Human, Heal Thyself…An Introduction to the Concept of Nutrigenomics

The concept of food as medicine is not a new one. From honey used as antiseptic in ancient Babylon to the modern day avoidance of trans fats to (hopefully) prevent cancer, humans have always thought beyond the taste of what they consume to the impact on their health. The adage of “You Are What You Eat” certainly applies, since the food we choose affects what happens to our bodies.

For example, cinnamon may have an impact on insulin resistance as a general concept, but it may vary in effectiveness between individual ethnicities or genders. Enter the wave of the future: the study of nutrition interactions with our genes (Nutrigenomics).

Turns out the old adage that originally was only generally applicable, just got a whole lot more complicated and interesting. Perhaps a revision to the adage is needed — “Who You Are Says What To Eat”.

On a very basic level, our DNA determines many things that make us unique individuals. Our eye color, skin tone, and IQ are the result of our specific genomes (sets of DNA). While DNA makes up our genes, it is gene “expression” that determines our characteristics. Gene expression is when that DNA code goes through a multi-step process to become protein, which then affects what happens in the body. How genes are expressed can impact whether we are prone to cancer or if we are a family group with exceptional longevity. The food we eat cannot give us genes we don’t already have, but it can affect how our genes are expressed and result in different health outcomes.

Many illnesses have a combination of “Nature vs. Nurture” involved in their processes. “Nature” in this context refers to the inherent genetics a person is born with. “Nurture” refers to the impact of the environment on those genetics, with nutrition being an important environmental component.

There is a growing trend in modern day society to avoid using prescription medications to treat illness unless absolutely necessary. Diabetes and metabolic syndrome are prime examples of illnesses that can sometimes be “controlled with lifestyle changes” including diet, if caught early.

While some health adages are a good general rule, advancements in science have allowed us to better understand our genetic makeup to specifically target what our personal profile tells us will nutritionally work the best. With the genomic revolution driving increasingly advanced research on our DNA, individuals may soon be able to get health care providers to “prescribe” specific dietary choices as well as medications.

Advancements are also being made in studying the profiles of various diets in the search for bioactive compounds, which are the elements of a certain food that make it effective in promoting health. An example of a bioactive compound would be resveratrol, a compound found in red grapes (and red wine) thought to have anti-cancer properties. The nutrigenomic dance would then look like this: A person may consume the food item (red grapes) in order to get the helpful bioactive compound (resveratrol), which in turn may be more effective/protective in certain people (specific gene sets) than others.

Genome-driven personalized medicine using individually tailored nutritional plans could soon become a reality instead of just a futuristic concept. Cutting edge research on the specific impact of nutrition on the genetics of different human races or cultures is key. It may turn out that for some of us at least, a certain kind of apple a day really can keep the doctor away.