Dr. Doni explains the link between oxidative stress and DNA, and why it means that our health is in our own hands.
Part 10 of Dr. Doni’s Series on Oxidative Stress
It used to be thought that our genes were set in stone. That once we were conceived, our genes would directly determine our state of health or disease for our whole lives. Under this belief, scientists worked at a furious rate to determine the human genome, so that we could interpret the “genetic code.” The thinking was that we could know our genetic fate or even develop treatments to address those genetically influenced health problems. That’s what I learned when I was in college.
Now, because of all the research that has been done to understand our genes, we know that this is not the case. Our genes, and the expression of our genes, are influenced by our parents’ health, the stresses we are exposed to (even in the womb), by the food we eat, the microbes living in our gut, the vitamins we take, and even the thoughts we have.
This is called epigenetics, and the implication of it—that our health is in our own hands—makes me stop to catch my breath.
What Is Epigenetics?
It turns out that we can influence our genes and our health by what we do, what we eat, and what we believe. And it comes right back to oxidative stress, which I’ve been writing about over the past 10 articles in this series. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first I want clarify and emphasize that you have the power to influence your genes (not just your health).
As a naturopathic doctor for 16 years and a student of natural health for at least 15 years prior, I have always inherently believed that food and nutrients could influence our health. In fact, this is what led me, at a young age, to study nutrition and then to apply to naturopathic medical school—because I believed that food is medicine. And I learned that from my parents.
My father is a pharmacist and my mother is a teacher. They both taught me from my earliest childhood that what I ate—and the vitamins I took—would affect my health now and in the future. That drinking a soda or eating cereal would make it more likely that I would be unwell, and that if I could make a choice now that would improve my health later, that was a choice I should want to make. I’m sure that many of you learned that same thing.
That’s because it has been well-accepted for a long time that nutrition is beneficial to health. The difference now is that research is showing us that it is not just the nutrients from the food we eat that supports our bodies. The actual genetic material (RNA) from food enters our bodies and influences how and which of our genes are turned on or off.1 Not only that, but the food we eat also affects the 100 trillion bacteria that live in our intestines, and those bacteria produce substances (vitamins, enzymes, and short chain fatty acids) that influence the epigenetic processes that determine our health.2 So what you choose to eat determines the messages that tell certain genes to turn on and others to turn off. And it turns out that healthier foods (fruits, veggies, fiber) turn on health-promoting genes.
You see, the 22,000 genes that code for the proteins that run our bodies (our digestion, immune system, hormones, and metabolism) make up only 2% of our DNA.3 We used to think that it was this 2% that determined our health. Now we know that it is the other 98% – ironically, the part that used to be referred to as ‘the junk’ – that influences how our genes are expressed and that is most influenced by our diet, stress, sleep, toxins, behaviors, and beliefs.
What Are Telomeres?
This is where it comes back to oxidative stress because research is showing that oxidative stress—whether from lack of antioxidants in our diet or from over-exposure to toxins that cause oxidative stress—can, not only affect ‘the junk’ (also referred to as dark matter), but can also directly damage DNA. For example, one fascinating part of the dark matter is the telomeres, the bit of our DNA at the ends of the strands (chromosomes). Imagine your DNA as a shoelace—the telomeres are at the ends of the chromosomes like the tip of the shoelace that is wrapped in plastic, protecting the shoelace from damage. Each time the DNA is replicated, the telomeres become shorter and, as they do, the risk of damaging DNA that codes for important proteins increases and we experience the effects of aging. So essentially, telomere length is correlated with health and the length of life.
Oxidative stress also shortens telomeres and makes DNA damage more likely. 4-6 This means that ultimately, our health is determined not by our genes, but by how well we protect our DNA and our telomeres from oxidative stress.
Natural approaches to health have not always been popular. Even now, not everyone believes that we what they eat or what they do will make any difference to how they feel. That is certainly the experience many people have in doctors’ offices. They are not told that the best way to address most every health concern is to change what, and how much, they are eating. Instead, they are given prescription medications to inhibit or support a process in their body as if there is nothing a person could do to change that process other than take that pill.
Changing the “Conversation” in Your Body
As the daughter of a pharmacist, I’m telling you—there is something you can do. Your health is in your hands. While there are absolutely times when a medication is life-saving and necessary, the majority of times, especially with long-term health issues and disease prevention, food, nutrients, sleep, stress-reduction and toxin avoidance will allow your body to do what it does best – return to being healthy.
That is because, even if we haven’t had the healthiest diet and haven’t exercised regularly, once we begin to eat well and move more, the tiniest messages all the way down to the level of the genes inside our cells change the conversation and start working toward wellness. Your genes are always responding to the environment around them in each moment in time so, by changing that environment, you can change your health.
So don’t be hard on yourself for what has or hasn’t been. Simply notice right now that you have the ability to influence your health and, with curiosity about what that will mean for you, try it out!
Follow the guidelines I have laid out for you in my book, The Stress Remedy and in the Stress Remedy 7 and 21 day programs. Or perhaps start with the tips I shared in my article last week, Glutathione: What it is and How to Increase It. Even if you start with just one simple step or on simple change, it can do some good. Or if this article inspires you, you’ve already had a positive effect on your genes and your health. Keep going—just as you would when you learned to ride a bicycle. There will be bumps and perhaps a few swerves, and you may even fall off once or twice—but as long as you keep at it, your telomeres will thank you.
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4th March 2016
P.S. I want to thank Dr. Jeffrey Bland and his presentation at the Functional Forum, February 29, 2016 for inspiration for this article.
- Witwer K and Hirschi K. Transfer and functional consequences of dietary microRNAs in vertebrates: Concepts in search of corroboration. Bioessays. 2014 Apr; 36(4): 394–406.
- Paul B, Barnes S, Demark-Wahnefried W, Morrow C, Salvador C, Skibola C, and Tollefsbol T. Influences of diet and the gut microbiome on epigenetic modulation in cancer and other diseases. Clin Epigenetics. 2015; 7: 112.
- Pertea M. The Human Transcriptome: An Unfinished Story. Genes 2012, 3, 344-360.
- Correia-Melo C, Hewitt G, and Passos J. Telomeres, oxidative stress and inflammatory factors: partners in cellular senescence? Longev Healthspan. 2014; 3: 1.
- Tchirkov A and Lansdorp P. Role of oxidative stress in telomere shortening in cultured fibroblasts from normal individuals and patients with ataxia–telangiectasia. Hum. Mol. Genet. (2003) 12 (3): 227-232.
- Houben J, Moonen H, van Schooten F, Hageman G. Telomere length assessment: Biomarker of chronic oxidative stress? Free Radical Biology and Medicine. 2008;44 (3)1:235–246.