What is Nutrigenomics??
A question I get asked every time I introduce my role as a nutritional therapist in the field of nutrigenomics! I see people’s eyes glaze over into the look of confusion which I know so well.
So, here is a short and sweet blog post to explain it.
What is DNA?
We are all born with DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). It is a two-stranded molecule which carries our genetic information which makes us who we are. It gives our bodies the instructions it needs to build proteins and essentially to be alive. There are 4 nucleotide bases (A, C, T and G) and these combine in all different ways to give us genetic characteristics.
What are genes?
Genes are inherited. They are small sections of DNA which are coded to produce instructions to build proteins and to give us our personal characteristics (eye colour, natural hair colour etc.). Proteins make up cells, cells make up tissues and tissues make up organs. The differences between us are due to slight variations in our genes, of which there are many. These variations are what determine whether you have blond or brown hair, for example, and can also predispose you to certain diseases and health conditions.
What is the relevance?
In 1990 the Human Genome Project began its research to identify and locate every gene in the human body with the aim to better understand diseases and to find tools and strategies to prevent diet related health conditions and improve outcomes (Gillies, 2003). It is a huge scientific study (the biggest one yet!) and has been transformational in the science and health world. The project has found more than 1,800 disease genes which has enabled researchers to learn a significant amount about possible preventions and treatments (Collins & McKusick, 2001).
Scientists at the Human Genome Project have discovered that along with our genome, we have an epigenome which is also heritable and is made up of chemical compounds and proteins which influence gene expression (how they behave). These chemical compounds mark a gene and switch it off or on for different lengths of time and these switches can improve or dampen various important functions in your body and they are also changeable (Bernstein et al, 2007).
The term Nutrigenomics relates to how nutrients modulate gene and protein expression and ultimately influence our body’s function through influencing the gene markers – helping to switch them off and on (Afman & Muller 2006). Through increasing (or in some cases decreasing) certain key nutrients and co-factors, especially for a very important process called methylation (I’ll go into this another time), we can help to reach optimal health and clear up some of these pathways (Lui et al, 2003). Nutrition influences metabolic pathways and homeostatic control. Amino acids, for example, regulate gene expression and are precursors for syntheses of hormones (Wu, 2009). However, too much can be detrimental and leads to conditions such as neurological disorders and oxidative stress, so balance is key (here’s where us nutritional therapists come in handy…).
This is just the top level information on this exciting development in health. I think it is the most exciting and empowering aspect of nutritional therapy to date and although there is a lot of further research to be done, so far the results have been very promising.
... one of the most common issues women go to the doctors for, yet a condition that is rarely openly discussed. I have personally suffered from chronic UTIs in the past, resulting in low dose antibiotics for 3 months and one particular infection was a resistant bacteria (superbug) which led to a painful kidney infection only treatable by IV antibiotics.
Current treatment on the NHS is antibiotics and, in some cases, you really do need them otherwise the bacteria can travel up to your kidneys. However, the over-use of antibiotics has its side effects including impacting your immune system which you need to be working optimally to prevent you getting recurring UTIs.
Disclaimer! Always seek medical advice first.
There are a few reasons why we get UTIs and some of us are more prone to them than others. Bacteria, which doesn’t usually reside in our urinary tract gets in and starts swimming it’s annoying self up to our bladders where it starts multiplying and causing inflammation. Strong immune systems go into battle here and win, and the host is none the wiser. People with compromised immunity, however, or susceptibility to UTIs find that the invasive bacteria usually win.
People who experience chronic UTIs become more susceptible to future ones due to the inflammation, and the body's immune defences in the urinary tract becoming weakened from antibiotic use which stops it being able to fight in battle with other bacteria as well as it did before due to relying on antibiotics doing it for them. Also, sometimes the pathogenic bacteria can linger in your bladder walls if they haven't been cleared totally by the antibiotics.
Common symptoms: burning pain when urinating, burning feeling in your bladder, need to urinate all the time, low mood, low in energy. Pain in lower back, shoulder, fevers, vomiting are all signs the infection has travelled to your kidneys and you should seek medical care immediately.
What can you do? Prevention! Look out for the combination of factors which usually lead you to an infection. For me that combination is feeling stressed about work, lack of sleep, drinking alcohol, being dehydrated and having sex (mostly with a new partner).
Stress, alcohol and lack of sleep compromise your immune system by using up crucial nutrients. Dehydration means we don’t produce the fluids needed for comfortable intercourse which can cause inflammation and provides more opportunity for bacteria to infect. It also means we are less able to urinate after intercourse which is crucial for flushing out the invasive bacteria from the urinary tract.
B vitamins, magnesium and stress management techniques will help keep our stress levels down.
Zinc, vitamin D, vitamin C and sleep will improve immunity.
Obviously, water is my fix for dehydration.
D'mannose is a great supplement for urine infections as long as the invasive bacteria is E.coli (the most common bacteria strain involved in a UTI). It doesn’t work on other strains. D’mannose is essentially a sugar which attaches to the E.coli in your bladder enabling it to be urinated out more easily thus preventing worsening infection.
