In functional medicine, there is a common saying: “Your genes are the gun, but your environment pulls the trigger.” In essence, your genetic code may increase your risk of developing a disease, but exposures and lifestyle choices dictate whether those genes can turn on and progress the disease process. In fact, while children have a high risk of inheriting type 2 diabetes (25-80%), genes account for only 10% of this risk. 1
The study of epigenetics, which has expanded greatly over the last two decades, has uncovered that the way we live our lives has a direct effect on genes that turn on and off. “On-genes” express proteins that could be part of a cell structure, a communication hormone, or any number of important molecules that serve to keep your body functioning. “Off-genes” stay silent. Whatever genes are turned on act as an instruction manual for what is produced and how it will function.
When DNA copies itself to make new cells, the entire DNA code is not necessary for each cell, only certain genes within the DNA. So, let’s say your body is making a new liver cell. The genes that are turned on in that process may be different from the genes that are turned on in the process of making a new muscle cell. If this were not the case, then all your cells would be exactly the same, and you would be a pretty simple organism. Instead, you are complex with many cells, tissues, hormones, enzymes, and important molecules that should perform the jobs they are expected to.
Keeping all of this in mind, consider a series of unhealthy lifestyle exposures such as smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet, and low physical activity. These habits have been shown to turn on genes that code for diseases. Now, consider the same person that makes a dramatic lifestyle change and begins to eat whole foods, exercise regularly, quit smoking, moderate alcohol, and manage stress. Their genetic code (DNA) would be exactly the same, but the genes that are turned on and sending the instructions would be totally different. Epigeneticists have found that these healthy lifestyle habits turn on the genes that prevent disease.
In the case of type 2 diabetes, inflammation is at the root. If you come from a long line of people that have developed diabetes or have had other inflammatory illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, autoimmunity (and every other chronic disease), you can benefit from implementing these 7 habits to keep your bad genes quiet and your good genes working hard!
The right diet is the foundation of disease prevention and happy genes! However, dietary advice is complicated and difficult to decipher, although there are a few steadfast rules that apply to everyone:
- Eat a whole food and organic diet
- Refrain from refined carbs like bread, pasta, and sweets
- Avoid sweetened beverages and drink plenty of purified water
It is essential to emphasize a whole food diet that is rich in micronutrients. Specific nutrients such as folate, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, riboflavin, methionine, choline, and betaine and food components such as retinoic acid, resveratrol, curcumin, sulforaphane, and tea polyphenols are all known to improve the regulation of genes.2
However, nutrition is, in large part, individual. What works for one person may be problematic for another. The best way to prevent inflammation that can affect genes and lead to diabetes is to work with a trained functional medicine practitioner to identify foods that inflame your system SPECIFICALLY. There is advanced testing that can pinpoint foods that trigger your immune system. By avoiding these foods, you can reduce inflammation. This will allow you to build a diet that will provide optimal nutrient density without the negative effects of triggering immune activity and inflammation.
Exercise has long been linked to a decreased risk of chronic disease. Exercise is beneficial for many reasons, but it has specifically been found to increase a process called methylation.3 This chemical reaction occurs in the body when molecules called methyl groups are attached to DNA, which allows genes to express themselves and code for proper functions. When methyl groups are not available, genes cannot “turn on” and do their job. Aside from the directly beneficial effects on DNA, exercise has been shown to reduce overall inflammation within the body, decreasing one’s risk of developing diabetes and all chronic disease.4
It is easy to brush stress off as “normal” in today’s busy culture. And while it may be common for people in Westernized cultures, a state of chronic stress is far from our bodies’ normal state. In fact, chronic stress has been shown to increase genes’ expression of chemicals that lead to higher inflammation.5
In reality, most people lead busy and full lives, so the trick to reducing the risks of stress is learning how to manage it in a way that keeps your body calm, cool, and collected. Techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSRB), and exercise have all been shown to reduce stress.3,6
Sleep is the body’s time for healing and resetting. If you have ever had a poor night of sleep, you have felt the fatigue and mental sluggishness that sticks with you the following day. While this may be sustainable here and there, experiencing poor sleep regularly puts your body at risk for diabetes and other chronic diseases. Not only does poor and interrupted sleep increase the amount of inflammatory chemicals throughout the body, it actually decreases gene methylation and can trigger disease pathways.7-8 Sufficient sleep has also been shown to decrease insulin resistance and increase insulin sensitivity, a critical shift for those trying to prevent or treat diabetes.9
Mind Your Gut
The microbiome, which is the entirety of all bacterial, viral, and fungal microbes that live symbiotically within the gut, is essential to human health. Just like our own genes can be turned on and off by lifestyle habits and exposures, microbes are affected as well. In fact (without getting too deep into the weeds), your DNA codes for proteins that are responsible for structures and functions throughout the body. The microbes in your gut also code for proteins that are responsible for structures and functions throughout the body.
