rew up with a grumpy parent? The fear dawns that with every passing year you’re unstoppably trudging towards that testy transformation — your temper shortening in inverse proportion to wrinkle lengthening. With every sarcastic comment muttered to a forgetful waiter, with every “idiot” involuntarily barked at Question Time, the miserable metamorphosis feels pre-ordained. And science seemed to support the idea that resistance was futile against this coming curmudgeonliness. As recently as 2005, an influential paper claimed that 50 per cent of people’s happiness was determined by their genes. Becoming a grumpy git was part of your inheritance.
But if I may momentarily stop swearing at the TV, pause the dour determinism and deliver some good news: we now know that we’re not entirely doomed by our parents’ genes. Not just the doom and gloom DNA, but the genes linked to all manner of dispositions and diseases you’d rather weren’t passed on — like diabetes and heart disease. That’s because the rapid leaps and bounds in genetics in recent years have transformed how we understand the nuanced role that genes play in our health and wellbeing — and it’s all looking a lot less pre-determined.
“We once believed that ‘having the genes for’ a complex disease was the key to explaining why some people are more likely to be affected by an illness such as diabetes. Not anymore,” says Professor Vittorio Sebastiano, an epigeneticist at Stanford University. What’s “crucial”, he says, is in fact gene expression. In very basic terms, whether genes are activated or not. “In other words, having a good gene — but not being able to express it or activate it in the right way — could lead to illnesses,” relates Professor Sebastiano.
“Conversely, you might have a genetic predisposition to diabetes — or depression, heart disease, or hundreds of other genetically linked conditions — but if the offending combination of genes is not activated, then you’re unlikely to develop the condition.”
The idea that genes can be switched on/off — that it’s not determined that we’ll take on the ailments of our ancestors — is a game changer. Professor Sebastiano estimates that as much as 70 per cent of our health outcomes come down to gene expression. “It’s the most important factor affecting our health — from aging and immunity, to even how we feel.”
So our tempers can get longer and the wrinkles shorter; but how to get our genes to play ball in this radically-changed game? Well, the good news is that an awful lot of gene expression lies in our hands. Because our lifestyles — the day-to-day of how we live — can actually switch on/off those inherited traits. For example, exercise, stress, pollution, sleep and meditation can all impact genes — as can behavior towards others. One of the authors of that 2005 paper later found that “simply performing small acts of kindness for other individuals can impact human gene regulation”.
Gene expression is the most important factor affecting our health – from aging and immunity, to even how we feel
As can connecting with nature, the alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra told me — when I was exploring on my skeptical BBC wellness podcast All Hail Kale how to somehow shift my genetic tendency towards being a morning person.
As can leave earth. After astronaut Scott Kelly returned from the International Space Station, Nasa found his gene expression was seven per cent different from his identical twin’s.
But the single biggest way to impact gene expression — with all the benefits that can have for mind, body, immunity, aging etc — is through what we eat. The nutrients we ingest go deep inside our cells, interact with DNA and can actually flip switches to turn genes on or off. Food as molecular medicine.
Studying the relationship between our diet and genes is a breakthrough branch of science called nutrigenomics. And it’s captivated me.
Seeing how something as natural and accessible as nutrients can affect this vital process of gene expression compelled me to go from cynic on the sidelines to, well, getting stuck in. To team up with the Stanford Professor Sebastiano and Dr Uma Naidoo — Harvard Medical School’s pioneering nutritional psychiatrist — to bring nutrigenomics research to the masses. Cards on the table, we’ve launched Karmacist — the world’s first nutrigenomics-based supplement — with formulations for Mood, Relax, Immunity and Energy. We’ve always known that plants are powerful. Mankind has been turning to them for more than 60,000 years. Plants power an estimated 40 per cent of modern pharmaceuticals. But it’s geekily fascinating to use nutrigenomics to drill down deeper to see how and why botanicals might be working their magic.
Take saffron. The active components in this precious Persian spice have been found to help regulate the gene that transports serotonin — the “happy hormone” that’s key to our moods. Saffron has also been shown to increase the expression of the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain. Indeed, Dr Naidoo notes, “it’s been shown that Saffron is as effective as Prozac in decreasing depressive symptoms”. There’s perhaps good reason — now revealed by cutting-edge science — why saffron has been coveted for millennia, and is pound for pound more expensive than gold.
Another ancient botanical yielding its cellular secrets is ashwagandha. Prized for its rejuvenating qualities in Ayurvedic tradition, research now shows how ashwagandha can prevent the expression of certain genes that can drive inflammation — a known factor in stress and anxiety. Reishi mushrooms contain phytochemicals which, studies show, can help regulate the immune system.
That herbs and plants can have such deep, transformative potential also tallies with our understanding of the gut-mind link: the two-way highway running between brain and belly. Because, as Deepak Chopra told me, humans aren’t just carrying around their 25 thousand or so genes — but another “two million extra genes which are not human, they are bacteria. Technically-speaking, you’re a few human genes hanging onto a bacterial colony — which is known as the microbiome, or second genome, and it’s totally dependent on your lifestyle.”
So, the way we live — especially what eat — doesn’t just impact our own DNA, but the several million genes of the mass of bacteria we’re shlepping around that seems to have a direct line to our brains.
The nutrients we eat deeply impact our molecular and cellular processes – and directly affect mental health
We’re still in the nascent days of nutrigenomics and in understanding precisely how the gut-mind axis works.
But at Massachusetts General Hospital, where Dr Uma Naidoo directs the US’s first hospital-based Nutritional Psychiatry Service, she uses nutrients as part of her clinical practice — and has no doubt about the mood-food connection. “The nutrients we eat deeply impact our molecular and cellular processes — and directly affect our brains and our mental health,” Dr Naidoo says.
“Psychiatry has been too slow to realize the rest of the body — and what we feed it — affects our moods and stability. Nutrition is the pioneering new frontier for better mental health and resilience.”
With enough gene-expression-friendly nutrients — along with meditation, exercise, sleep, and exposure to nature — a grump-free future might beckon where waiters can take as long as they want, particularly if they’re bringing saffron risotto.
Spice up your life: how to eat your way happier
“The benefits packed in herbs and spices are mind-blowing,” says Harvard nutritional psychiatrist Dr Uma Naidoo. We’re not just adding more flavor to our food — these seasonings can be good for our moods too, she notes.
To help combat depression, Dr Naidoo suggests:
oregano: research shows its active component has promising antidepressant activity and is likely to help protect brain tissue.
Saffron: the ultimate mood-enhancing spice (see main article for its serotonin and dopamine prowess).
Turmeric: shown in studies to “adjust brain chemistry and protect cells against toxic damage that leads to depression”, Dr Naidoo writes. Always add freshly ground pepper to maximize absorption.