Can Diet Alter Your Genetic Destiny?

Disease Is Not Inevitable

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Bad GenesMany people seem to have the attitude that if obesity [or cancer, heart disease or diabetes] runs in their family, it is their destiny. They can’t really do anything about it, so why even try?

Most of us in the field of nutrition have felt for years that nothing could be further from the truth. But our belief was based on individual cases, not on solid science. That is no longer the case.

Recent scientific advances have given us solid proof that it is possible to alter our genetic destiny. A family predisposition to diabetes, for example, no longer dooms us to the same fate.

I’m not talking about something like the discredited Blood Type Diet. I’m talking about real science. Let me start by giving you an overview of the latest scientific advances.

Can Diet Alter Your Genetic Destiny?

The answer to this question is YES, and that answer lies in a relatively new scientific specialty called nutrigenomics – the interaction between nutrition and genetics. There are three ways in which nutrition and genetics interact:

1)     Your genetic makeup can influence your nutrient requirements.

The best characterized example of this is methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) deficiency.  MTHFR deficiency increases the requirement for folic acid and is associated with neural tube defects and other neurological disorders, dementia, colon cancer & leukemia.

In spite of what some blogs and supplement manufacturers would have you believe, supplementation with around 400 IU of folic acid is usually sufficient to overcome the consequences of MTHFR deficiency. 5-methylene tetrahydrofolate (also sold as methyl folate or 5-methyl folate) offers no advantage in absorption, bioavailability or physiological activity (Clinical Pharmacokinetics, 49: 535-548, 2010; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79: 473-478, 2004).

This is just one example. There are hundreds of other genetic variations that influence nutrient requirements – some known and some yet unknown.

2)     A healthy diet can reduce your genetic predisposition for disease.

This perhaps the one that is easiest to understand. For conceptual purposes let us suppose that your genetic makeup were associated with high levels of inflammation. That would predispose you to heart disease, cancer and many other diseases. However, a diet rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients could reduce your risk of those diseases.

This is just a hypothetical example. I’ll give some specific examples in the paragraphs below.

3)     Diet can actually alter your genes.

This is perhaps the most interesting scientific advance in recent years. We used to think that genes couldn’t be changed. What you inherited was what you got.

Now we know that both DNA and the proteins that coat the DNA can be modified, and those modifications alter how those genes are expressed. More importantly, we now know that those modifications can be inherited.

Perhaps the best characterized chemical modification of both DNA and proteins is something called methylation. Methylation influences gene expression and is, in turn, influenced by nutrients in the diet like folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, choline and the amino acid methionine.

Again this is just the “tip of the iceberg”. We are learning more about how diet can alter our genes every day.

Examples Of How Diet Can Alter Genetic Predisposition

Mature Man - Heart Attack Heart Disease

  • Perhaps the most impressive recent study is one that looked at the effect of diet on 20,000 people who had a genetic predisposition to heart disease (PLOS Medicine, October 2011, doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001106).

These people all had a genetic variant 9p21 that causes a 2 fold increased risk of heart attack. The study showed that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and nuts reduced their risk of heart attack to that of the general population.

  • Another study, the Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE) study (Diabetes Care, 27: 2767, 2004; Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, 24: 136, 2008), looked at genetic variations in the haptoglobin gene that influence cardiovascular risk. The haptoglobin 2-2 genotype increases oxidative damage to the arterial wall, which significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

When the authors of this study looked at the effect of vitamin E, they found that it significantly decreased heart attacks and cardiovascular deaths in people with the haptoglobin 2-2 genotype, but not in people with other haptoglobin geneotypes.

  • There was also a study called the ISOHEART study (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 82: 1260-1268, 2005; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 83: 592-600, 2006) that looked at a particular genetic variation in the estrogen receptor which increases inflammation and decreases levels of HDL. As you might expect, this genotype significantly increases cardiovascular risk.

Soy isoflavones significantly decreased inflammation and increased HDL levels in this population group. But they had no    effect on inflammation or HDL levels in people with other genotypes affecting the estrogen reception.

To put this in perspective, these studies are fundamentally different from other studies you have heard about regarding nutritional interventions and heart disease risks. Those studies were looking at the effect of diet or supplementation in the general population.

These studies are looking at the effect of diet or supplementation in people who were genetically predisposed to heart disease. These studies show that genetic predisposition [to heart disease] does not have to be your destiny. You can change the outcome!

Cancer

  • A healthy diet (characterized by high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grain products and low intakes of refined grain products) compared with the standard American diet (characterized by high intakes of refined grain products, desserts, sweets and processed meats) results in a pattern of gene expression that is associated with lower risk of cancer.  (Nutrition Journal, 2013 12:24).
  • A healthy lifestyle (low fat diet, stress management and exercise) in men with prostate cancer causes downregulation of genes associated with tumor growth (PNAS, 105: 8369-8374).
  • Sulforaphane, a nutrient found in broccoli, turns on genes that suppress cancer.

Diabetes

  • A study reported at the 2013 meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes showed that regular exercise activated genes associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes

Cellular Stress Response

  • A diet rich in antioxidant fruits and vegetables activates the cellular stress response genes that protect us from DNA damage, inflammation and reactive oxygen species (BMC Medicine, 2010 8:54).
  • Resveratrol, a nutrient found in grape skins and red wine, activates genes associated with DNA repair and combating reactive oxygen species while it reduces the activity of genes associated with inflammation, increased blood pressure and cholesterol production.

To put these last three examples (cancer, diabetes and cellular stress response) in perspective, they show that diet and supplementation can alter gene expression – and that those alterations are likely to decrease disease risk.

Obesity

  • Finally, an animal study suggests that maternal obesity may increase the risk of obesity in the offspring by increasing their taste preference for foods with lots of sugar and fats (Endocrinology, 151: 475-464, 2010).

