You could be on the downhill slide toward cancer. But if you are, your genes are likely only a minor contributor. You are not a captive of your genes unless you decide to be..
At the bottom line, our susceptibility to cancer lies in three areas – our genetic makeup, how our genes respond to the toxin overload in our particular environment, and how well our diet provides the nutrients necessary to support our genes. Read on!
In case you didn’t learn about genes in my last blog , here is a summary.
Each of your parents bequeathed you half of your DNA. Those two sets of DNA are paired together in 20,000 plus genes. and essentially every cell in your body has an identical set of genes. The pairings of the DNA within the genes do not always match. The variations in pairings (called SNPS) can change how effective your genes are in doing their individual jobs. Sometimes those SNPs will protect you from OR sometimes put you at risk for diseases or chronic conditions.
If for some reason a gene isn’t doing its job effectively coupled with other lifestyle things like toxins and diet, eventually you will have symptoms, a clue that something is awry. However, you are totally in charge of deciding to accept awry as inevitable illness. You are not a slave to your genes unless you decide to be.
How did I get into this gene thing?
Much of my time is spent reading research papers/articles and watching videos created by experts in health and nutrition. Watching one such video created by one of my favorite metabolism and nutrition experts, Dr. Rhonda Patrick, I heard about a MTHFR gene variation (SNP). MTHFR produces an enzyme that is required to metabolize folate. Folate is an essential nutrient in your diet and pretty dang important.
For some reason I thought I probably needed to know more about that for myself. So I ordered a kit, spit in a container, and shipped it off to 23andMe to learn about my genes. One of my better choices.
The results from my 23andMe genetic test came in the form of what they call “raw data.” That means it is a list of SNPs that doesn’t tell you a dang thing.
Fortunately Rhonda had also suggested to upload my data to Promethease, a company that takes the “raw data” and turns it into a (sort of) usable report. Their report listed all my SNPs by gene with references to potential health risks for those SNPs. A real mass of information that is more like a database than a report.
So I slog through this report and eventually notice that, In terms of volume, nothing was more significant that the number of SNPs in the cancer category. Hundreds of them.
Some of those SNPs said my gene variation was actually protective, some were normal, (not considered particularly risky), and others said my variation increased my risk. Some up, some down. What the heck are you supposed to do with that?
I should point out that to my knowledge, no one in either of my parent’s families ever had cancer. Almost everyone in my dad’s family was diabetic AND smoked but no cancer. So it was tempting to just ignore these results. But I didn’t. Surely there was a message here somewhere.
Of particular interest is that the report usually didn’t explain exactly what the gene itself actually did. In a lot of cases I think this happens because they don’t yet know what all those genes do. There isn’t a complete playbook to go to.
This is like being told that the fuel line in your car is different (whatever that means) and you are at risk for an exploding motor. A little more information is probably going to be required.
The results I paid close attention to In all of my genetic reports were those that I could interpret and see how I could minimize risk. It isn’t helpful to know that there is a gene variant and somehow, someway, that variant is supposed to predispose you, maybe, to cancer.
I started this journey looking for MTHFR for myself. And there is a legitimate story to tell about MTHFR. But that’s another post.
So I wore out wandering up and down through the database and uploaded my whole genome to Rhonda Patrick. She gave me a very precise report that honed in on the how certain genes actually worked (or didn’t work) and described how that variation affects my body’s operation.
Interestingly, the new report didn’t even mention cancer. But it DID mention some SNPs I knew might be important for PREVENTING cancer. So prevention is the story for this post.
What is cancer?
Cancer is a cell with mutated DNA that is allowed to divide and perpetually replicate itself, eventually forming a tumor. How the body tries to deal with that is EXTREMELY complicated and it is important that we look at it as simply as possible. So, in simple terms, what would allow that perpetual and inappropriate replication to happen?
Under ideal circumstances here is what happens in your body.
Human cells grow and divide into new cells as the body needs them. This is how a fetus grows in the mother’s womb and how a baby reaches adulthood. If you missed my last post on genes, here is a short and simple animation video that shows how this dividing happens.
