Has anyone in your family had cancer, heart disease, or diabetes? Does that means you are destined to have these or any other conditions? Your thought, “It’s just in my genes?” Or are you of the notion that this is just bad luck and your luck will be better?
You can’t see them or touch them but your genes are literally who you are. But that doesn’t mean you are their captive. Read how I tested my DNA, what I learned about myself, and what it might mean for you.
What are genes and do I care?
You have no idea what causes any of those (or any other) illnesses. You think maybe there is a cancer or diabetes “gene” hiding out somewhere. You have no idea how to avoid something that is “just in my genes.”
Take a deep breath. Except in the rarest of cases, there is no one cancer, or any other disease “gene.” While the “genes” you inherited from your parents are definite players in your health, understanding them can make it possible to prevent or avoid conditions that will just make you feel bad before you finally just roll over and die.
We are all going to die, sooner or later. It’s just a question of when and how miserable we are willing to be before it happens. You are totally in charge of deciding what you accept as inevitable. You are rarely a slave to your genes unless you decide to be.
This first post in the series Are You a Captive of Your Genes answers the first question. What are genes and what do they do? Clear that up right away so everything else will make sense.
What the heck are genes and DNA?
Inside every cell of your body (trillions of them by the way) are 46 chromosomes, half supplied by your mother and half your father. Within each chromosome is a really long string of DNA, packaged together into about 20,000 genes.
The DNA within that complete set of your 20,000 or so genes (a package called your genome) is the operational instructions that make you, you. It would be nice if there was a written operations manual for your body like there is for a car, but it’s just too dang complicated. Scientists have only just recently completed a gene/DNA inventory and they will be trying to write the manual forever.
Anyway, one thing we know is that essentially every single cell in your body has the exact same set of genes, all 20,000 of them. The cells are associated in unique configurations so that you will have body parts and organs. Obviously an eye, your skin, and your heart (as examples) are there for different reasons. They don’t look and act the same. That means that genes required for eyes are sitting silent in heart cells because they aren’t needed.
Some genes, on the other hand, aren’t making body parts. Rather they are used in every cell to maintain and keep your system working. These genes are sometimes silent and sometimes active (called expressed) depending on the situation. Sorta like your hot water heater. When the water gets cold, the heater turns on. When the water gets hot enough, the heater turns off.
The string of DNA in any one gene could be from 300 to over a million nucleotide pairs long. So that will give you an idea how long that DNA string is.
This short animation created by Stated Clearly does a really nice job of covering the basics. Take a look before you read on.
The video is very good at showing normal. However, in real life there are many variations not necessarily meeting the standard for normal .
Do our inherited genes “match”?
The DNA strands in your genes are packed together in sets, one copy from each of your parents. But the DNA from our parent’s genes don’t necessarily match perfectly at the nucleotide level and thus begins variations in DNA sequences that can make a unique difference is how an individual’s body works.
Here is the deal. There is no perfect genetic makeup. Every Hyundai Elantra (my car) may be constructed and operate exactly the same. but the human body just doesn’t work that way. Why? Because we inherit our DNA from two living, breathing human beings who are not identical.
DNA sequence variations occur when the copies from the two parents don’t match. Happens all the time. These variations are called SNPs, pronounced snips and also called “polymorphisms.”
So, you ask, are these mutations? Not really. A gene mutation is a very rare occurrence unique to you that is usually caused by some event. A polymorphism (SNP) is a common variation in DNA shared sometimes by many people. At a pretty benign level, for example, SNP variations say whether you have blue eyes or brown eyes.
As the video showed, genes code for proteins Everything in your body is made of protein. Many of those proteins are enzymes that kick-start various processes. Those enzymes usually require nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino and fatty acids) in the food you should be eating as co-factors for the enzymes. Our genes and the enzymes they produce could be perfectly normal but won’t work because the nutritional co-factors are not present. I explained enzymes and nutrients in my book, It’s All about the Food.
So how do I figure out what /will or won’t happen? What are my risks?
You are at risk of an accident when you get behind the wheel of the car and pull out on the road. But that doesn’t mean you actually will. It depends on the condition of your car and tires, your driving skills, what fool you get near on the road, the weather, if you text and drive, etc. etc. Do you get the point?
Consider the various systems in your car to be composed of genes (parts). When your car is cruising down the road, those systems are working together in perfect harmony.. When one system, say the electrical system, has a problem what is the symptom? If the window won’t close on the driver side, this doesn’t stop the car from running but it’s going to get a bit soggy in there if it rains.
Let’s stretch this car idea out a bit further. Here is how the car works, at least partially, as described by David McGuffin.
