Medicine is in the midst of a sea change.
The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003.
When this project was complete, scientists had mapped our entire genetic code – the very blueprint of the human body.
Since then our understanding of genomics has exploded.
Genomics involves understanding our genes and the various ways they work together and are turned on and off and how that influences our development, functioning and health.
It’s complicated stuff but so fascinating.
And yes, genes can turn on and off! The result of a gene turning on or off can significantly impact your health, and be the source of major diseases we end up facing.
It really allows us to think of medicine in a more individualized way than ever before. If we understand your genes, your SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) and your gene mutations, then we can think about your health in a much more profound way than we did a generation ago.
Completion of the Human Genome Project also shed a bright light on the microbiome.
Our microbiome is all the other micro-organisms within us that (most often) keep us running, and can keep us healthy. This is particularly true for the gut, where all these guys keep our digestive system running, among other things.
When the human genome was mapped, it was found to contain less than half of the number of genes that had been expected, based on the complexity of human biology.
What could account for these “missing genes”?
Well it turns out that the genes of the bacteria and viruses, our microbiome, actually accounts for 99% of the genetic activity that keeps us going. Our microbiome is way more important than we realized.
When we consider all of our genes plus the genes of the microbes living in and among us, we can begin to think of what triggers certain genes to turn on or off or what we expose them to that can influence them positively or negatively.
This is called epigenics.
It’s amazing to think that even one meal can exert an effect on certain genes. And then there are the medications we take.
If 99% of our genes are microbial, no wonder a round of antibiotics (though necessary at times) can have such a detrimental effect in the long run.
Our genes and our “good bugs”, as I sometimes affectionally refer to our microbiome, are all so microscopic that it’s easy to ignore them or take them for granted until some symptom or diagnosis cause us to look more closely.
While most people may be familiar with the idea of their microbiome from gastrointestinal concerns, an imbalance in our microbial ecosystem can be part of the picture in a whole range of medical issues from cancer to depression to autism.
Kelly Brogan’s book “A Mind of Your Own” is a highly informative look at mental health diagnoses through this lens and this article from the Atlantic gives a good perspective on this new way of thinking about the microbiome’s relationship to brain function.
Or, you can just come in to see me and we’ll look into your genomics and microbiome together! Click here to schedule an initial consult.
When it comes to genes, we know that the information in our DNA (and the DNA of our microbes!) is responsible for a whole lot of our health.
But there are certain pathways that are more heavily relied upon by our functioning body, in all of our systems, than others.
An example of this would be our methylation pathways. Problems in these pathways affect a whole host of conditions from heart problems to emotional ones like depression.
With genomics we can narrow in on the genes involved in coding for the enzymes, promotors and inhibitors of these most important pathways. One of these genes that has become the focus of much attention is the MTHFR gene.
Looking to see if you have any “issues” (biologically referred to as SNPs) in this and other important genes can often explain mysterious symptoms or clarify where your body needs some extra support (through diet or supplementation) to function more optimally.
I have started recommending genetic testing (which can be done in a variety of different ways, depending on the goal – some people may be familiar with genetic testing through the company 23 and me or by investigating their heritage through ancestry.com) for patients who have a number of different symptoms that seem to be unrelated (though in naturopathic medicine, we know that everything is ultimately related!) or for patients who have had unexpected or adverse reactions to medications.
Genetic testing can also be helpful for those trying to conceive or who have suffered a miscarriage. Or for those whose symptoms have worsened over time.
Combining this testing with stool testing to explore your personal microbiome ecology can give you the personal information you need to understand the microscopic make-up of your biology.
This may be especially helpful if you have one of the following concerns or diagnoses….
- frequent headaches
- chronic constipation or diarrhea
- history of miscarriages or fertility challenges
- depression or anxiety
- IBS or IBD
- histamine intolerance or allergies
- family or personal history of cancer
- chronic fatigue
Expanding research in these areas of medicine is being published regularly and I continue to investigate the latest findings to be able to keep my advice personalized, relevant and evidence based.
But what’s great about these new areas of scientific research is that they are confirming the benefits of a Naturopathic approach – individualized treatment, time in nature and fermented foods are all critical components of a person’s genetic, microbial and overall health!