Claire Lavelle: Unlocking the power of your genetics

Lifestyle journalist and doyenne of all things health, Liz Jones, wrote an interesting piece this weekend (YOU magazine, Mail on Sunday 06.11.16) that focused on whether the anxiety she has lived with her entire life had a genetic component (ie. can be attributed to nature, meaning, as she put it, that ‘I am perhaps not entirely to blame for my shortcomings.’) Or had it somehow been shaped by her parenting and early life experiences, and was therefore primarily to do with nurture?

She cites the book Not In Your Genes (£20, Vermillion) by psychologist Oliver James, in which he argues that it’s our upbringing, rather than genetics, that shapes our personalities (meaning that as adults, we have the capacity to change). James is a psychologist, not a medical doctor, so focuses less on how our genetics predetermine our physical health, but the plethora of genetic profiling tests that are currently taking the personalised healthcare market by storm indicate there’s enormous interest in how our biochemistry shapes our wellbeing – and how the lifestyle choices we make on a daily basis affect that biochemistry in turn.

I once remember thinking, as I huffed and puffed around the school playground after my gazelle-like best friend as she sprinted effortlessly from one end of the woodchip to the other, that I could run all I liked and I’d never be as speedy or agile as she (we couldn’t have been more than five or six at the time).  You only had to look at us to see that one of us was a natural athlete and one us wasn’t (it’s OK, I’m over it – promise). Thirty-something years later, a genetic profiling test I reviewed while working at Healthy magazine proved what my six-year-old self had suspected: in terms of fitness, I’m better suited to strength or power sports than those that require fleetness of foot, and although I could probably go on forever (that’ll be Welsh pit pony heritage) it’s unlikely I’ll be breaking any land speed records any time soon.

So far, so obvious? Most of us can recognise our body types and the strengths and weaknesses these afford us. But genetic profiling tests tell us much more than whether we’re shotputters or sprinters. They reveal our tolerance to caffeine, salt and alcohol, how well we absorb and use essential vitamins, minerals and fats, whether we’re predisposed to dairy or gluten intolerance, are better suited to a vegetarian or meat-based diet, how susceptible we are to soft tissue injury (and how quickly we recover) and how efficiently our bodies use oxygen during exercise. The more detailed tests also reveal our genetic disposition to chronic diseases such as cancer, dementia and heart disease and it’s this element of genetic testing particularly that is not to be taken lightly. When actress Angelina Jolie opted to have a double mastectomy and her ovaries removed in 2013 and 2015 respectively, it was because she knew she had inherited the BRCA1 gene which would significantly increase her risk of breast cancer (Jolie was told she had an 87 percent chance of developing the disease). As Liz Jones observes, investigations of this kind should not to be undertaken without the appropriate professional support, and no reputable company should offer such information without it.

The boom in genetic profiling has also reignited interest in another perennial favourite beloved by health journalists – the detox. Our bodies are cleverly designed to combat the toxins that bombard us daily, but, just like running or having an impressive threshold for double espressos, how efficiently (or not) our bodies detox is all down to our genetics. And this brings us neatly to the new kid on the block: nutrigenomics. This is the study of how the food we eat affects our genes (again, on an individual basis – how my body processes an apple will be different to the way my super-speedy bestie does), which in turn affects our health, both now and in the years to come. Depending on our own individual biochemistry, certain foods interact with our genes in such a way that they ‘switch on’ their protective properties, meaning that detoxification becomes more efficient and our risk of illness is reduced. Genetic profiling means this potentially life-changing information is readily available to us.

As it turns out, Liz Jones does indeed ‘have the gene for anxiety, mood swings and depression: it’s a relief to know I was born anxious,’ she says. She is still feeling anxious two weeks after starting her genetic diet and supplement plan, but two weeks is not so long a time in which to turn around a lifetime spent hardwired for stress. Just as Oliver James suggests that it’s entirely possible to change our psychology for the better, nutrigenomics (and its close cousin, nutrigenetics) supports our ability to effect positive physical change by making dietary changes that allow our bodies to function optimally. Used properly, with results that are interpreted by a trained professional, this is science that can help us to turn our lives around.

– Claire Lavelle is a guest blogger for Bryn Tanat Wellness. She has been a health and wellbeing journalist for more than 20 years. Most recently deputy editor at Healthy magazine, she is now freelance and writes for national magazines and newspapers.