACs) include:
We can see the effect that food has on the body’s likelihood to develop a disease by looking at the Blue Zones (five regions in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the US, that researchers have identified as having the highest population longevity). These populations are mostly free from chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. “There are principles that we can extract from the Blue Zones, which indicate that these populations have a strong sense of community, eat a mostly whole food, unprocessed diet and move regularly,” says Angela.
“Longevity is influenced by a combination of genetics, environment and lifestyle,” explains Angela. “Living a healthy lifestyle plays a big part in longevity and it’s well known that smoking is still one of the biggest limiting factors for both lifespan and healthspan.” In a study done in The Journal of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, it was shown that tobacco smoke contains a broad array of chemical carcinogens that may cause DNA damage. It was also shown, however, the DNA repair pathways that operate to repair this damage were responsible for why some smokers developed lung cancers but others did not. Scientists at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) added to this. The IARC study, which looked at around 900 people with lung cancer, found a link to low levels of vitamin B6 and an amino acid called methionine, found in protein like meat, fish and nuts (it’s also worth knowing that B6 is also found in meat, nuts, vegetables and bananas). The results of the study showed that by getting both of these nutrients, heavy smokers could reduce their risk of lung cancer by up to 60 percent; though, of course, the results were not as good as when people gave up smoking entirely.
There is a type of stress (oxidative stress), that does have an effect on our genes. Oxidative stress can include exposure to radiation, alcohol consumption, pollution, exposure to pesticides or industrial chemicals. “Exposure to environmental toxins and high levels of physical and mental stressors can contribute to telomere shortening (shorter telomeres are associated with DNA damage and a shorter life span) and inflammatory conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease,” says Angela. A lowtox lifestyle has become increasingly popular over the years, but what simple changes can we make to our everyday lives? A good place to start is by removing all synthetic fragrances from your home. A 2017 study done in the journal Cell showed that accumulation of the chemical aldehyde (often found in synthetic scents such as air freshener) could trigger cancer susceptibility by compromising DNA repair. Research like this shows us that our lives aren’t completely dictated by our genes; but also by our decisions when it comes to our health and our lifestyle.
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