What the average person can learn about his body and its potential for staying alive is expanding by leaps and bounds. Access to this information is easy and affordable (i.e., 23andMe)and because knowledge is power, it has the ability to not only alter behavior, but to move mountains when it comes to the quality of a person’s future and prospects for longevity.
Nutrigenomics is an exciting and emerging branch of nutritional genomics. It’s the study of the effects of dietary supplements, healthy foods and lifestyle on gene expression. Nutrigenomics is focused on identifying and understanding molecular-level interaction between nutrients and other dietary bioactives with the genome. It explores interactions between nutritional food components and gene expression, identifying systemic relationships in health.
Simply put, Nutrigenomics is the concept of using nutrition to modify genetic potential. When it comes to individual health, it’s a game changer.
Nutrigenomics seeks to create understanding of and benefit from the interaction of foods and nutrients upon human biology, on a gene expression and molecular biology scale. By determining the mechanism of the effects of nutrients or the effects of a nutritional regime, nutrigenomics sets out to define the relationships between specific nutrients and specific nutrient regimes on human health.
This field has grown due to significant developments in our understanding of the genome and the underlying biological pathways that govern the processes of human health. The goal is evidence-based health recommendations, which are tailored for the underlying genomics background of each individual.
For example, if a genetic test shows someone has an increased risk of developing a disease on a particular organ system, certain products can be introduced to promote health within that organ system. This can be accomplished without going down the slippery slope of naming any type of disease. While nothing can be done to absolutely prevent onset of disease, steps can be taken to maximize the potential of preventive measures and increase an individual’s “healthspan."
The average lifespan of a person is currently 70 to 80 years. Nutrigenomics is all about healthspan. Healthspan is the number of years in a person’s lifespan that they remain healthy. Healthspan is the length of time a person can live an active, productive lifestyle and do the things they want to dowhether it’s skydiving or working in their garden. Healthspan is defined differently for everyone.
Medicus Research does human clinical trials for dietary supplements and other natural health products. We’re always struggling with the fact that regulations limited what we can test and how we can test. We’re also concerned with what FDA considers acceptable structure/function claims per DSHEA (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994). As a result, we developed methodologies for testing supplements that conform to the spirit of the regulations and help companies do the same. As we look at nutrigenomics, and the case of 23andMe, we need to apply the same filter that we have used for years with dietary supplements.
With dietary supplements, following DSHEA, a brand can make structure/function claims, but not disease or drug claimsthe same can be said for nutrigenomics. If a genetic test shows an individual has an increased risk of developing a disease on a particular organ system, certain products can be introduced to promote health within that system without mentioning any type of disease. This is the key.
It is clear nutrients and the genome interact as nutrients are a primary component of the environment in which we exist. Nutrients can activate or inhibit gene expression. In addition, genetic variants can change the activity of biological pathways and change the way the nutrients interact with these biological pathways. Nutrigenomics as a science seeks to describe the extent to which this occurs in order to optimize health outcomes.
While in some cases, the variations in our genome are deterministic and strictly define our health status, the vast majority of human genetic variation serves to guide, but not determine the state of our health. We are given a genetic potential and thus have significant choices we can make with regard to how well we make best use of this potential.
This genetic potential should be thought of as the sum of our genotypes, the collection of variations at specific locations throughout our genome. Our DNA is the blueprint for how we will develop and grow. However, our external environment, especially our diet, modifies this framework and can shift our development and healthspan toward greater health or disease.
Most importantly, nutrigenomics can modify genetic potentialbut it does not change it. A person can maximize his genetic potential, but he cannot redefine it. When I was in practice, I had a patient who was a vegan yoga instructor. When it came to living a healthy lifestyle, she did everything right. And yet, she got breast cancer. When we bring nutrigenomics into the picture, we can speculate that while her healthy practices didn’t prevent her from getting cancer, it may have nevertheless protected her. Perhaps because she took care of herself, she was older when the disease was first contracted than she otherwise would have been. It may have given her the gift of a longer healthspan. Perhaps the disease was less advanced due to her healthy habits; her ability to withstand treatments was potentially higher, and her ability to complete treatment and continue to be healthy could have been significantly increased. While breast cancer may have been in her genome, her healthier lifestyle may have maximized her wellness potential and placed her in a better position along the breast cancer bell curve, but she still got breast cancer. This was a difficult concept to explain to someone who had “done everything right".
With nutrigenomics, we’re talking about a range that is pre-determined, but the range can be pretty large. Height is a good example of this, because it’s an expression that we can all see.
For example, 60 to 80 percent of the variation in human height can be attributed to genetic factors, while 20 to 40 percent to environmental factors. Tall parents will likely have tall children (short parents will likely have short children), but environmental factors such as nutrition play a significant role. Supplementation with specific nutrients can make a significant difference in final outcomes. In the case of height, the introduction of diets high in protein during childhood can alter the final outcome, moving it on the genetic potential curve further toward greater height. The potential height range however is limited in each of these cases. The son of two 5’1" parents cannot be 6’4" regardless of how much protein he eats.
There are millions upon millions of expressions that we cannot see that operate along the same range, and just as dramatically. With this potential in mind, nutrigenomics is emerging as an important field of study because it seeks to address critical health problems.
The overall goal and the one that nutrigenomics should be focused on is to promote increasing ones healthspan to live a healthy lifestyle longer. Nutrigenomics can also provide tools to guide why specific supplements might be used to support particular structures or functions of the body. As our knowledgebase of nutrient and genome interactions grow, and as we as consumers are given the tools to make informed decisions regarding this information, it is conceivable that our healthspan will greatly increase in the coming decades.
The groundbreaking science behind nutrigenomics ultimately creates the possibility of increasing an individual’s years of wellness by maximizing genetic potential. While still in its infancy, its impact in the health industries over the next decade and beyond will be tremendous.
Our industry can have this conversation, but also protect itself. Nutrigenomics opens the door to supporting various health functions of the body, targeting areas that are on an individual’s genetic radar, and, as a result, being proactive by living a healthier lifestyle longer. Prevention of disease claims are prohibited, so promoting health through choices and nutrigenomics may be a way of quantifying and validating the role of dietary supplements in living a long and healthy life.
Hear Udani cover nutrigenomics and its effects on the natural products industry in the SupplySide West education session, “The Dawn of Nutrigenomics: Using Nutrition to Maximize Genetic Potential" on Tuesday, Oct. 7 at 1 p.m., Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas.
Jay Udani, M.D., is CEO of Medicus Research and Systemedicus™.