While most of the bugs in your gut are trying to help you out, there are plenty of strains that cause damage if their colonies grow too large. A poor diet, pharmaceuticals, toxins, stress, and a host of other influences can cause good bugs to be overrun by bad bugs, leading to…drumroll…inflammation!!!! Unsurprisingly, over the last decade, researchers have also discovered that the microbes in the gut actually have the ability to change your gene expression.10 By keeping your microbes happy, your genes can perform at their best! Choose a high-quality and therapeutic-grade probiotic from your functional medicine doctor to ensure you are getting the right strains in the correct quantities.
As much as we would love to believe that our food, air, and water are safe, in many cases, they are not. Even fresh, whole foods are often sprayed with toxic pesticides and soaked in arsenic and chlorine for preservation. Food and water are held in plastics that release hormone-disrupting molecules, which interfere with our metabolism. Even our homes are filled with toxic air from off-gassing fire retardants on furniture, carpet, and clothing while trapping pollutants from surrounding industrial plants and transportation exhaust. It would be great if we could ignore these things, but the truth is that our environment has never been more polluted. Researchers have found that these chemicals, which our government deems safe, collectively damage our bodies, change our genetic expression, and lead to disease.11 Avoiding plastics, pharmaceuticals, chemical-laden home goods and cleaners, and inorganic food is a good step. However, investing in a quality reverse-osmosis water purifier, a high-performance air filter, and a small home garden will help to ensure that you are protecting your genes from unwanted damage!
The solutions to preventing, treating, and reversing diabetes are in finding the roots of imbalance. The challenge with this concept is that every body is different, and therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If you are at risk for diabetes or are already suffering from symptoms, you need to find a skilled functional medicine doctor who can help you identify sources of inflammation and imbalance within your system.
Your genes are not your destiny; they are just one piece of the pie that determines your health. By honoring your unique genetics and using lifestyle tools to support your genes, you do not have to be a victim of bad genes. You can gain control over your health!
1. Szabó M, Máté B, Csép K, Benedek T. Epigenetic modifications linked to T2D, the heritability gap, and potential therapeutic targets. Biochem Genet. 2018.
2. Park LK, Friso S, Choi SW. Nutritional influences on epigenetics and age-related disease. Proc Nutr Soc. 2012;71:75-83.
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4. Ford E. Does exercise reduce inflammation? Physical activity and C- reactive protein among U.S. adults. J Epidemiol. 2002;5:561-568.
5. Alcocer-Gomez E, de Miguel M, Casas-Barquero N et al. NLRP3 inflammasome is activated in mononuclear blood cells from patients with major depressive disorder. Brain Behav Immun. 2014; 36:111-117.
6. Rosenkranz MA, Davidson RJ, MacCoon DG, Sheridan JF, Kalin NH, Lutz A. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain Behav Immun. 2013;27C:174-184.
7. Irwin MR, Olmstead R, Carroll JE. Sleep disturbance, sleep duration, and inflammation: A systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies and experimental sleep deprivation. Biol Psychiatry. 2016;80:40-52.
8. Massart R, Freyburger M, Suderman M, et al. The genome-wide landscape of DNA methylation and hydroxymethylation in response to sleep deprivation impacts on synaptic plasticity genes. Transl Psychiatry. 2014;4(1):e347.
9. Leproult R, Deliens G, Gilson M. Beneficial impact of sleep extension on fasting insulin sensitivity in adults with habitual sleep restriction. Peigneux P Sleep. 2015; 38(5):707-15.
10. Fofanova TY, Petrosino JF, Kellermayer R. Microbiome-epigenome interactions and the environmental origins of inflammatory bowel diseases. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2016;62:208-219.
11. M Collotta, PA Bertazzi, V Bollati. Epigenetics and pesticides. Toxicology. 2013;307:35-41.