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Reprogram your genes
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5 Steps to Reprogram Your Genes

There are fixed, heritable genes (such as skin and eye colour) and there are genes that can be influenced daily according to our lifestyle. These genes are continually directing the production of proteins that control how your body functions at every second of the day. Genes turn on or off (sometimes at a rapid rate) only in response to signals they receive from the surrounding environment – signals that you provide based on the food you eat, the exercise you do (or don’t do!), your quality of sleep, sun exposure and so on. Genes are like light switches that turn on and off and influence every element of body function. So, you are in the drivers seat to take control of your genes expression. Here are some tips for you:

  1. Awareness Start thinking about your everyday lifestyle and how your genes may be responding to it. Each day your genes will respond positively or negatively depending on how you are living your life.
  1. Exercise – The activity level of skeletal muscle modulates a range of genes that produce dramatic molecular changes, and keep us healthy (Neufer & Booth, 2005). Even one single vigorous workout can set off a chain reaction of health benefits through activation of key genes. Exercise can suppress the expression or genes that contribute to chronic diseases, whilst up-regulating healthy gene expression almost immediately. So, next time you’re sweating it out in a workout, know you are having a positive affect on your genes. It maybe the motivation you need to go that extra mile!
  1. Nutrition Studies have shown that different intakes of food can affect your gene expression through a process called methylation. Methylation reactions are critical for many bodily functions and need significant amounts of methyl groups from food to function optimally. We have known for many years that certain foods which are high in B vitamins help with methylation, such as cooked vegetables (especially green vegetables & beets), unprocessed meats and quinoa – but we also need other foods to make up a healthy, balanced diet.

CARBOHYDRATE AND GENE EXPRESSION

Recent research from the University of Science and Technology in Norway has shed light on the gene, expressing effects of certain types of diet. “We have found that a diet with 65% carbohydrates, which often is what the average Norwegian eats in some meals, causes a number of classes of genes to work overtime,” says Berit Johansen, a professor of biology at NTNU.

This has significant implications for people who follow recommended dietary guidelines and eat a diet that has 55-65% calories from carbohydrate.

“Genes that are involved in type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and some forms of cancer respond to diet, and are up-regulated, or activated, by a carbohydrate-rich diet,” says Johansen.

The researchers concluded that both high and very low carbohydrate diets were wrong, but carbs should be capped at 40% calories.  “A healthy diet shouldn’t be made up of more than one-third carbohydrates (up to 40 per cent of calories) in each meal, otherwise we stimulate our genes to initiate the activity that creates inflammation in the body.”

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?

The Ritualize 80/20 food pyramid will give you a great balanced diet that is lower in carbohydrate and higher in fat and protein than traditional government guidelines. Eat plenty of fresh, locally grown vegetables and a moderate amount of fruit, as well as grass fed, free range meat and chicken, sustainable fish, legumes, nuts and seeds and drink plenty of water. Most of your fat should come from extra virgin olive oil and avocado, with moderate amounts of coconut oil, dairy and other animal fats as well as minimal amounts of processed fats and commercial vegetable oils. The big key is to avoid processed foods and eat mostly stuff that has been alive. Home cooking is always the best, but for the time poor, there are more and more healthier choices in supermarkets and grocery shops for a quick, easy meal.

  1. Stress – we have known for many years that chronic stress can have detrimental effects on your health, and we now know the biochemical pathways behind such negative effects. Even negative thoughts can stimulate the production of genes that increase our chances of chronic disease, but we need to understand the ‘Goldilocks effect’ of stress – we need a certain amount of stress to stimulate us and help us to adapt. This process is known as ‘hormesis’ and enables us to develop stress resistance. Just like an athlete can either under-train or over-train, we can get too little or too much stress. Athletes optimise their training by paying close attention to volume, intensity and duration, and so should we. During a period of prolonged and more intense stress, our recovery needs to be optimal – just like an athlete.
  1. Psychosocial – a number of other areas are emerging that can affect gene expression. We know that being socially isolated or rejected can up-regulate genes involved in dangerous metabolic inflammation, but being socially connected can have a positive effect on our wellbeing. Meditation has recently been found to suppress inflammatory genes and can even increase grey matter density and the practice of gratitude can enhance your mood and wellbeing. Doing a daily gratitude ritual, practicing a few 1-minute meditations throughout the day and taking time to connect socially will pay huge dividends over time.

