Unlock Your DNA — Unlock Your Best You
by Catherine Morris | August 26, 2020, updated about 2 months ago
Nature vs nurture. We as humans ask this question a lot. Is your health pre-determined by genetics, or the outcome of your choices and experiences?
The answer generally comes down to, both. We’re born with a blueprint, but what unfolds is heavily influenced by how we care for ourselves. Science now knows that unhealthy habits can ‘switch on’ certain harmful genes, while beneficial behaviours can protect against the darker side of your DNA.
What Can Your Genes Tell You About Your Health?
There are around 25,000 genes in the human genome, and they control everything from how well you tolerate pain, to whether you're a redhead (fun fact: redheads are actually more sensitive to pain thanks to an interesting genetic quirk).
In some cases, you can clearly trace the path of a disease as it runs through generations. You probably know a family impacted by breast cancer. You may have been tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Around 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers, and 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers are hereditary according to the CDC. These are caused by a mutation on the tumour-suppressing BRCA genes. They're not the only cancers with a genetic component.
Around 5 percent of all cancers have a hereditary factor. It's scary, but don’t worry too much, because the research also shows that these genes make cancer a risk, not a certainty.
Cancer and diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, sickle cell and cystic fibrosis may have a well-known hereditary component, but genetics are also at work in everyday wellness circumstances, like food allergies, or why you might be better suited to resistance training than running a marathon. Your genes can explain why you might be visiting Lucy in the sky with diamonds after your second cup of coffee, while your friend drinks three espressos in an hour without even a ghost of a twitch.
Gut Biome and Genetics
Your gut microbiome, which some biologists believe to be the nexus of your overall health, is heavily influenced by genetics. Your gut’s complex cluster of bacteria is entwined with your genetic code in ways that science is still uncovering.
Twin studies show there is definitely a genetic component to the arrangement of your microbes, and this can determine your risk for metabolic disease, high cholesterol, and obesity.
Given the strong connection between the brain and the gut, it's no surprise that mental health disorders can travel through generations.
Mental Health and Genetics
One of the biggest studies of its kind, published in The Lancet, looked at autism, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia to determine the genetics behind each. The researchers looked at the genome of over 30,000 patients.
The results showed that most of the patients carried variations in two key genes, CACNA1C and CACNB2, which are responsible for getting calcium to neurons. They also found variations in chromosomes 3 and 10.
What does this mean?
It means more study is required, of course.
While the team established a solid genetic link between these brain types and states, and what's in a person's genetic make-up, this information fails to paint a complete picture. The information is valuable, but needs to be put in context.
The DNA Diet
Dietitian Amy Lucas offers a 70-gene test at her practice, and says most clients come to her for weight loss counselling rather than genetic testing, but the ones who opt for the testing as part of their care plan generally see better results.
“Genetic testing isn't mainstream enough yet for people to go searching for it. You have to find the right client who really wants to do a deep dive. They are more committed to making a change. People who have done a DNA-based diet from a weight loss standpoint – 70% of them maintain that weight loss after a year, rather than 30% who do it without the data.
“That really brings it home that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. You can shift what you are doing based on your DNA, and what you think your body might need, might actually be the opposite. [Genetic testing] helps open your eyes to what you need.”
Clients doing Lucas' DNA deep dive send off a saliva test, and receive a thorough report of the results within 3 to 4 weeks. They then sit down for a consultation with Lucas during which she outlines her dietary recommendations, and works with them to develop an eating plan based on their genetic profile.
With most of her clients looking to lose weight, the focus is primarily on how they metabolize foods, and whether there are any dietary sensitivities or allergies. There's even a genetic test targeted for vegetarians and vegans to pin-point where there might be imbalances in their diet, and how to address them.
Lucas goes on to explain, “DNA-based diets are focused on the individual. What are their particular risks? Do they metabolize carbs well or not? Are they predisposed to certain conditions?
“The top two things people question are gluten and lactose. When I work with a client and they are a medium risk [for gluten intolerance] […] It doesn't mean they can't eat [gluten], they just might have a little gas or bloat afterwards.”
Lucas says having the results in front of a client often boosts their motivation, and makes their health journey more straightforward.
“People might try an elimination diet as a starting point [...] but this is a faster way to figure out what you need.”
Biohacking for Better Health
Epigenetics, the science of switching certain genes 'on' or 'off,' is the latest frontier in biohacking. While diet plays a large part in this effort, there's more to wellness than what's on your plate. Getting good quality sleep, safeguarding your mental health, regular exercise and limiting your exposure to toxins are all part of the puzzle, and your genetics can provide you guidance in this as well.
Some problems are beyond our control, but it's important to live your life without fear. With any genetic testing there's always the chance that something sinister will surface, but that's the point of doing it—forewarned is forearmed.