Cranberry extract is also helpful in the prevention of UTIs, Liquid formulas will be absorbed better than pills and it also needs to be taken daily for a period of time to work effectively. If you are prone to UTIs you might want to think about taking the recommended dose daily.
For others, food allergies and hormonal imbalances can trigger a UTI as well as vaginal thrush and bacterial vaginitis due to the vaginal pH being out of balance. The vagina is usually, and needs to be, acidic and this prevents sneaky bacteria from being able to survive there. So keeping on top of these conditions could help you in your prevention plan.
If you are experiencing chronic UTIs then you need to give your bladder time to recover from the infections. This includes an anti-inflammatory diet and avoiding your triggers until you feel the inflammation has passed. Keep taking a low dose of D'mannose and cranberry each day to keep clearing out potential pathogens still lurking.
I have found these infections to be debilitating and affect my relationships at times. So if anyone is reading this and has experienced the same – I feel you! Making the changes above can really make a difference. Working with a trained nutritional therapist will help to uncover what the root cause of your UTI is for you.
It’s this time of year that you notice almost everyone around you sneezing, coughing and complaining of sore throats. Before I began studying nutrition, I used to get every cough and cold going and it would take 10 days to feel better, then I’d go and catch another one. Nowadays, I still occasionally get the initial symptoms like a headache or fatigue, but it very rarely turns into anything more.
Here are some simple tips to keep you feeling well this winter:
Probiotics. There are specific compounds derived from probiotics which mediate immunoregulatory effects. Bacteria strains scientifically proven to help protect against colds and flues are L. Plantarum, L. rhamnosus and B. lactis.
Vitamin D. We don’t get enough of this megavitamin, especially in the winter months. Vitamin D can modulate the innate and adaptive immune responses and low levels can increase susceptibility to infections as well as autoimmune diseases. It is agreed by most health professionals that supplementation of vitamin D is necessary for the majority of people living in England October – April.
Vitamin C. This potent antioxidant supports cellular functions in our immune system and supports epithelial barrier function against pathogens. Best sources are citrus fruits, acerola cherries, rose hips, peppers and green veg, or you can supplement too.
Zinc. An antioxidant with anti-inflammatory actions and low levels are linked to infections and weakened immune systems. I love this mineral and always feel much stronger when I am supplementing with it. Food sources are meat, shellfish, some legumes, pumpkin seeds and eggs.
Lifestyle. Get your 8 hours of sleep a night, engage in stress relieving exercises and keep alcohol intake down as it can lead to immune deficiency and makes your more vulnerable to viruses and infections.
One of the most common issues I see women for in clinic is Premenstrual Stress (PMS). It is something experienced by almost all women at some point in their menstrual life and there are some factors that make the symptoms more challenging:
- High sugar diet
- Diet low in core nutrients
- Disruptive sleep patterns
- Hormone imbalance, especially in conditions such as Endometriosis and PCOS
- Too little or too much exercising
- Digestive issues
The most common symptoms of PMS are irritability (don’t anyone talk to me or I might lock you outside), tearfulness (AVOID all sad adverts as there’s no coming back from that. I’m done), restless sleep (ruminating thoughts anyone??), night sweats (what has happened here?!), food cravings (it’s normal to eat 5 portions of pasta in one night, right?), forgetfulness (where are my keys? In your hand darling..) and fatigue (why are there no beds at work for me to nap? It’s outrageous). You get the gist. The symptoms can really scale differently for each person. There’s also, anxiety, bloating, IBS and menstrual acne to battle.
Biochemically, what's usually happening is something in our endocrine system (typically our stress hormone cortisol) is demanding time and attention which means our sex hormones don't get the support they need to function optimally. Our bodies perceive all forms of stress (mental, physical and spiritual) in the same way, therefore exercising excessively will impact you the same way that a stressful situation at work or moving house will. There is a negative feedback loop/narrative that happens when a stressful lifestyle continues month on month, and this tends to lead to PMS, period pains or missing periods.
So how can nutrition help? Fortunately in lots of ways. Here are some really simple and easy first steps to reduce symptoms of PMS:
- Eat your greens. 6 portions a day. Not only will they support your genes to work optimally (genetic health is often implicated in women with PMS) but they will also provide key nutrients for your menstrual health such as fibre, magnesium and iron.
- Magnesium is crucial for hormone health and for reducing symptoms such as cramps, headaches and tension.
- Phytoestrogens such as flaxseed (ground or oil) which bind to oestrogen receptors and so help to keep things balanced and in check
- Healthy fats (oily fish, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, avocado) are anti-inflammatory and balance blood sugar levels - very important for hormone health
- Stress management. This is key. If you are calm, your hormones will settle. Find whatever activity you need that makes you breath properly, feel calm and centered.
These are the first key initial steps to making some positive changes. Fortunately, there is so much nutritional therapy can help with for balancing hormones so please feel empowered rather than overwhelmed by information out there. Some people will feel much better after one little tweak to their diet, others will need more and possibly some investigating too.
If you've tried lots of tips already and you're still not feeling any benefit then please get in touch and we can work towards your hormone health together.