Doctor’s Tip: It’s all about whether genes are turned on or off
This is the third in a series of weekly columns based on Dr. Dean Ornish’s recent book “Undo It, How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases.” The book makes the case that lifestyle changes are more powerful than gene-based therapies are or ever will be.
Patients are often fatalistic about their genetics. For example, they think that if diabetes, heart disease or cancer run in their family they will end up with these conditions, too. However, there’s a saying in medicine that “genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.” In other words, you don’t have to be a victim of your genes. Dr. Ornish has shown that lifestyle improvements “actually changes your genes — turning on (upregulating) genes that facilitate health and turning off (downregulating) genes that cause chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, and other mechanisms causing disease.”
Dr. Ornish’s studies have shown that certain proteins serve as switches that turn genes on and off. These switches respond to lifestyle changes summarized as “eat well, move more, stress less, love more.” In one study he found that “more than 500 genes were favorably changed in study participants after only three months on our lifestyle medicine program!” — a program covered by Medicare and several insurance plans.
Sirtuins — “good guys”– are enzymes that “wrap your DNA around … histone proteins as a way of turning off harmful genes.” They are important in slowing aging and in preventing many chronic diseases. AGEs (advanced glycation end products) — “bad guys” — suppress the anti-aging and disease prevention effects of sirtuins, resulting in a higher incidence of many chronic diseases, including cataracts, macular degeneration, hypertension, atherosclerosis, heart failure, stroke anemia, kidney disease, osteoporosis, dementia and age-related muscle loss. Animal products, especially cooked ones, are high in these harmful AGEs. A soy burger cooked in a microwave has 20 AGE units, a beefsteak cooked in a pan with olive oil has 9,052 units, a barbecued chicken thigh has 16,668 AGE units.
TOR controls cell growth and metabolism, and is necessary in growing children. However, in adults TOR contributes to aging and to certain cancers — particularly breast and prostate. Animal products upregulate TOR, in part due to the amino acid leucine found in meat, chicken, fish and dairy. Plant-based foods downregulate it — particularly cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower), blueberries, strawberries, green tea, soy milk and spices such as turmeric.
In Dr. Ornish’s Lifestyle Heart Trial, he found that “the primary determinant of the amount of weight lost was the degree of adherence to our lifestyle medicine program, not age or genetics.” Whether health-promoting genes are turned on or disease-promoting genes are turned off is determined not only by what we eat, but also by whether we exercise, are stressed, or have loving relationships.
In summary, our genes are important in determining our propensity for developing many diseases, but whether or not we actually get them is determined by whether these genes are turned on or off. And our lifestyle plays a huge role in that. The Nov. 4 issue of Time magazine is dedicated to amazing health innovations. Some of these innovations hold promise for some relatively rare diseases. However, an inexpensive, low tech solution to most of the chronic diseases Americans suffer from us is right in front of us three times a day.
Greg Feinsinger, M.D. is a retired family physician who has a nonprofit: Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He gives a free presentation at 7 p.m. the first Monday of the month at the Third Street Center in Carbondale; is available by appointment for free consultations (379-5718); and conducts a shop-with-a-doc session at 10 a.m. the first Saturday of the month at Carbondale City Market.
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