Do Genes Determine Destiny?

Recently, we have provided free access to the Interpreting Your Genetics Summit. As the cost of sequencing your genes has come down, this has become a very “sexy” yet controversial topic. If you did not have a chance to watch to the summit in real time for free, you can still find it here. I’d like to summarize a few of the most important take home points to guide your understanding of how to apply genetic information to your own health.

  • Don’t be scared to find out your own gene blueprint. Many people have a fatalistic, deterministic viewpoint that says there if nothing they can do about their genes so they don’t want to know bad news. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The most important point from the summit is that DNA loads the gun, but lifestyle and environment pull the trigger. Also, to keep any variation you have in perspective, remember there are about three billion possible base pair combinations that make up DNA, so any one variation is only a proverbial drop in the ocean of what determines your health.

  • Knowing any particular gene tells us very little about an individual’s health. Despite the hype suggesting the all disease could be treated based upon knowing which genes are affected and treating those, this is simply not accurate. In fact, much of what is touted about treating individual genes is not even based upon what is known in human science. The 20,000 or so protein-coding genes only represent 1.5% of all the DNA. The rest is non-coding molecules for which we do not yet know the function. Do your research before accepting any “miracle answers” given by commercial gene interpretation programs, supplement manufacturers, etc.

  • Interpreting genetics is more about how groups of genes interact than about any single gene variation. SNPs (pronounced “snips” are single nucleotide polymorphisms) occur in greater than 1% of the population. These are the particular variations we can have in a single gene. Did you know that, despite all our obvious differences, we are more similar than we think. Each person’s DNA varies from another only by about 0.1%. This is far less than about 4% by which we differ from our nearest cousins, the chimpanzees and bonobos. More important than having a particular SNP, however, is how that variation acts in concert with other genes you may have. This is why it is vital to look at groups of genes associated with certain biological processes rather than worrying about any single variation. We have learned this particularly about the very common MTHFR gene SNP, a factor in methylation you may have heard about. There are actually several genes controlling methylation, a process which affects energy production, nerve health, detoxification, hormone regulation and more. Simply taking one vitamin, such as folate, is unlikely to be the key to good health, and has potential to do harm if not combined with additional health information. Consultation with an individual trained in epigenetics, that is, how groups of genes work, is essential.

Looking at the blueprint is not the same as inspecting the building. Blueprints tell us how to build something but they can’t tell us when a pipe is leaking, or when the builder skimped on the number of nails. Again, lifestyle and environment determine how the genes will be expressed. Preventive science today is very robust in helping us know detailed lifestyle choices that can help you avoid your ancestors’ fate even without knowing any specific genes you may have. That said, some people need the motivation of seeing test results to help them maintain lifestyle commitments. And, you can tweak your regimen by knowing genetic specifics. Either way, start with those lifestyle choices to make the biggest impact on whatever blueprint you were given.

Genes are only the start of the “omics” revolution. “Omics” is an informal term referring to the big picture of any particular field of study in biology. For instance, genomics studies how all our genes act together, rather than genetics which is about only individual genes. Applying this 35,000 foot view, we are also now looking at all the nutritional factors which affect genes, as in nutrigenomics. We can also now do tests to tell us about the genome of all the micro-organisms which live on us and in us, or the microbiome. In fact, this comprises over 90% of the genetic material we are carrying through our lives, and is at least as important as the mere 10% of DNA you got from your parents. Again, how we interact with our environment trumps whatever was on the original blueprint design. Consultation with a Functional Medicine-trained health care provider will help you learn more about the big picture of your own health.

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