The bottom line is that a range of interacting lifestyle behaviours affect our gene expression and our overall health. Eating well will give you the energy to exercise and exercising regularly will help you to manage stress and enhance your focus, as will regular 1-minute meditations and a daily gratitude ritual. This will put you in the right frame of mind to cultivate social relationships, which will make you more positive – a very positive lifestyle loop!

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Effects of antioxidant supplements
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Are Antioxidant supplements making you weaker?

Effects of antioxidant supplementsThe marketing of antioxidant supplements

We have been marketed to by antioxidant supplements for years, with their health and longevity benefits being touted no end. The theory goes something like this:

1. Free radicals, or reactive oxygen species, create oxidative stress and other cellular damage and accelerate the raging process.

2. Anto-oxidants neutralise free radicals and therefore protect against damage.

3. Therefore, if we consume anti-oxidant supplements it will enhance our disease protection and longevity.

Does the science reflect this theory?

Whilst there is good evidence for points 1 and 2 above, most of the studies in support of number 2 are performed in vitro, i.e., in test tube or petri dishes, and not in free-living humans. As for point 3, it may surprise you to discover that numerous clinical trials and metabolic studies show no benefit, or even harm, from using antioxidant supplements. Here are some examples:

  • A 2004 American Heart Association meta-analysis of 20 clinical trials showed no benefits for the use of Vitamins C, E and beta carotene in the prevention of heart attacks or strokes, and no reduction in mortality.  Importantly, the authors acknowledged that the scientific evidence from observational studies supports the conclusion that “a diet high in food sources of antioxidants and other cardioprotective nutrients” reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease, they found no support for any benefits from the routine use of antioxidant vitamin supplements. 
  • A 2008 Cochrane Institute meta-analysis of 67 randomised clinical trials on antioxidant supplements (beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium) found no evidence that antioxidant supplements prevent mortality in healthy people or patients with various diseases. The authors said that “treatment with betacarotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality” and that “potential roles of vitamin C and selenium on mortality need further study”. 
  • A 2001 University of Washington randomized trial showed evidence of positive harm from taking a cocktail of antioxidants in patients on statin niacin therapy. The supplements reduced levels of HDL and increased levels of coronary blockage . 
  • A study at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute showed that cardiac stem cells cells that were loaded with high doses of antioxidants developed genetic abnormalities that predispose to the development of cancer. 
  • A 2009 study by German and American researchers found that daily supplementation with 1000 mg Vitamin C and 400 IU Vitamin E  during a 4-week exercise program by healthy young men suppressed improvements in insulin sensitivity and suppressed production of other protective genes observed in the non-supplementing control group. 

How is it that administering the same antioxidant chemicals that we are commonly told that make fruits, vegetables and herbs “protective”, actually appears to be ineffective or even harmful when taken as dietary supplements?

A clue comes from the last study quoted above – the 2009 paper that was titled “Anti-oxidants prevent health-promoting effects of physical exercise in humans”. Exercise creates free radicals, which cause metabolic stress, and the body responds by up regulating powerful protective genes – this is a hormetic response (as covered in my last blog post). Researchers such as Edward Calabrese and Mark Mattson call these genes “vitagenes”, because they ramp up our own internal defences against free radicals, which are much more powerful that any pill that we can take.

By taking antioxidant supplements, we suppress the increase in our own internal defences that would otherwise occur in response to the exercise stress.

So, getting back to the antioxidant theory at the start of this post – what is missing in this theory is the role of our body’s own innate defences system for handling toxic chemicals like free radicals. While our immune system handles invading organisms and large proteins, another system is needed to deal with chemical toxins. It’s called the xenobiotic metabolism; and it’s broken into 3 ‘waves’ of protective enzymes – Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III, which act synergistically to protect against damage and disease.  

