Naturopathic doctor Doni Wilson explains how the availability of genetic testing means healthcare can now be truly personalized to meet your specific needs.
We used to think that genes were the main determinants of health – and that we couldn’t do anything about it.
While we most definitely look to family history to get a sense of the health issues that any one of us is predisposed to, what we know now is that you don’t have to be resigned to that fate.
Patients come to see me every day concerned about their family history. They want to know how they can prevent the health issues their family members suffered from – heart attacks, diabetes, autoimmune conditions, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, and many others. With genetic testing, I’m more able to help them then ever before.
In fact, research has now discovered that our genes are actually only 5% to 15% of the story; the other 75% to 95% is all about diet, exercise, stress, toxins, and sleep. That means your health is not set in stone – don’t feel resigned to your genetic predispositions. We can now look at your genes and use that information to to give your body what it needs and improve your health.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified that all of the major chronic health issues that lead to medical costs and death can be prevented by addressing diet and lifestyle. It is in only very few cases, such as with Down’s syndrome or cystic fibrosis, that single gene mutations influence health in a major way. However, most chronic health conditions such as diabetes and obesity are less determined by your genes than by what you do to support your health on a daily basis.1,2
Think of it this way: If your genes are the recipe, your food, sleep, exercise, toxin exposure, and stress are the ingredients, and your health is the dish you make – each time you make the recipe, the dish may turn out slightly different. If you add a little more or less salt for example, or if you add the ingredients to the bowl in a slightly different order, or if the cook time varies, the dish may taste very different.
So while the recipe stays the same, the outcome can still vary. Just as the dish can be improved with variations in the ingredients, you can greatly influence your health with the foods you choose and the amount of sleep, stress, toxic exposure, and exercise you get. And the choices you make each day can influence how the “recipe” turns out.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]“Our genes are our genes and that is not going to change… but how they influence our health can change.”[/su_pullquote]
Instead of using your genetics to predict what will go wrong, by knowing your personal genetic make-up, we can work out what individual adjustments you need to make in order to support your body.
Say for example you have a gene mutation – what we refer to as a SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) – that decreases your ability to metabolize or “detoxify” alcohol. For you, avoiding alcohol will be beneficial for your health. Or say you’re like me and have a SNP that means your body struggles to turn folic acid into folate – known as an MTHFR mutation – then your health will improve if you avoid products that contain the synthetic nutrient folic acid, and may improve if you take folate (5-methylfolate) instead.
This is why I now recommend that my patients do a genetic panel – starting with a 23andme saliva test – so we can tailor their treatment to their specific genetic pattern. You can read more about genetic testing here.
Looking at the Whole Picture
It is important to keep in mind that, just as your genetics don’t absolutely determine your health, SNPs (gene mutations) don’t absolutely influence your health either. We have to look at both your SNPs and some actual measures of your health status to determine how, and if, your genetics are influencing your health. Even someone who has an MTHFR mutation should have tests done to see how their body is currently functioning before adding folate to their daily routine.
So by looking at your genetic panel, we get a sense of the potential “traffic jams” – pathways in your metabolism that make you YOU! You might be sensitive to caffeine, environmental toxins, or certain medications. Or perhaps your body needs more of a certain nutrient in order to keep up under stress. Then we follow up by testing your actual nutrient levels, as well as hormones and neurotransmitters, so that we can find out whether your genes are currently influencing your health. If they are, then we can introduce diet changes, nutrients, herbs and other possible interventions to address that pathway.
The tests to consider in most cases are:
- Blood work including, amongst others: CBC, metabolic panel, C-reactive protein (an indicator of inflammation), thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), 25 OH vitamin D, and hemoglobin A1c (average blood sugar)
- Cortisol (either salivary or dried urine) in four samples – morning, mid-day, evening, and bedtime
- Neurotransmitters (urine) – serotonin, dopamine, GABA, glutamate, norepinephrine and epinephrine, as well as the metabolites of these neurotransmitters
- Organic acids (urine) – metabolites that indicate levels of oxidative stress, mitochondrial function, and nutrient status
- Methylation panel (blood) to determine how well your body is using B vitamins to benefit your health
This information gives us a snapshot of where you are at this point in time based on your genetics and your food, sleep, toxic exposure, stress, and exercise. From there, we can take steps to address your specific requirements and prevent health issues from developing. In this way, your genes can unlock the truth of what your body needs.
One More Factor to Consider – Bacteria
There is one other factor that plays a significant role in our health, and that is the genetics of the bacteria that live inside our bodies (in our intestines, for example). So we are not just us; we are us plus the bacteria and other organisms that have an influence over how our genes are expressed and whether mutations end up affecting our daily lives and health. This is why it’s important to not just think about how you can protect your body, but how you can protect these bacteria as well.
