What is Nutrigenomics?

Nutrigenomics starts with you and ends with food

Nutrigenomics (nutrition + genomics) is an exciting new area of science that uses the latest research to create the best path for your health.

Salad bowls and radishes

Simply put, nutrigenomics informs us which nutrients and foods influence our genes toward optimal health.

How?

By learning which nutrients switch on genes that activate essential functions and which nutrients switch off genes that cause health issues.

There is a lot of nutrition noise in our world. You only have to search the internet to find untold numbers of supplements and recipes that claim to influence health. Nutrigenomics allows us to see past the noise of nutrition fads and advertising. We can lift the body’s hood to see which systems make us vitamin-deficient or cause health issues and which genes are involved in those systems.

When we know the genes involved and which nutrients affect these genes, we can use nutrition to achieve optimal health.

In this blog article, I will describe the origins of this new field of nutrition science and describe more precisely what nutrigenomics means. You can learn more about nutrigenomics in my new book, The Genomic Kitchen. But first, let's go over two examples of how it works and see how you can use nutrigenomics to create the best path for your health.


Nutrigenomics example: Activation of Vitamin D

We are taught that humans obtain Vitamin D either from the diet or by exposing our skin to sunlight.

sunlight on face nutrigenomics.jpg

However, many foods rich in Vitamin D are no longer eaten, or they are eschewed--such as liver, butter, and eggs (from free-range animals), as examples. Therefore diet is no longer a guarantee of Vitamin D ingestion.

But, getting enough Vitamin D (from food or the sun) is just the beginning. The Vitamin D you do get needs to be "activated" in order to do its job.

This is because the Vitamin D from food and the sun isn't active--it doesn't do much in that form. It's actually the Vitamin D precursor called cholecalciferol. Cholecalciferol must be activated by being converted into the body-friendly form called calcitriol. This requires multiple steps with multiple enzymes in our liver and kidneys. Each of these enzymes is a protein coded by our genes!

What happens if one of those enzymes along the pathway of Vitamin D activation isn't quite right? What if the gene that codes for it has a variation called an SNP (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism--more on this below)? These genetic "errors" can impact the amount of Vitamin D available for the body to use--even if you are getting enough Vitamin D (precursor) from food and the sun!

Let's take this one step further.

If you get enough Vitamin D and all of your Vitamin D activation enzymes work perfectly then your Vitamin D is activated. The next step is for the active Vitamin D to bind to special receptors in specific cells to do its job. For example, one of Vitamin D's jobs is to help our intestinal cells absorb calcium. To do this, activated Vitamin D (calcitriol) needs to bind with receptors in those intestinal cells to tell their genes to make proteins to absorb calcium. Those receptors in the intestinal cells are also proteins that are coded by genes.

If someone has an SNP (variant) in any of those genes that code for the Vitamin D enzymes or receptors, they will need more Vitamin D than others.

Nutrigenomics helps us understand how to navigate the unique biochemical circuitry of each individual so that we ensure the right food (or supplement) information is provided for your unique self. Vitamin D is one example of how one person’s need for vitamin-rich food is not enough for someone else, based on their genes.

Nutrigenomics is the science that tells us why and what to do about it!


Nutrigenomics example: Reducing inflammation

Let's say you want to reduce inflammation, something I call fire in the body. You can use nutrigenomics to choose food that influences the genes directly involved in managing inflammation.

Let’s put this in perspective.

Knowing which foods work with the specific genes that cause or tame inflammation, we can plug the right foods in. This effectively dampens the noise around anti-inflammatory food and supplement claims and leads us to the specific foods and nutrients that work as anti-inflammatories for us humans.

Elderberries turn on the inflammatory TNF-alpha gene

Elderberries turn on the inflammatory TNF-alpha gene

When it comes to inflammation, we know that the allium family e.g., onions, garlic, leeks, etc. can turn off the inflammatory TNF-alpha gene. Elderberries, capers, turmeric (especially the roasted root) and radishes can do the same thing! This is unlike simply taking a supplement that claims to tame inflammation. Nutrigenomics gives us very precise information based on the information that food provides to our genes.

Now you see the value in knowing which genes that help and hinder our health, and the nutrients that influence them.


How it all started: The Human Genome Project

Let’s begin at the beginning with The Human Genome Project. This landmark research project completed in 2003 provided scientists with a blueprint of the approximately 20,500 genes that make up human beings. Think of it as a map of how humans are built. It shows us what's deep in our cells that make us unique: different heights, different eye colors, different risks for diseases, etc.

DNA molecule structure on a green background. Science vector background

Genes are important to the framework and function of the human body. They hold a unique recipe for every protein and direct biological pathways in the body. One gene may make one type of protein, another gene will make another type of protein. It is proteins that make us who we are (physically). Proteins are fundamental to life and our health. They lie at the heart of how our bodies function. They direct everything from how we are built and move, to things we don’t think about like breathing and digesting our food. Some proteins become muscle while some become hormones, enzymes, cell receptors, or bone, for example.

Completion of this important Human Genome Project gave birth to genomics, a field of science that tells us what genes are and what each of them does in the human body.

We know that our genes can affect our health because certain conditions run in families. Genes we inherit from our parents can affect the types of foods and nutrients we should eat. Perhaps we may have a food allergy, be lactose-intolerant or have celiac disease, for example.

