Is there such a thing as having bad genes?
We now know that we are not at the mercy of having ‘bad genes’. Research is showing that there is actually no such thing as ‘bad genes’ – they do not determine whether someone will develop a disease, or be healthy, for that matter. It is, however, the interplay between our genetic individuality and our environment that can increase or lessen the risk of poor health.
This fascinating field of study is known as Epigenetics – it investigates how external environmental factors such as our diet, lifestyle, and exposure to pollution and stress, have the ability to ‘switch our genes on or off’. Through evolution, we have all developed variations in our genes, known as polymorphisms, and research is beginning to enable us to identify some of the more common polymorphisms which exist in our populations that may predispose us to ill health or certain diseases. More importantly, research has also helped us to understand that these predispositions are not our fate and that polymorphisms are modifiable by changing the environment around us. For example, a woman may inherit a genetic variation that would predispose her to developingAlzheimer’s, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that she will develop this disease. It is the environment – i.e her diet and lifestyle – that will affect how that particular gene is ‘expressed’, either potentially being activated by high exposure to toxins and a diet high in refined sugars, for example, or deactivated by a diet low in sugar and high in antioxidants, as well as other protective nutrients.
The Impact of our Diet on our Genes
A more specific field of study called nutrigenomics, within the wider study of epigenetics, seeks to understand how genetic polymorphisms can help us to identify how diet and nutrition can be modified to meet more personalised nutritional needs of an individual. This knowledge opens up exciting avenues in delivering more preventive and personalised health approaches, especially when used alongside other functional testing. This integrative approach enables an understanding of an individual’s biochemical individuality, providing a clearer picture of their unique needs. In the past 10 years DNA test kits have become increasingly popular for many who seek to unlock key genetic information about their ancestry, predispositions for particular diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis, Cancer and Alzheimer’s, as well as fitness potential and nutrient requirements.Testing is carried out with a simple saliva sample, through which scientists identify a person’s polymorphisms found in the sequence of DNA. Each of these genes represent a specific pathway, which has various phases, each requiring ‘co-factors’, or in simpler terms, nutrients, to either help these genes express themselves or inhibit their function. Through diet and use of nutritional supplements, it is therefore feasible to modify gene expression, or switch our genes on or off. Other environmental influences such as pollution and physical or psychological stress can increase or decrease our need for certain nutrients, also playing a role in this expression.
DNA, Diet and Mental Health
In November we hosted a fascinating talk on ‘DNA, Diet and Mental Health’ by Emma Beswick, founder of Lifecode Gx, a company that specialises in genetic testing. The presentation outlined genes that are currently understood to play a key role in our mental health and how variations of these genes can influence changes in how neurotransmitters are produced, how well they perform after being produced, and then finally, how they are broken down. Each of these phases is governed by our genetic makeup and can greatly influence our mental health.
For example, it is common knowledge that serotonin plays a crucial role in our mental health, and in particular feelings of happiness and tranquility, as well as appetite and sleep. This neurotransmitter is also targeted by SSRI’s, a common antidepressant medication, that aims to keep serotonin in circulation by preventing it from being broken down so that there is more available in the brain. In order for serotonin to be made, it needs to go through various steps (see image below).
The primary step is to convert the amino acid, tryptophan, to 5-HTP, a precursor molecule to serotonin. The efficiency of this particular step can vary from person to person depending on their genes. A key example of this is with the gene FKB5P, which governs our resilience to chronic stress. Certain variations of this gene can decrease someone’s tolerance to everyday stressors, which redirects tryptophan towards a another pathway instead of 5-HTP, creating a neurotoxin called quinolinic acid. This means that the tryptophan is there but it isn’t being converted properly to the precursor of serotonin, which can consequently lead to mood imbalances. Antioxidants are vital for mitigating the negative impact of neurotoxins, meaning a person with this particular gene variant would benefit highly from increasing their intake of colorful fruits and vegetables (known for being high in antioxidant compounds), such as berries, green leafy veg, carrots and sweet potatoes, as well as nuts and seeds, seafood and spices such as turmeric and ginger.
Another interesting genetic component of serotonin metabolism, is how someone’s sensitivity to this neurotransmitter can affect their mental health. For example, tryptophan may be converting efficiently to 5-HTP and 5-HTP may be converting to serotonin, but once the serotonin is there it then has to be used properly. For example, if we use the simple analogy of a lock and a key – imagine that the key is the serotonin that’s trying to open a door, but the lock is rusty and the key is therefore not able to open the door – meaning that serotonin is not performing its function. A variant of the 5-HT1A gene can lower someone’s sensitivity to serotonin, meaning the serotonin may be produced efficiently but it’s not being used properly. This can consequently lead to feelings of low mood, anxiety and increased impulsivity. Someone with this genetic variant may benefit from nutrients such as ginkgo biloba, which help to increase serotonin receptors, as well as a popular herb called st John’s Wort, that can help increase sensitivity to serotonin.
Learn more about how our genes can impact our mental health and what to do about it…
These are just two examples of how our genes can vary and influence our mental health, however, there are many more genetic variations that can impact how we synthesise, transport and react to neurotransmitters. These genetic variations may help to explain why some medications such as SSRI’s may work for one person but might not work for another, which is why DNA testing could be very valuable. However, this is still an emerging area of health and therefore it is advisable to have the test done under the guidance of a nutritional therapist or a functional medicine practitioner, so that the information is interpreted properly and clear steps can be taken to help optimise an individual’s physical and mental health.
If you would like to know more about this fascinating topic, we’re delighted to offer an online recording of Emma Beswick’s presentation (below), where she shares some key information on many other genetic variations that impact mental health, as well as examples of how nutrients can support. As a charity we charge a small fee for our webinars to help cover our costs, however, we are keen to make our videos and events accessible for everyone. If you cannot afford the fee, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.