Medical students were once taught that genes control everything. We now know that it is the environment working on those genes that determines your disease risk. This field of study is referred to as epigenetics. To be clear, when we talk about environment, we’re referring primarily to diet and lifestyle but a variety of other external factors also play a role. It’s what you eat, how much you move, how you live your life and what toxins you’re exposed to.
Let’s use breast cancer as an example. As it turns out, only a small percentage of women diagnosed with the disease have a family history. And even if a women is genetically predisposed, she’s not doomed to the same fate as her sister or aunt. Genes need to be turned on and the trigger is usually lifestyle-related.
One of the most powerful tumor promoters is a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Refined carbohydrates (flour, sugar) trigger sharp increases in IGF-1, which is one of the reasons that diabetics are at greater risk of developing cancer and also why ketogenic diets (high in fat, extremely low in carbohydrates) have been successful in shrinking tumors. Environmental contaminants such as dioxins and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury are also known to increase the risk of cancer as well as certain neurological diseases. On the other hand, compounds in certain immune-boosting foods can repair damaged DNA, keeping dormant cancer cells suppressed and helping to ensure they never progress to a metastatic state.
The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine demonstrated that 93% of diabetes, 81% of heart attacks, 50% of strokes, and 36% of all cancers can be prevented through proper diet and lifestyle choices. Dietary and lifestyle interventions don’t just reduce risk factors such as cholesterol, high blood sugar and high blood pressure. The impact goes much deeper. Environmental changes influence the expression of genes that control the processes that make us sick in the first place: inflammation, oxidative stress and metabolic dysfunction. Pharmaceutical drugs will not address these issues. Scientists have determined, however, that nutrients such as omega-3s and vitamin D influence genes in a positive way. Such research should give hope to those otherwise inclined to throw their hands in the air and resign themselves to the inevitability of a future diagnosis. Medical predestination is not set in stone. Genes can be turned on and off and you control the switch.