These bacteria are influenced by the same factors that influence human genes: foods, stress, sleep, toxins, and exercise. They are also greatly influenced by antibiotics, so being able to prevent the need for antibiotics is one of the single best health prevention tactics you can implement.
So I would add one more test to the list; a stool analysis to evaluate the DNA of the bacteria in your gut. There are several labs that offer this type of testing now. As I tell my patients every day, I believe this to be the future of medicine – research that will help us know how best to return the most optimal balance of bacteria to our digestive tracts. I intend to write more about this next week but for now, you can read more about probiotics here.
To simplify this: I think of all these things that influence our genes, our gut bacteria and their genes, and therefore our overall health, as stress or potential stress.
Just as psycho-emotional stress affects our health, so does the stress of high-sugar foods and beverages, the stress of not getting adequate sleep, the stress of being exposed to toxins in our food, air, water, and personal care products, as well as the stress of not enough exercise. While you are born with your genes, you do have the ability to greatly influence how those genes affect your health by managing the bacteria and your exposure to various forms of stress.
Applying the 4 Key Elements of Wellness
So how do we take steps to turn around your health? I suggest that we do it by taking all this information and applying it in a way that benefits your health. Since we know the stresses that negatively affect health, we can take steps to reduce our exposure to those stresses. And by doing that you’ll also be preventing your genetic predispositions from affecting your health.
The four areas that influence both our human genes and the genes of the organisms living in our bodies are the four key elements of wellness: Diet; exercise; stress; and sleep.
That means that if your goal is to live as healthily as you can for as long as you can – which happens to be my health goal – then you’ll want to make diet choices, exercise routines, stress reduction techniques, product choices, and sleep essentials all a part of your daily routine. Even if you haven’t yet completed a 23 and me genetic panel and don’t know your SNPs, these general steps can help.
Now, of course, we are all human – we will trip up sometimes. We will skip exercising or binge on junk food from time to time. But being overly vigilant or stressed out about the things that affect your health can actually outweigh all the good you are doing. So it’s all about being committed to your goal while also being unattached or un-stressed about the outcome. That’s not an easy thing to do, believe me – it takes practice, awareness, and a willingness to learn. It’s not about perfection but instead – consistently prioritizing yourself, feeling connected with yourself, and being empowered to make choices that are in line with your vision.
When starting off on this path, it can seem quite overwhelming, which is exactly why I’ve tried out so many ways to provide support over the years. One thing I have learned is that different things work for different people and I have developed a number of options. If you would find a meal plan helpful, or a protein shake that fulfills your nutritional requirements or day-by-day steps and information then you may want to check out my 7 and 21 day Stress Remedy Programs.
If you are curious about your own genetic make-up, check out this article that talks about genetic testing and how to go about it. Then once you have your genetic information, you’ll be able to fine-tune your diet, exercise, sleep, and stress plan to best meet the needs of your body.
If, on the other hand, you have already done genetic testing and are trying to find a practitioner to help you interpret the information and work out what to do with it, you can check out my Genetic Profiling Consultation Package here. With this program, I personally help you to complete the steps I describe in this article to benefit your health.
I’m so glad you are interested in this information and in how you can improve your health. Please do submit a comment below to share your experiences of how stress or lifestyle changes have influenced your health. And to make sure that you receive my next article in your inbox and receive a free guide to resetting your health, you can sign up for my weekly e-newsletter here.
16th August 2016
- Qi, Q, Chu, AY, Kang, JH, Huang, J, Rose, LM, Jensen, MK, Liang, L, Curhan, GC, Pasquale, LR, Wiggs, JL, De Vivo, I, Chan, AT, Choi, HK, Tamimi, RM, Ridker, PM, Hunter, DJ, Willett, WC, Rimm, EB, Chasman, DI, Hu, FB, Qi, L. (2014). Fried food consumption, genetic risk, and body mass index: gene-diet interaction analysis in three US cohort studies. BMJ 19;348:g1610.
- KilpelinenTO, Qi L, Brage S, et al. Physical activity attenuates the influence of FTO variants on obesity risk: a meta-analysis of 218,166 adults and 19,268 children. PLoS Med. 2011;8:e1001116. Epub 2011 Nov 1.
Hi Dr. Doni,
I feel that you are the one who has “saved my life.” With your guidance I am living a gluten free life as much
as possible. I no longer suffer from GERD and feel that my body has healed from its years of enduring unhealthy
practices. Setting my Specific Life Health Goals has focused my living choices. Thank you for all you continue to do to guide us.
You’re welcome Eleanor! Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m so happy for you to be feeling better and benefiting from all this information. Best wishes to you!