So how do we help our genes continue to work well as we age? How can we prevent DNA damage? Let’s take a look at three diet and lifestyle factors you can optimise to support healthy genetic ageing – micronutrients, inflammation and stress.
Micronutrients and DNA Health
Micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals play key roles in the making and repairing of DNA. Too much, or not enough, micronutrients can cause nicks and breaks in the DNA bonds. If the cell doesn’t have enough key micronutrients, then it can’t make the right proteins to repair itself. This can lead to mutations. There is a developing body of research which links DNA damage to infertility, cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodevelopmental disease, cognitive decline and risk of early death.
Key micronutrients for making, repairing, and keeping DNA working well are:
- Polyphenols (natural beneficial chemicals in plants)
- The antioxidant vitamins A & C
- B2, B3, B6, B9, B12
- Zinc & iron
- Magnesium & calcium
- Manganese & selenium
We can get all of these from a diet rich in deeply-coloured fruits and vegetables, lots of dark green leafy vegetables, lean high-quality meat and fish, unprocessed whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and healthy fats and oils. For those of us who don’t, or can’t, eat enough of these foods, supplements may be an option.
If you are thinking of taking supplements it is best to do it under professional guidance, otherwise you might just be wasting your money on ineffective supplements that are not the right fit for you. Where possible, get your nutrient levels tested first. Feel free to ask me if you need any help or guidance with that. Then order a genetic test to learn your genetic predispositions for key micronutrients. Then, you can use both specific foods and supplements to make up for any shortfalls and reduce your risk of the problems that deficiencies can cause to your health.
Healthy ageing depends on good ‘methylation’, which is a biochemical detoxification process that happens in every cell, all the time. Vitamin B6, folate (B9) and B12 are all needed to keep the methylation cycle working efficiently and prevent the cells normal toxic waste products from building up. This detoxification process requires a protein-encoding gene called the MTHFR gene to make an enzyme to convert dietary folate (B9) into active methyl-folate. There are common genetic variations (SNPs) within the MTHFR gene, which can slow the function of this enzyme by up to 30-40%. If you have this variation there are plenty of dietary and lifestyle changes you can make to help yourself. For example, eat lots more green leafy vegetables and other foods high in folate such as eggs, asparagus, beetroots, citrus fruit and Brussel Sprouts. You could also add a methyl-folate and B12 supplement (but remember to test to make sure you keep within a normal range); avoid exposure to chemicals in your diet and environment (household cleaning products, body sprays, creams, pesticide residues, ultra-processed food); practice stress reduction on a daily basis and get the right amount of sleep for you.
Inflammation is a driver of chronic disease. Certain genes are responsible for regulating the amount of protective inflammation that our immune system creates in our body. We need a certain amount of inflammatory processes to repair cell damage, clean up dying cells, repair injuries and recover from infections. Again, it’s the balance, not too much and not too little, which is the hallmark of a healthy body. A prolonged, excessive inflammatory response is associated with many degenerative diseases, while an under-responsive immune system leaves us vulnerable to infection. We can influence our levels of inflammation in many ways, one crucial way is by eating an anti-inflammatory diet, like the Mediterranean diet.
In 2010, Bakker et al. published a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. They studied various anti-inflammatory dietary compounds, resveratrol (found in the skins of red grapes and red wine), green tea extract, vitamin E, vitamin C, omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and tomato extract. Together, they were given to overweight men who had elevated blood markers of inflammation. Researchers saw specific changes in gene expression that brought about lowered inflammation – a great result for their disease risk.
Here are some anti-inflammatory compounds you may want to increase in your diet.
Omega 3 fatty acids – Foods that contain essential omega 3 fatty acids are salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, trout, walnuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds and chia seeds. We all have different SNPs in the Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha gene which influence our unique level of inflammation.
Curcumin – Curcumin is found in turmeric. Turmeric blocks a pro-inflammatory molecule, Nuclear Factor-kappaB (NF-kB) that turns on genes related to inflammation.
Antioxidants – Many berries like strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and other cherries contain antioxidant compounds that have been shown to help reduce inflammation and help recovery from hard exercise.
Beetroot juice – Beetroot contain a micronutrient called betaine which has anti-inflammatory properties. It also dilates blood vessels to helps get plenty of oxygen to muscles when you exercise.
Cooked and sun-dried tomatoes – These are high in lycopene which activates antioxidant production in our cells, and is particularly beneficial for prostate health.
Onions, leeks and garlic – These are high in quercetin which turn off a pro-inflammatory gene called Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha (TNF-a).
Cruciferous vegetables – These are broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Pac Choi, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, rocket, greens, horseradish, kohlrabi and Mizuna. If you cut up your cruciferous veggies an hour before cooking, it allows the formation of more sulforaphane which is a protective antioxidant and anti-cancer compound.
Herbs & Spices – These contain many natural compounds or “bioactives” which communicate to our cells. For example, turmeric contains Curcumin; garlic contains Allicin, ginger contains Gingerols, onions contain Quercetin, black pepper contains Piperidine, chilli’s contain Capsaicin. Many of these have been shown to have anti-tumor activity by stimulating tumor-suppressor genes.
Did you know that your response to stress is part-influenced by your genes? It certainly explains why some lucky individuals just seem to perform better under stress, whilst for others, high stress situations just makes them anxious and underperform under pressure.
Chronic stress has been shown to shorten telomeres. Telomeres are the protective caps on the end of our chromosomes. An analogy would be like the protective plastic wrapping around the end of your shoe laces, preventing them from fraying. Each time a cell divides it loses a little bit of its telomere. This is repaired by an aptly-called enzyme, called telomerase. But long-term production of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline decreases available telomerase, so the chromosome’s lifespan is reduced. The cell dies prematurely and we age, just a little bit faster.
Part of our body’s stress response is controlled by the COMT gene, which regulates the body’s metabolism and detoxification of our chemical neurotransmitters, like dopamine. Some of us have COMT genes that clear the brain of dopamine rapidly, allowing them to cope with stress and perform well under pressure. These types have been nicknamed the “warrior-types”. While others have a slower and more steady response – the “worrier-type”. For these people, dopamine can build up in the brain’s frontal lobe. This excess may cause the classic stress symptoms of anxiety, worry, panic attacks and insomnia. In severe cases it is thought to be associated with mental health problems including obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.
This can seem depressing if genetic testing shows that you have a slow COMT gene variation. But the good news is that you can alter the impact that a slow COMT gene variation has on your body. Recent research suggests that those with slow COMT gene SNPs, although prone to worry, performed significantly better than those with fast gene SNPs in cognitive and memory tests, provided they were relaxed. So, by learning to handle stress better, exercise regularly, and learn to reflect positively on your past successes, you can train yourself to see potential stressful situations as positive challenges and over-ride your natural predispositions.
In my last post, I will give you details of the DNAfit test. You can see exactly what you get for your money and decide if this genetic test is for you.