Genetic testing is often thought of as testing for what disease you might get or if you have a mutation for say, Huntington disease. Some of us really don’t want to know if we have this mutation but if you knew you had a genetic mutation, maybe you just might be able to prevent getting the disease like breast cancer using genomics.
But what if you could find out what would be best diet for you? Should you be on a vegan or vegetarian diet? Paleo diet?
When I was a vegetarian (over 13 years), I was at my peak weight and had nutritional deficiencies but I stayed on this diet because I thought it was best for my health. However, after my last genetic test – I found out why this was not the diet for me and why my body responded the way that it did when I went back to eating animal products.
In this comprehensive genetic test that I had done, I didn’t find out what diseases I might acquire like Parkinson’s which is in my family.
What I did find out are the many single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that I had that affected everything from how I processed nutrients, metabolized carbohydrates, my risk for diabetes to what sports activities were best for me.
I also found out I don’t have the ability to detox chemicals very well – what does mean? It means that it is important for me to avoid medications, limit alcohol (there goes the wine), and avoid other chemicals especially in personal care products, cosmetics, and cleaning products. That is where genomics or nutrigenomics comes in.
Genetics and genomics have been in news a great deal and rightfully so because they hold great promise in developing precision medicine and more targeted pharmacology.
It also is the key to developing programs that begin to truly address the current epidemic in chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
These fields of science, genetics, and genomics are often used interchangeably in blogs, webinars, and articles but they are really two different fields of study. This is where the confusion comes in because it is assumed they are the same thing which they are not.
So what is the difference between the two fields of science?
Genetics is the study of heredity – or what genes we inherited from our parents. It is also the study of the genes that make up our characteristics and traits. With the human genome project (HGP) completed in 2003, it was discovered that humans share 99.5% of their genome with each other. The remaining 5% accounts for the differences that exist between us – hair or eye color, height, weight, skin pigment, disease risk, etc.
Genomics, however, is the study of DNA sequencing data looking for variations that affect our health, disease risk, or drug response. Comparing this to genetics which is really the study of a single gene, genomics is the study at looking at all of the genes in the human genome.
In addition, the genes studied in genomics are genes that are “turned on” by interacting with environmental factors, lifestyle habits, and nutrition leading to complex diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease and obesity. This requires looking at enormous amounts of data and translating this in usable clinical, nutritional, and optimal health information for health professionals and consultants.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain the difference between genetics and genomics – genetics studies mutation genes or the most severe kind of mutation to genomics that studies the genes or SNPs that may or may not have an effect. So if we get the gene for Down syndrome – then you will have this mutation.
On the other hand, the genes for breast cancer (BRAC1 & BRAC2) greatly increases your risk for breast cancer but is not a sure deal. Normally these genes do not interact with environmental factors but research is starting to show that there might be an environmental component. Maybe this would explain why there is a lower rate of acquiring breast cancer in other countries like Japan even with women who have the BRAC1 & BRACA2 genes. This is the gray area between genetics and genomics as genetics involves genes that normally do not interact with the environment.
Therefore genomics involves those SNPs that are not single genes and are the genes that interact with environmental factors often resulting in complex diseases like heart disease, arthritis, and auto-immune; all of which we now know that the environment plays a role.
It is also the study of how we can achieve optimal health not just prevent or treat disease. To me this where nutrigenomics (the study of genes and nutrition) plays a major role. For instance, we now know certain SNP’s can actually affect how we process nutrients like vitamin A and vitamin D. If you are like me, I just couldn’t figure out why I was chronically low in vitamin D – after all I play tennis outdoors 3-4 times a week during the summer. Shouldn’t that be enough sun exposure? Well, I found out I have 2 – SNP’s that affect my ability to metabolize vitamin D. So that is why I now supplement with vitamin D to maintain optimal levels.
Is genomics ready for prime time in offering personalized health and nutrition?
Whereas there is still a great deal of research to be done in this area, I think that it is ready for prime time especially with nutrition and with what drugs can one tolerate or not tolerate. This will not just offer optimal health, work towards preventing disease especially chronic diseases, but pave the way towards more targeted solutions in dietary supplementation and medications.
It also offers great promise in the mental health arena as more and more evidence is showing that mental health conditions are biochemical imbalances in the brain and are related to certain genetic SNPs. The study of genomics is paving the way to truly personalized nutrition and medicine.
If you are interested in learning more, join my FaceBook group – Nutrition Solutions Through Genomics
Eileen Schutte, MS, CN, FMN – One of my biggest passions is to help clients overcome food intolerances like histamine intolerance and sensitivities so that they can enjoy food again. My other passion is nutrigenomics, speaking to your genes through nutrition with focus on digestive health, autoimmune conditions, and skin health. I hold a master's degree in functional nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut graduating Summa Cum Laude. After completing my masters I went on to get my certification in Functional Medicine Nutrition, and am a Certified LEAP Therapist (food sensitivities program). In addition, I am pursuing advanced education in Nutrigenomics through the American College of Nutrition.