The Bottom Line:

The science of nutrigenomics tells us that diet and genetics interact in some important ways:

1)     Your genetic makeup can influence your requirement for certain nutrients.

    • For example, methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) deficiency increases your requirement for folic acid.
    • Contrary to what many blogs would have you believe, folic acid is just as effective as 5-methylene tetrahydrofolate (also sold as methyl folate or 5-methyl folate) at correcting MTHFR deficiency.

2)     Healthy diet and lifestyle can overcome genetic predisposition to certain diseases. The best established example at present is for people genetically predisposed to heart disease, but preliminary evidence suggests that the risk of other diseases such as diabetes and cancer are altered by your diet.

3)     Diet can actually alter gene expression – for better or worse depending on your diet. Those alterations not only affect your health, but they may affect your children’s health as well.

4)     Nutrigenomics is a young science and many of the individual studies should be considered preliminary. However, the scientific backing is become stronger every day for what many experts in the field have believed for years.

“Your genes do not have to be your destiny. Healthy diet and lifestyle can overcome a genetic predisposition to many diseases.”

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Soy And Breast Cancer Recurrence

The Truth About Soy And Breast Cancer

 Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

SoybeanYou’ve probably heard the warnings: “Soy may increase the risk of breast cancer!” “Women with breast cancer shouldn’t use soy!”

The first warning was never true. Numerous clinical studies have shown that consumption of soy protein is associated with a lower risk of developing breast cancer.

Furthermore, the science behind the second warning has never been very strong. The concerns that soy might stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells was based primarily on cell culture experiments and one experiment in mice – even though a second experiment in mice came to the exact opposite conclusion.

Was The Hypothesis That Soy Could Increase The Risk Of Breast Cancer Recurrence Plausible?

The possibility that soy isoflavones could stimulate the growth of estrogen- responsive breast cancer was biochemically plausible because soy isoflavones bind to the estrogen receptor and have a very weak stimulatory effect (much weaker than estrogen itself).

Even that evidence was not definitive because soy isoflavones also turn on several tumor suppressor pathways in breast cells and help strengthen the immune system – so they could just as easily inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.

However, because the concerns were plausible and had not been definitively disproved, most experts, including me, recommended for several years that women with estrogen- responsive breast cancer might want to avoid soy protein.

Has The Hypothesis Been Rigorously Tested?

In fact, the definitive clinical studies have been performed, and it turns out for women who are breast cancer survivors, consumption of soy foods does not increase either the risk of breast cancer recurrence or of dying from breast cancer.

The first of these studies was reported in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers at Vanderbilt University and Shanghai Institute of Preventive Medicine (Shu et al, JAMA, 302: 2437-2443, 2009).

It was a large, well designed, study that enrolled 5042 Chinese women aged 20 to 75 years old who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and followed them for an average period of 3.9 years.

The women were divided into four groups based on the soy content of their diet (ranging from 5 grams/day to 15 grams/day). The results were clear cut. Breast cancer survivors with the highest soy intake had 25% less chance of breast cancer recurrence and 25% less chance of dying from breast cancer than the women with the lowest soy intake.

The effect was equally strong for women with estrogen receptor-positive and estrogen receptor negative cancers, for early stage and late stage breast cancer and for pre- and post-menopausal women. In short this was a very robust study.

The study also showed that soy protein intake did not interfere with tamoxifen, a drug that blocks the binding of estrogen to its receptor on cancer cells. Tamoxifen is used for both for treating estrogen-responsive breast cancer and preventing its recurrence. In this study, the reduction in the risk of breast cancer recurrence & death was just as great whether the breast cancer survivors were taking tamoxifen or not.

In fact, tamoxifen was protective only for women with low soy intake. It conferred no extra protection for the women at the highest level of soy intake because the soy isoflavones were also blocking the binding of estrogen to its receptor.

Other Clinical Studies

If that were the only published clinical study to test the soy-breast cancer hypothesis, I and other experts would be very cautious about making definitive statements. However, at least four more clinical studies have been published since then, both in Chinese and American populations. The studies have either shown no significant effect of soy on breast cancer recurrence or a protective effect. None of them have shown any detrimental effects of soy consumption by breast cancer survivors.

A meta-analysis of all 5 studies was published earlier this year (Chi et al, Asian Pac J Cancer Prev., 14: 2407-2412, 2013). This study combined the data from 11,206 breast cancer survivors in the US and China. Those with the highest soy consumption had a 23% decrease in recurrence and a 15% decrease in mortality from breast cancer.

The Bottom Line:

What does this mean for you if you are a breast cancer survivor?

1)     There are many reasons to include soy protein foods as part of a healthy diet. Soy foods are one of the highest quality vegetable protein sources and provide a great alternative to many of the high fat, high cholesterol animal proteins in the American diet.

2)     I personally feel that these studies are clear cut enough that breast cancer survivors no longer need to fear soy protein as part of a healthy diet.

3)     The responsible websites agree with this assessment. For example, WebMD and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) both say that breast cancer survivors need no longer worry about eating moderate amounts of soy foods.

4)     The irresponsible websites (I won’t name names, but you know who they are) are still warning breast cancer survivors to avoid soy completely. As a scientist I really have problem with people who are unwilling to change their opinions in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

5)     Of course, some of those bloggers have now shifted their arguments to say that it is unfermented or genetically modified soy that causes breast cancer. Those statements are equally bogus – but that’s another story for another time.

6)     Finally, I want to emphasize that the published studies merely show that soy does not increase the risk of breast cancer and is safe to use for breast cancer survivors. None of those studies suggest that soy is an effective treatment for breast cancer. The protective effects of soy are modest at best. If you have breast cancer, consult with your physician about the best treatment options for you.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.