“When the ignition key is turned in a car, the battery sends a high voltage jolt of electricity to the starter, which transfers the electrical energy into mechanical energy as it cranks the flywheel. As the flywheel is turned, fuel is injected and exploded in the pistons, which are connected to the crankshaft, gears and axle”.
A lot of places for things to go wrong. The more deficiencies in any of those individual parts OR connections between those parts, the more potential for failure you have. Maybe things work fine if you don’t go over, say, 30 mph. Maybe things work fine unless its raining or you turn on the AC.
Clearly some things are wrong. iIf you can’t fix the problems, this is your sunshine, cool weather, slow driving-around-town car.
Your body is exactly the same. It has a lot of genes with long strands of enclosed DNA. Some of those genes seem to be of minor import (think window won’t open) . Others can cause a varying cascade of operational difficulties depending on the number of variations in the DNA strands.You don’t want to have a sunshine, cool weather, slow driving-around-town body if you can help it..
There are likely to be symptoms. Generally speaking the more strand variations (SNPS) within any one gene or the more variations within any one connecting system of genes, the more potential for failure. Often if you stay within certain bounds, problems can be avoided. Step over the line ——
This is vastly oversimplified but I think it makes the point.
For most people, ongoing symptoms are a clue that their genetics may be at play. Symptoms can be minor and easily avoidable, like an inability to eat oranges. Symptoms can also be major, ongoing streams of digestive issues or major health conditions. I have very few symptoms but I do have a few. For example, I am a type 2 diabetic.
With absolutely no knowledge of DNA and its implications, I have almost accidentally (albeit a bit late) elected lifestyle, diet, and environmental controls that have minimized the negative potential associated with my SNPs. Now that I have some understanding of my genetic makeup, I can see how many symptoms I might have had, had I not made those lifestyle choices.
So what did my DNA test tell me?
There isn’t a book handed down from above that explains what each and every SNP means or might cause. The complete mapping of the human genome was only recently completed, providing an inventory of genes and DNA. Remember those number mentioned above? To have accomplished that at all is remarkable.
With that amazing accomplishment scientists continue asking and answering more and more questions, researching the relationship between SNP variations, the operation of the body, and illnesses. They are only beginning to discover the consequences of variations.
That means what I tell you in this series of posts is just what science know so far.
I have some SNPs suggesting increased risk for certain kinds of cancer. I should point out that, to my knowledge, no one in my mother or father’s families had cancer. But the whole bunch on my dad’s side had diabetes AND smoked. Read about DNA and cancer in my next post.
I have some major SNPs in several connecting systems that interfere with the metabolism of folate, vitamin B9. Most of us have no idea what folate is or why its important. But the implications of those SNPs can be really big.
The vast majority of people (that would include you) have some version of these SNP variations, probably different from mine. This may not sound like a big deal to you but I encourage you to watch for Part 3 – MTHFR before you decide that for sure.
I also have multiple SNPs reflecting an increased risk for type 2 diabetes. No kidding (sarcasm)! I know now that I am a type 2 diabetic so these SNP variations don’t exactly come as a surprise. I might have figured that out and addressed it many years ago if I had known to be interested in my family history. Or I might have just thought I might be lucky. As I said above, stack up the variations and your chances increase. What that means to me (and probably you) will be in Part 4 – Diabetes
Other interesting news not warranting a future post.
Lots of good news. I found some SNPs that are protective against heart attacks. The only heart attack in either of my parent’s families was the result of an enlarged heart caused by childhood rheumatic fever. And I do NOT have the APOE gene SNP that is quite risky for a variety of health issues, the most significant of which is Alzheimer’s. Nor do I have the gene polymorphism that interferes with the metabolism of vitamin D. Reductions in risk are good news.
On the other hand, I have four gene polymorphisms (SNPs) individually reducing by up to 60% my ability to converts beta carotene from plants to vitamin A. Vitamin A is a critical vitamin and there are two alternative sources, one from plants and another from animal foods. God has lots of these little back up plans.
So I’m running short on the beta carotene to vitamin A conversion option, The other source of vitamin A is active (doesn’t require conversion) in animal protein and I do eat my share of that. So this is not big deal to me. But if I were a vegan or a vegetarian I might be in trouble without this knowledge.
Each of your parents bequeathed you half of your DNA. That DNA is paired together in 20,000 or so 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 put you at risk for diseases or chronic conditions.
If for some reason a gene isn’t doing its job effectively, 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.”
Watch for the next post – You are not a slave of your genes – cancer – to learn how you and I can minimize our risk for cancer. . .
.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.