As adults, we stop growing (hopefully) but every cell in our body ages, becomes damaged, and either must be repaired or replaced. For example, skin cells completely turnover every 10-30 days. Replacement in all cells comes in the form of cell division, creating a new cell that is identical, DNA wise, to the original.
We have literally trillions of cells. DNA damage happens all the time and errors will eventually occur. The body expects that to happen which is why the number of DNA repair genes is so large. Your system monitors and see the errors or the damage, and take steps to remove/replace. The DNA repair process is largely in the repair business. Your immune system is in the kill business. The relationship between the two is also complicated.
None the less, the repair/replace process fails, cells with mutated DNA replicate themselves and cancer results.
Why would the repair/replace process fail?
On occasion we inherit or are exposed to something like a virus or a chemical that causes a significant gene mutation or damage. These may certainly cause cancer no matter what we do. But to the largest degree, errors and damage go unchecked because your DNA repair and immune systems are overwhelmed, simply have more to deal with than they can handle.
The immune system built into our body is truly magical, expecting to deal with bacteria, viruses, minor external toxins like bee stings and such, and the damage inherent in just being alive. Those are the tricky words, “damage inherent in just being alive.” These days sources of DNA damage go well beyond the damage your immune system was designed to prevent.
We really can’t blame our genes. They are essentially the same ones we have had for thousands of years. Gene variations (SNPs) are not new either. What is different is sources of damage that did not exist before coupled with our failure to nutritionally support our genes. It is these differences that overwhelm our DNA repair genes.
Sources of DNA repair overload are chemicals in medications, food, and the environment
The actions of gene enzymes in our livers detoxify chemicals in food, drugs (including tobacco and alcohol), and the air/ground, as well as chemically created products like plastic. Even the chemical makeup of real food can have naturally toxic affects and the liver’s job is to deal with all those toxins. Too much and the liver backs up.
All of us know someone who has significant physical reactions to chemicals. Sometimes the doctor calls these reactions “allergies.” and note that the stuff we take to reduce the symptoms are also chemicals. You can bet that the existence of symptoms says that something is awry, either because your genetic makeup is working against you, you have a toxin overload, or because you are nutritionally deficient. Probably all three.
Even when the genes in your body are working perfectly, no SNPs, you can still overload your system’s ability to handle the detox requirement. So that’s one thing. But when you have SNPs that reduce your ability to detoxify, you have even more trouble. I have a few such SNPs which I will mention later.
Food sources of chemicals.
The processed food sources made from or including grain — the bread, chips, crackers, pasta – that so many of us make the mainstay or our diet almost always contain added chemicals as preservatives or synthetic supplements, coloring/flavoring, etc. and/or are made using chemicals.
The excessive heat involved in creating commercially processed foods can create metabolites that are carcinogenic. Perhaps you remember when the media was covered with reports about the carcinogenic effects of high heat grilled meat. It was the heat, not the meat.
Further, the natural chemical makeup of grain (and some other foods) also contains toxins created by the plant to protect itself, toxins that can overload some people’s systems. As a diabetic, I gave up all grain several years ago and can maintain my blood sugar control if I don’t eat them. In that case, I was managing a symptom ( blood sugar) without medication. I didn’t realize I was also doing toxin control.
Here is a (partial) list of chemical toxin sources in food.
- chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides dispersed on growing crops that you ultimately eat. The associated environmental hazards like damage to the soil and damage to YOU when this stuff lands on you or is breathed in are discussed below.
- packaging created to deliver food (and drinks) to your table.
- chemicals applied to food by commercial suppliers to clean them or make them shine and look pretty.
- chemicals preservatives used, usually with extreme heat, to process commercial food and make them last a long time.
- Chemically created nutrient supplements, thickeners, chemically created substitutes for real food (artificial sweeteners as example).
- Chemically extracted and processed vegetable oils, sourced primarily from grain with extreme heat. This is just in creating the oil. Then when they use those oils in processed foods, they need to make them more stable at room temperature (act more like saturated fat). This stabilization process is usually identifiable by the word “hydrogenated” in some form. Think chemicals, think heat.
