Genes get turned on, turned off, or modified by our environment; what we eat, who we surround ourselves with, and how we lead our lives.
Lynne McTaggart, author of The Intention Experiment
Have you heard that cancer is a genetic disease? That it’s just “bad luck” that you have those genes? Actually your genetics play a small role in if you get cancer, it’s the environment they swim in that will determine if they express themselves as cancer causing agents.
Genes function more like light switches. Just because a person tests positive for the BRCA mutation, for example, does not mean they will get breast cancer. Our genes can be flipped on or off, depending on our exposure to certain environmental factors, including diet, lifestyle and stress.
Researchers in the emerging field of Epigenetics (on top of genes), have been studying these environmental influences that are responsible for turning that switch “on” or “off”. They have determined that our genetic health is almost entirely dependent upon the food we eat and how it’s metabolized in our bodies. Nutragenomics studies the interaction between diet and genes.
An example of how powerful food is looking at methylation (I’ll discuss that later). Dark leafy greens effect the gene expression of methylation which is super important in keeping your body working optimally and protecting your DNA. There is also a growing body of evidence that certain dietary compounds like folate, B12, tea polyphenols, cruciferous vegetables and more, have anti-carcinogenic properties that influence your DNA to keep expressing in a healthy way.
There are two types of genetic mutations; Germline, or hereditary mutations you inherit from a parent and are present in every cell in your body for your lifetime, and Somatic mutations which are alterations in DNA that occur after birth. They result from diet, lifestyle, stress, sleep and exposure to carcinogens such as smoke, pesticides, chemicals in our air and water.
Get this, there are over ten million billion cell divisions that occur over the average human lifetime!! These Somatic mutations are happening all the time, thousands of times a day, as cells divide and grow new cells. These mutations can alter a cell’s programming, sometimes in ways that convert a healthy cell into a cancer cell.
Cancer would develop all the time if it were not for our surveillance system which silences “oncogenes.” An oncogene is any gene that causes cancer. Nearly all cancer cells have defects in their genome surveillance system.
Supporting Your Surveillance Team
While it’s easy to accept our modern life as “normal”, in reality the changes in our diet and lifestyles over the last fifteen thousand years – especially the last two hundred – are so significant our ancestors would not recognize this modern life and our genes absolutely do not!
Our diverse and nutrient dense diet that established our genetic baseline is now so completely different from what we evolved from, it’s no wonder our genetics are switching “on” and expressing in an unhealthy way. Our ancient engines (your Mitochondria) where never meant to run on a bowl of boxed, sugary cereal. It’s like putting sugar in your car engine and expecting it to run with no glitches.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate a very diverse nutrient-dense diet. They ate more wild protein, less carbs and ten times more fiber and double the amount of healthy fat than America eats today. Genetic mutations caused by the S.A.D. (Standard American Diet) have increased our risk for cancer, turned down our surveillance team and opened the door to diabetes, heart disease and auto-immune disorders, just to name a few.
While all nutrients are vital to overall well-being, there is a standout called Folate. Folate is a water soluble B vitamin, B9, and is essential for numerous genetic processes including DNA synthesis, cell formation and regeneration. A folate deficiency is strongly associated with “hypomethylation” of DNA and an increased risk for breast cancer and the promotion of cancer in general.
Humans are not capable of synthesizing folate in the body so it must come from the diet. The top sources of folate are: spinach, endive, boy choy, romaine lettuce, asparagus, mustard and turnip greens.
Genetic testing for the MTHFR gene has revealed a large segment of our population does not “methylate” correctly. If you are currently dealing with cancer, being tested for the methylation genes (there are numerous genes) would be a great idea as you may need to supplement. It’s important to supplement with the active form of folate, Methylfolate. Unfortunately, most vitamin supplements contain Folic Acid which cannot metabolize and as it becomes elevated in the body, may stimulate pre-existing cancer cells. It’s important to avoid synthetic vitamins.
The bottom line is the connection between our genes and cancer comes down to the environment they are “swimming” in. Think of a fish bowl….if you have a bowl of sick fish you treat the water, not the fish. In our case, the water being the foods we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the stress we have and the emotional baggage we carry. Yes, we can also get genetically tested and see where our unique mutations may be and learn how to address those with nutrition as an added step in our cancer fighting tool kit.
Dr. Nasha Winters, ND, L.Ac., FABNO and Jess Higgins Kelley, MNT, The Metabolic Approach to Cancer, pgs. 23, 24, 30.32