Studying the human genome is a huge task. It took the human genome project 13 years and international collaboration to sequence the human DNA. With the completion of the Human Genome Project, we now have acquired the complete list of building blocks necessary to put together a functional human being. But learning how these parts assemble and understanding how they work together is still a massive area of study. Mapping the human DNA is something like acquiring the list of parts to a complex space shuttle. It’s a good start but doesn’t mean we know how to build the shuttle.
What’s understood so far
Instructions to build and maintain an organism, including a human being, are contained in its DNA. An organism’s genome holds it’s complete genetic information contained in its DNA. Each cell of an organism has an identical, complete molecule of DNA containing all the genes to build that one organism. A gene is a portion of DNA. And because it’s able to replicate itself, it’s able to transfer information. While you cannot aquire your parents DNA, can do inherit genes from both of them.
Genes mostly hold the instructions to make proteins in the body. These instructions include how the body deals with and responds to pathogens, specific foods, pollutants and other elements of your environment. This is important for health as proteins and enzymes are involved in many body processes. If individuals either lack certain genes or have faulty gene coding, the instructions for certain proteins or enzymes may be missing, which may have detrimental effects on health.
99.9% of all our genetic material is identical in humans, which is what identifies us as a species. The 0.1% of our genetic material that is different from person to person is what makes each person unique (causing differences in things like our metabolic rate, hair and eye color, height, and also our nutrition needs). These differences between people are called gene variations or polymorphisms. Some gene variations may cause rare diseases (often referred to as gene mutations) while others are more common.
Gene variations can interact with other genes and with factors in our environment (including diet, smoking, physical activity etc) to play a role in the development of complex diseases (such as type 2 diabetes, asthma, or cardiovascular disease). Understanding the role of these variations holds the promise of understanding individual requirements, predispositions to diseases, responses to drugs, and of course, nutritional requirements.
What we can do
There are new gene tests available all the time which can help us understand if a person has gene mutations that make them predisposed to certain illnesses; however, despite the incredible amount of progress in the understanding of human genetics, most complex conditions are still unclear.
There are however, many ways that we can start to use foods to help optimize the health of our DNA. Nutritional Genomics studies how foods affect our genes and how our genetic differences can affect the way we respond to nutrients in the food we eat. There are three main areas that you can start to consider If you’re looking to use foods as medicine, in regards to nutritional genomics.
First, we have a group of foods rich in the nutrients that help to prevent DNA damage. DNA damage is important to prevent, because damage to our DNA, such as mutations, can lead on to more serious health conditions, such as chronic disease or cancer. So having a diet rich in nutrients – such as carotenoids and foods rich in vitamin E – can help to prevent DNA damage from occurring.
Secondly, there are foods that are important for the making of DNA, or DNA synthesis. Foods rich in nutrients such as folate, vitamin B12, zinc, and magnesium.
Finally, we have foods rich in nutrients that are incredibly important for DNA repair. DNA repair is a very important mechanism in the body -the body has the ability to repair areas, or mutations, that may have occurred due to DNA damage -so we want these to be functioning well. There are a number of key supporting nutrients that can assist with DNA repair, such as vitamin B3 and folate again.
There are a wide variety of foods rich in these key nutrients that can support the health of our DNA. It’s important to remember that it’s not just about the nutrients alone though, so just taking a supplement of key nutrients won’t provide the same benefits as eating foods rich in these nutrients. This is because foods contain so much more than the nutrients that we already know about. There are so many unknown properties of foods that we’re only just starting to learn more about.