- Flavorings and coloring, all generally chemically created. Real blueberries are not used to make a commercial product look and taste like blueberries.
- High heat food preparation, either commercially or at home. In this case, the high heat creates amine carcinogens (cancer causing) that need to be removed from your body. Think high heat grilling or frying.
Stop and think about this. Its not any one thing on this list. Its all of them together and exposure is common. None of these things were prevalent 200 years ago. We can know that our genetically ancient body isn’t expecting those chemicals or prepared to deal with them. So right off the bat your food is creating a potential toxic overload.
Medication sources of chemicals
I consider my blood pressure to be a blight on my life since BP medication is the only medicine I take. The deeper I have gotten in my research over the years, the more I have seen that medications often create more problems than they fix, even those on the shelf at the grocery or pharmacy. I could share current stories of people who have made amazing recoveries when they simply stopped taking some medications.
This earlier blog post explains the particular consequences of some on-the-shelf drugs. Every single drug on the market has listed potential side effects.
Every single medication has two important qualities. First, it is chemically created. And secondly, it is specifically designed to interfere with your body’s operation in some way. And that interference results in “side effects”, none of which are good. Consequently more medications get prescribed to handle side effects, and the chemicals keep stacking up.
I have been an advocate of organic gardening and involved in building gardens and educating folks on how/why to do that. The chemicals involved in herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers have major consequences for the health of the microbes in our soil AND our bodies. Guess what! Microbes have DNA too, DNA systems designed to do certain things and damaged by certain things, just like ours.
And environmental chemicals can be in water, building materials, mold, cleaning supplies, paint, make-up, etc. etc. Asbestos? Coal dust? The fertilizers/herbicides/pesticides that land on you or are breathed in by you. And then there are chemicals used to kill mosquitoes, termites, ticks, wasps (etc), spiders, ants, and all those other pests. Whenever the label gives exposure safety instructions or has a list of ingredients that don’t look like food, this product is chemically created and dangerous to your body.
And what about your drinking water. Most water systems contain fluoride, purposely added years ago to reduce cavities. Over the years the amount of fluoride has increased and then they began adding it to toothpaste. For most of us there is now an overload potential of what is actually a very toxic chemical. Maybe you remember the warnings on fluoride toothpaste. DON’T SWALLOW IT.
Plus your drinking water has levels of other toxic chemicals resulting from chemicals in the air and on the ground (see previous paragraph). Just because they put water in a (plastic) bottle it does not mean that the water is any less toxic than the stuff coming our of your tap. And the bottles can be a danger as well..
Oh yeah, there is smoking and alcohol. The implications of alcohol are so great that your liver will just stop all other processing while it gets rid of the alcohol.
So here I was, serendipitously and without much knowledge of DNA, minimizing chemicals like those for a garden but also those in cleaning products, skin care, etc. Why do I use diatomaceous earth to kill ant intruders? Because the alternatives are chemicals. However I am really missing the mark, I suspect, on water.
Chemicals, Cancer, and DNA Repair
Above I said that there has been no cancer in either of my families despite the fact that most of them were smokers. And we all know people with lung cancer who never smoked and smokers who never had any cancer,. How can that be?
Since I got my DNA report I have spent literally days reading about connections between cancer, genes, and smoking. I have read multiple research papers and articles and watched many videos. And it turns out the issue in cancer is DNA repair. The same DNA repair involved in the genetic response to all toxins.
It’s not like smoking goes directly to the “start cancer now” spot. Smoking is a serious contributor to toxins but, as described just above, so are all chemicals.
Cancer is the result of DNA repair failure. Given the number of cells in our bodies it is no surprise that the occasional cell gets messed up. DNA repair is supposed to fix that. But just being alive in a world rife with chemical toxins is an additional source of perpetual DNA damage.
When a single cell with damaged DNA goes un-repaired, regardless of how it got damaged, it can simply replicate itself in damaged condition and becomes a tumor. If DNA is not repaired, you are headed unknowingly downhill with no brakes. Why?
Typically cancer starts in one tiny cell and grows slowly for 8 -10 years before you get symptoms. So by the time you or your doctor notices that something is wrong, you can be pretty far gone. In the case of cancer, don’t wait for symptoms.
