Nutrigenomics: Genes and food together making a powerful disease-fighting combo.

Nutrigenomics looks at the impact of foods and nutrients on genes that are linked to disease.

Do you feel that when it comes to your risk of lifestyle-related diseases, the odds are stacked against you? If you have a strong family history of heart disease, stroke, certain cancers or Alzheimer’s disease and you think your diet and exercise choices don’t really matter because of your genes, you’re not alone. But, it’s a new dawn: research in the area of nutrigenomics – gene-nutrient interactions – is showing that certain foods choices may turn on or off disease-causing genes. It now appears that it’s not the hand you’re dealt but how you play the game that may determine whether you follow in your family’s footsteps.

Nutrigenomics, also called nutritional genomics, is an exciting new field of research where scientists are determining the impact of various foods and their constituents along with nutrients on specific genes of an individual. As certain genes are identified that may protect or do the opposite and hasten the onset or progression of a disease, researchers can begin to test the impact of various dietary factors to evaluate their effects.

As the research progresses, it will ultimately lead to very personalized nutritional prescriptions. One day in the near future you’ll be able to have your genes assessed and, based on the readings, get information on the food and nutrient choices that can point you in the direction of a healthier and longer life.

Nutrigenomics also explains some of the contradictory nutrition findings over the years. So often when one study heralding a food or nutrient as being a strong defender against a particular disease is followed by another showing the complete opposite result, people get very frustrated and simply head for the nearest fast food outlet.

But the discrepancies seen may, in some cases, be due to a different genetic makeup of the study subjects. For example, testing foods on hormonally-related conditions in Asian women may yield very different results than when the subjects are of European descent.

Here’s just a taste of research being conducted on specific foods or nutrients and their impact on gene action:

*German scientists have found that certain compounds in apples – polyphenols – suppressed the inflammatory action of a gene involved in inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease.

*Quebec researchers demonstrated different effects of omega-3 fat supplementation on lipid profiles (blood cholesterol and triglycerides) depending on the genetic makeup of the subjects. Those with one particular gene did not show the same benefits as other subjects.

*Gene variations and vitamin D are a hot topic around the world as scientists link a growing list of ills to low readings of the sunshine vitamin. Cancer, autoimmune conditions and cardiovascular disease along with age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly, are among the investigations.

*Flavonoids (compounds found in assorted foods such as onions, apples, red wine, tea and chocolate) may protect against stroke. Florida researchers have found that they may target genes that decrease oxidation and inflammation in the brain which can both boost the risk of stroke.

*At the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, blueberry polyphenols were shown to improve cognitive function in animals by altering the genes that affect the release of inflammatory substances. Inflammation is now thought to be a major player in developing Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline.

There is a note of caution, though, about this area of scientific investigation. While it may be a hotbed of research, it still has a long way to go before specific recommendations can be made, especially for most nutritional supplements. Having your genes tested, for the most part, is still only being done in the research setting. There are exceptions as scientists isolate specific genetic patterns which have allowed for at-risk groups to undergo testing. An example includes the screening for the breast cancer genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Recent research from the University of Montreal links a lower rate of breast cancer in women carrying the gene to consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables.

But for the most part, it will be a while before you can have a prescription for good health based on your genes.

In the meantime, benefits may indeed be reaped by consuming foods in moderation, such as brassica vegetables which offer an assortment of benefits without any adverse effects. But when it comes to certain nutrients, the answers simply aren’t yet available.

Until the screening for various genes becomes commonplace, moderation may also be key. It may sound boring, but it may be the safest way to go as too little or too much of a particular compound or nutrient may up your risk of disease. Research on selenium is a perfect example. Selenium is a mineral that’s often thought to protect against prostate cancer, but that’s not always the case.

Scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at the University of California, San Francisco assessed the link between blood levels of selenium and the odds of developing more aggressive forms of prostate cancer in subjects with different patterns of a specific gene. Their findings show why having a little patience before jumping on the supplement bandwagon may be a smart strategy. In the study, men with a certain gene pattern had twice the likelihood of having more aggressive form of prostate cancer if their blood levels of selenium were high compared to those with lower levels. But others, with a different gene pattern, were also likely to have prostate cancer, though a less aggressive form, if they had lower selenium readings.

Nutrigenomics is certainly heralding a new era of enlightened eating. But until we know more, it’s simply more evidence that the road to good health can be found on your dinner plate and, for the most part, not in your supplement bottle.

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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