But, now we see that it also works the other way around!

Science shows us that there is a two-way-street--our food and nutrient choices also affect our genes and overall health. This is the science of nutrigenomics!

Even though we may have inherited certain genes that code toward health or away from it, how powerful those genes are can be influenced by what we eat!

The role of nutrition is not in which genes you inherited from your parents--but rather, how much each gene affects your health. And if we can influence how much our health-promoting vs. disease-promoting genes work, imagine how much healthier we can be and feel!


Science now shows that nutrition has a powerful influence on how much each of your genes affects your health. Much more powerful than we thought.


What is Nutrigenomics?

fruit and berries nutrigenomics

The science of how genes are powered by nutrition is called nutrigenomics = nutrition + genomics. While there are many elements that provide information to our genes, such as stress, exercise and environmental toxins, nothing is more influential than food and nutrients. Nutrition is the principal source of information genes work with.

Nutrigenomics = Nutrition + Genomics

Nutrigenomics allows us to understand how the food we eat, specifically nutrients (like vitamins, minerals, carbs, and fats, etc.) and other components in food called bioactives (they actively affect our biology), interact with our genes and influence what they do. Up until this point, we didn’t know how powerfully nutrition influences our genome.

Nutrigenomics gives us new insight into how food actually works in the body influencing health at the gene level. Genes are the pivot that food interacts with to produce proteins which guide every aspect of how the human body works.

Genes hold a unique recipe for every protein your body makes. Every protein directs a function in your body. This is why knowing which foods and nutrients affect which genes (i.e. nutrigenomics) is a critical path to health.

Nutrigenomics has highlighted another way our food and nutrients affect our genes. The science shows us how certain foods and nutrients can stabilize our genes and prevent some SNP variations. As we get older and are exposed to things like toxins and free radicals our genes can make more mistakes. So, by eating certain foods we can help our genes correct these errors, or create “workarounds,” and keep our proteins and cells (and entire body) in optimal health.


Can I start using nutrigenomics without a genomic test?

In a word, YES! Here’s why.

tomatoes lentils herbs nutrigenomics

As you now know, nutrigenomics is the science of how food works with human genes. We share approximately 99% of the same genes with each other. After all, genes are what make us human. What differentiates us are those little variants called SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms).

These variations are tiny differences we all have in our genetic information that is used to create individual protein “recipes.” They can determine whether the protein that is created is functioning the way it should be, or whether it's not working to its full capacity. Whether our Vitamin D activation enzyme is made correctly or whether our inflammatory gene proteins are turned down. When a protein is not showing up to work on time in your body, or slacking on the job, it sometimes requires additional nutrient support from a specific food or even a supplement.

While genomic testing provides the clearest insights into YOUR unique gene blueprint, human genes respond to food the same way for all of us. The difference between you and I is that you may need more Vitamin D than I do. The bottom line is still that ALL humans need Vitamin D and all of us need those activation enzymes working as well as possible!

Here’s an analogy. Cars use the same basic mechanics to move. Differences in the make and model of a car don’t change the fundamentals of how the engine makes the wheels turn! The type of fuel a car needs may change, but its engine still turns the wheels. It’s the same for humans. We all need food and we all use it the same way. Nutrigenomics tells us which foods work with which genes.

The human body uses this same food information in the same way to perform the tasks of being a (healthy or not-so-healthy) human. Genomic testing allows us to pinpoint these fine differences and adjust your food approach to maximize the benefits you get from it. The fundamentals of eating and using food don’t change.

This is how we can use the science of nutrigenomics without needing to get a genetic test.


Which foods does nutrigenomics say to eat?

Nutrigenomics gives us a guide to the best food choices to make based on how genes work in our bodies.

It is for this reason that we created The Genomic Kitchen Ingredient Toolbox. Our Ingredient Toolbox contains familiar ingredients that you can immediately put on your grocery list and easily add to your plate. These ingredients are organized into a system we call M.I.S.E. The M.I.S.E. system is rooted in the science of how food influences master genes that impact long-term health. Choosing these ingredients allows you to eat in harmony with genetic pathways associated with oxidative stress, inflammation, and metabolism and optimize gut health. They allow you to start the journey of fine-tuning the biochemical circuitry of your body and eat in accordance with the language and flavor or human DNA.


To learn more about the best food choices you can make for your genes, click on the image or the right to download Genomic Kitchen Ingredient Toolbox Quick Start Guide




ADDITIONAL READING

What is Nutrigenomics
  1. Neeha VS, Kinth P. Nutrigenomics research: a review. J Food Sci Technol. 2012;50(3):415–428.

  2. Rana S, Kumar S, Rathore N, Padwad Y, Bhushana S. Nutrigenomics and its Impact on Life Style Associated Metabolic Diseases. Curr Genomics. 2016;17(3):261–278.

  3. Sales NM, Pelegrini PB, Goersch MC. Nutrigenomics: definitions and advances of this new science. J Nutr Metab. 2014;2014:202759.

  4. German JB, Zivkovic AM, Dallas DC, Smilowitz JT. Nutrigenomics and personalized diets: What will they mean for food?. Annu Rev Food Sci Technol. 2011;2:97–123