Genetics and you

The secret to your health is found in your genes.

The Human Genome Pro-ject was finally completed in April 2003 after 13 years with much excitement in the science and health care community. This enormous undertaking is expected to help physicians and scientists understand how our family history impacts our own health to prevent disease and develop more successful treatments. One of the findings includes the fact that humans all share 99.5 percent of the same DNA, and there is only a 3.1 percent difference between humans and apes. With that, there is still a wealth of information in that 0.5 percent.


The genomics company 23andMe received negative press because they offered individuals an opportunity to uncover their genetics without professional counseling. The information elicited fear in some people because they believed they have little control over their genetic fates. In fact, none of us is immune to having some degree of genetic mutations but by understanding them, we can change their course.

The FDA issued a cease and desist order to 23andMe to stop providing the Personal Genome Service (PGS) in 2013. The company has since been working with the FDA to modify its reporting information. It is important to understand that in using this service, 23andMe has the right to use your data for research and anything else they desire. It is speculated that your data could be used for product marketing purposes.


Understanding genetics can give us an upper hand, but we still find that nurture is a powerful influence, because many genetic expressions can be modified by our diet, lifestyle, and internal and external stressors. Genetic expression is termed epigenetics. For example, the body uses genetics to code eye color and the epigenetic expression is blue eyes.

I describe genetic testing to my patients as getting the blueprints to a building. Though the blueprints for two buildings could look identical, the aesthetics (lighting, wall color, furniture design) can make the two spaces feel completely different. Genetics are our blueprints, but the way we live can affect the way we experience them. In general practice, genetics are used to help understand a persons’ physiologic tendency to emphasize prevention.

At this point, we are able to see the genetic blueprint via testing, but we still have a difficult time seeing the exact epigenetic expression. Doctors try use the blueprint in tandem with clinical information like family history, personal history, and lab results to properly interpret the whole picture. Having a better understanding of the expression is why it is important to have a doctor or genetic counseling specialist on board to help you understand the information.


Aside from disease risk, different subsections of genetics have emerged that can impact disease risk, such as nutrigenomics, which explores a person’s capacity to utilize nutrition from food. Nutrigenomic markers can analyze a person’s ability to tolerate foods containing caffeine, lactose, and gluten. It can also help you understand what diet is more compatible with your body and its ability to absorb certain nutrients.

For example, a common nutrigenomic marker is the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) gene. This gene indicates whether a person could have difficulty creating active folate from folate-rich foods like kale, asparagus, spinach, and broccoli. If a person has difficulty creating active folate levels, we can see health effects like cardiovascular inflammation, nutrient deficiency related anemia, anxiety, depression, poor sleep, and fatigue. Most of these health issues are extremely common, and knowing you need extra nutrient supplementation can help treat or prevent these symptoms.

It is important to work with a professional because genes cannot be compartmentalized, and they often work together. There are companies like Vitagene, which partner with doctors to create customized wellness regimens for patients based on genetic data and the patient’s current lab results.


Mapping the human genome was quite the feat, but there will be much more to understand in terms of utilizing the information for the betterment of society. It has been vastly helpful in helping people understand their likelihood of developing chronic illnesses like breast and ovarian cancer, Celiac disease, age-related macular degeneration, psoriasis, bipolar disorder, and Parkinson’s disease. The next steps will be tailored treatments using the genetic information.

In terms of everyday nutrition and health, technological advancements continue to encourage the basic principles of continued health — eat clean and fresh, keep active, and stress less. These three things that nurture our bodies can have a great impact on our nature.

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Thalia Farshchian is a naturopathic doctor at Discover Health. Her background includes both conventional and alternative modalities, and her practice is primarily focused on weight management, hormone imbalances, and gastrointestinal conditions. E-mail: [email protected]