We must understand that the body is an adaptive system and it will adjusts to maintain a relatively constant state, known as homeostasis. The science of hormesis states that if you provide it with external “help”, it will reduce the effort in building its own internal defences.  Just as being sedentary results in muscle wastage and a decrease in fitness, it turns out that chronic consumption of exogenous antioxidants reduces the “pressure” on your adaptive stress response to ramp up its own endogenous antioxidant defence system.  In biological terms, taking antioxidants leads to homeostatic down regulation of the antioxidant response element.  This actually makes biological sense:  Why should the organism expend precious energy and resources building a defence system if the defence is provided for “free” through diet or supplements?

So it appears that, by consuming more antioxidants, we become dependent upon them and, perversely, we reduce our innate ability to detoxify.  So, now that we know that our endogenous antioxidant defence system is so potent, what steps can we take to build it up? We get the answers from the science of hormesis, and I will explore how to up regulate these powerful natural defences to disease in the next few blogs.

Sub-lethal poisons in food
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Get Your Daily Dose of Poison – Seriously!

Sub-lethal poisons in foodIn my last post I wrote about the fact that the marketing and hype around taking antioxidant supplements is not supported by the research – and that numerous research studies show that taking anti-oxidant supplements (especially individual supplements) may actually cause us harm – partly by down-regulating our own natural antioxidant defence system.

However, it’s important to differentiate between supplements and real food – fruits and vegetables contain an abundance of anti-oxidants, and they have them in a complex cocktail that is necessary to sustain life.

There are quite a few researchers who question whether the quantity of antioxidants in fruit and vegetables is enough to have a significant physiological effect in humans, and that the antioxidant defence model has been massively oversimplified. I (and many others) feel that we should be talking much less about anti-oxidants and much more about plant botanicals, or phytochemicals, in general.

Polyphenols are a sub-class of phytochemicals and some of them act as antioxidants (improving cell survival through complex mechanisms), whereas some act as pro-oxidants.

As we have over-egged (and over-simplified) the antioxidant story, I want to focus on the pro-oxidant story, which is really a story of hormesis in action. Remember from earlier posts that hormesis is the stress resistance that comes from sub-lethal exposures to toxins that would be lethal at higher doses.

It turns out that sub-lethal exposure to pro-oxidants in fruit & veg up-regulates protectives genes (increases gene expression), which not only increases our powerful anti-oxidant defence systems, but can also prevent tumor growth.

Let’s take the cells of our brain, known as neurons, and investigate how hormetic plant chemicals can protect against Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).

WARNING – geeky science bit inbound!! – It is known that Galantamine (from the snowdrop plant) increases levels of an important neurotransmitter, acetylcholine (which is reduced by AD). Cathechinsfrom Tea, Caffeine from tea & coffee, and Capsaicin from capsicums/peppers help this acetylcholine to release calcium ions in the other neurons (which is how the brain works). Inside the neurons, the plant TOXINS Sulphoraphane (from brocolli), Curcumin(from the spice tumeric), Resveratrol (from grapes – and wine!) and Allumin(from onions and garlic) all help to increase the expression of protective genes, which produce growth factors as well as our endogenous anti-oxidants that combat the cellular stresses that create the damaged proteins that are teh hallmark of Alzheimer’s Disease.

This is not a process that is exclusive to the brain – it happens in all of our cells and it turns out that the vast array of plant phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables play critical roles in cellular metabolism.

There are a long list of phytochemicals that have been broken down into numerous sub-classes (such as Flavenoids, isoflavones, Lignans and Cartenoids) and studies have shown that these plant phytochemicals protect us against Aging, Cardiovascular Diseases, Diabetes, Cancer and Brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases.

The bottom line – eat real foods that we have co-existed with for millions of years, rather than eating a diet with significant processed foods and trying to off-set it with chemically manufactured supplements.

Lastly, remember that hormesis is about a sub-lethal exposure and that although many plant phytochemicals are great for our health, overconsumption of some of these can have both beneficial and harmful effects – soy isoflavines being one example. Eating a varied diet rich in fruit and veg will help keep you healthy –partly by exposing you to small doses of poison!