“Just because you are genetically predisposed to something doesn't mean you are going to get it,” says naturopathic doctor Dr Hayley Collinge who provides a MethylDetox profile to test for the MTHFR mutation, and a test for genetic predisposition to Celiac disease and Crohn's disease.
“Different genes can express different things depending on what we are exposed to. It is just a risk factor, and there is a lot you can do to mitigate that risk.”
What Your Genes Can Tell You About Your Sleep (or lack of it!)
Are you a wolf, bear, lion, or dolphin? No, this isn’t one of those quizzes that match you to your ‘spirit animal.’ These categories are handy shorthand for discovering your chronotype, also referred to as your genetic propensity to sleep—
- Wolves are late risers. They peak around lunchtime and then again at the end of the day when others might be winding down.
- Bears are the ‘norm’—getting up with the sun, powering through the afternoon slump, and going to bed at a reasonable time.
- Lions are on the hunt in the early morning. They get up before everyone else, power through their tasks before lunch and end up fading soon after dinner.
- Dolphins are at their best in the middle of the day, but aren't good at resting. They tend to be light sleepers and have trouble setting a regular sleep pattern.
Obviously it's a little more complex than animal avatars, but chronotypes might be the answer to sleep disorders, brain fog, depression, and fatigue. Your chronotype is determined by the Period (PER1, PER2, PER3) and Cryptochrome genes (CRY1, CRY2). Family studies indicate that there's a 50 percent chance you've inherited yours from your parents. So you might well be a pod of dolphins, or a pack of wolves.
Lucas says addressing sleep is a big move towards better health—“If you can figure out how to get sleep down, you are ten steps in the right direction.”
The Fitness Genes
You know that kid who won everything at sports day? How about the kid who constantly fumbled the ball? Athletic abilities are often apparent early on, but knowing the specifics can help all types of adults.
The 'fitness genes' determine how well you respond to endurance training (the ACE gene), your speed (ACTN3), your strength (ACVR1B), energy levels (AMPD1), and how you tolerate cardio (AKT1). Elite sprinters are much more likely to carry the ACTN3 gene than your average gym bunny.
You might've heard that the best form of exercise is the one you enjoy most. That makes sense—you're much more likely to stick to a fitness regime if you have fun doing it—but you're also carrying around genes that can help you play to your strengths… literally.
If, despite all your efforts, you still struggle to stick to an exercise routine, blame your biology! People with the AA or GA variant of the CYP19A1 gene are more likely to exercise compared to those with the GG variant, according to Nutrigenomix, a genetic testing and research firm. Those with certain variants of the BDNF gene get more mood-boosting benefits from exercise than others do.
The Future of Genetics and Alternative Health
Genetic testing is synonymous with preventative healthcare, and natural health is synonymous with preventative health. What better way to approach preventative care, than genetic testing?
Lucas says—“You can't figure out exactly what you need without your actual DNA. It helps tell that story. Some people look at this as a preventative measure. They want to know so they can do their best to be proactive.”
Science still has a long way to go. In 2013, the US Supreme Court ruled that human genes cannot be patented as DNA is a 'product of nature'. This opened the door to private testing, but it's still a relatively young market.
Dr Collinge says—
“Genetic testing is in its infancy. There is some preliminary testing but it still needs some work and some tweaking to get the best answers [...] We are going more towards genetic health and wellness so I think we will see more and more of it.”
As it grows in popularity, you can expect to see genetic testing becoming more accessible, more accurate, and more affordable. Dr Collinge sees this as a positive step, and says her experience with the science helped her make sense of her own health. She confirmed her gluten sensitivity after a 23andMe test showed she had one of the two markers for celiac disease—
“I find it empowering, knowing there is something I can do to make my health better. If I had not known [about my autoimmune disease], my health would be steadily declining. I have a better quality of life knowing, versus not knowing.”
Knowing is one thing. It's what happens next that's important according to Lucas, who says–
“Getting your data is one piece of the puzzle, knowing how to use it is the second step, and then making those changes to reach your potential. There's a whole slew of other components of wellness—mental health, sleep, stress, exercise... It’s all about the environment around you. It's a little more nature, but there is nurture involved. Understanding your genetics is the way of the future.”
Almost 20 years after the Human Genome Project, which comprehensively mapped human DNA for the first time, we're still figuring out the mysteries of the body's code. The standard benchmarks of good health hold true though—eat well, sleep well, move, and de-stress wherever possible.
Hard data helps but health and wellness isn't rocket science.
Genetic testing with Dr Collinge or Amy Lucas can help you reach your health goals, but there's also many preventative steps you can take today for better wellness. Reach out to one of Whichdoctor's naturopaths, nutritionists, or life coaches to start developing a plan that works for you.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.