So there are two factors here. How much load (DNA damage potential) are you likely carrying and to what degree might gene SNPs be slowing down or preventing DNA repair. This is a cumulative thing.
Let me give you three example of the cascading and cumulative effect.
- I have one SNP variation in a gene that has a possible 25 variations currently known to increase risk for breast cancer. The significance? According to SNPedia, a variant in 1 of 25 SNPs is independently minor but becomes cumulatively significant with increases in variations. As I described above, the more variants in a gene’s DNA chain, the greater the potential risk.
- I have another SNP in a gene known to have 23 variants that acts in the liver to detoxify chemicals. I have only one SNP. And the immediate effect of this SNP is that I am slower in breaking down chemicals (including drugs) – which by the way is exactly true. Something to remember if and when I ever need to take another medication or change the one I do take. And a reminder to keep avoiding unnecessary chemical exposures.
- And I have four SNPs in a gene that is supposed to inactivate carcinogens formed when meat is cooked at very high temperatures. So some folks just eat tons of grilled and fried meat and get away with it. But not me. Still I have since learned that I can (and have) made other dietary changes to help inactivate carcinogens. But mostly i just minimize meat cooked at high temperatures.
And just to be on the safe side, I cross checked every published SNP I could find known to be a factor in cancer, just in case I missed something in my report. And the number of genes involved in DNA repair is pretty extraordinary, an indicator of how massively important DNA repair is. I haven’t yet found anything I missed.
My conclusion? I have certainly done a lot (however unconsciously) to reduce my DNA damage potential – although I now see more that I can do. And my SNPs in genes that breakdown and eliminate toxins and perform DNA repair are at least not massive. And then there has never been any cancer in my family. So, voila’, I have banished any concern about cancer from my mind.
I eat organic food and pasture raised meat (cooked gently), don’t eat processed food, largely clean with vinegar and water, research my make up and skin products very carefully. I’m missing the mark on water, I think, and this will be getting some of my attention.
This is not, however, my whole DNA story. I will soon post another link about gene polymorphisms that are a bit more troubling, at least for me..
Now, in the meantime, how about you?
You don’t actually have to test your DNA to to know when you are in trouble. Your lifestyle and symptoms will warn you of the danger. Do you own assessment.
Consider your symptoms. Got any ongoing symptoms, taking any medications? Any history of cancer or other chronic conditions in your family? Note that every chronic condition reflects something that needs to be fixed, not something to hide with medication.
Consider your DNA damage potential. Does your diet, environment, and medication regimen suggest that you may be potentially carrying a heavy DNA damage load? Has your job (now or earlier) or physical location constantly exposed you to environmental toxins? Do they spray for mosquitoes (as an example) in your area. Do you live near a commercial farm or a factory? Had mold in your house? Eating mainly processed and fast food? Go back through the list above.
You don’t know your genetics. Think moderation in high heat cooking, especially when your overall DNA damage load is heavy.
what is your nutritional status? The other downside of the chemicals involved in commercial food processing is that the natural vitamins, minerals, and other nutrient content of natural food are simply not there in the processed food. There are 13 essential vitamins and 14 essential minerals, two essential fatty acids and 8 plus essential amino acids found in real, whole food. Synthetic supplementation in processed food and most of the individual supplements on the shelf at the pharmacy or grocery are from chemicals and you will not begin to get all the nutrients you need taking supplements.
Every one of those vitamins and minerals is needed in your body, frequently as co-factors required to make a particular enzyme work. So as I said before, your genetics could be fine but if the nutrients are not there, you are still in trouble. All of those DNA repair enzymes are ultimately dependent on your nutritional status.
Consider reading It’s All About the Food to get some pretty simple direction as related to food.and nutritional health..That read will also help you to understand my next blog post, MTHFR, Statistically MTHFR has some relevance for the majority of people.
Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All About the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. Pat is a resident of Montgomery County, AR, president of Ouachita Village, Inc. board of directors (Montgomery County Food Pantry), chairman of the Tasty Acre project, and member of the Mount Ida Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors.