Can you change your genes?

By vegan naturopath Robyn Chuter.

What if you could change your genes, almost as quickly as you change your jeans? What if you could ‘switch off’ genes that cause disease processes, and ‘turn on’ genes that initiate healing processes?

Mention the word ‘genes’ to most people, and what they think of is fixed, immutable carriers of information. The term ‘blueprint’ is often used when discussing genes, as if they provide a very precise set of instructions that only has the possibility of producing one outcome. But the Human Genome Project (1) demonstrated beyond any doubt that this way of thinking about genes is outmoded and inaccurate.

Humans have approximately 20 000-25 000 genes – about the same number as mice and roundworms; not that many more than fruit flies (which have about 14 000 genes); and less than a water flea called Daphnia pulex which, at around 31 000, holds the record for the greatest number of genes in any organism whose genome has been sequenced (2).

We also share 97% of our genes with chimpanzees (3), but are clearly very different to them physically, behaviourally and psychologically. There is simply no way that we can explain the incredible complexity, diversity and adaptability of human beings using the old ‘genes = blueprint’ model.

While there is a small percentage of genes that act all by themselves to produce a particular outcome (for example, the genes that code for eye colour or blood type), this is the exception and not the rule. The majority of genes operate in remarkably complex networks, controlled by genes called transcription factors which themselves operate in complex networks.

And what controls these networks? Influences which scientists call ‘epigenetic factors’: changes in the environment of cells brought about by the level of various nutrients, hormones, neurotransmitters, toxins and so forth.

So if you want to change your genes in a health-promoting way, what should you do? Do what your mother always told you, and eat your fruit and veg. Not just one or two ‘superfoods’, by the way – the greater the diversity of plant foods in your diet, the more genes are influenced in a positive way.

Scientists used to think that fruit and vegies are good for your health because they contain antioxidants such as vitamin C and beta carotene. Antioxidants neutralise free radicals which could otherwise build up and damage DNA – the material our genes are made of – predisposing us to cancer and other diseases. However, human trials of supplementation of individual antioxidants have shown that they don’t protect against cancer, and some can increase the risk of cancer (4). What’s going on?

Well, it’s now known that phytochemicals (compounds that plants make to regulate their own metabolism, only some of which have antioxidant activity) actually increase our cellular defenses by activating those transcription factors I mentioned before. And what that means is that cells can recover their normal function even if their DNA is damaged by free radicals, rather than either dying, becoming dysfunctional, or turning cancerous.

The activation of transcription factors leads to a much longer-lasting protective effect than antioxidants, most of which have a very short half-life in the body.

In regards to dietary variety, a 2010 study (4) showed that adding 3 antioxidant-rich kiwifruit per day to the diet of male smokers with no known health problems, caused changes in the behaviour of 9 genes, 5 of them involved in cellular defence processes. But a dietary portfolio consisting of green tea, dog rose juice, cranberry juice, aronia juice, unsweetened bilberry juice, bilberry jam, bilberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, pomegranate, dark blue grapes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, red cabbage, kale, blue potatoes, tomatoes, dark chocolate, pecan nuts, sunflower seeds, walnuts, extra virgin olive oil, rosemary, thyme and oregano changed the behaviour of 44 genes, 25 of them involved in cellular defence.

The moral of the story? If you want to activate your ‘good genes’,

  1. Choose a diet centred on a wide variety of fruits and vegetables;
  2. Avoid taking antioxidant supplements that contain isolated nutrients such as beta carotene and vitamin E, and
  3. Don’t waste your money on high-priced ‘superfoods’ such as acai and maqui berry, which are sold on the basis of their high ORAC (antioxidant) score – which is far less protective against disease than activating your own cellular defence mechanisms.