Can we tweak our genes to become younger, healthier and live longer?
APART from live cell therapy (see Rejuvenation therapies, Fit4life, May 31, 2009), the next frontier of anti-ageing therapy is genomics and genetic modulation.
There are now several companies offering genetic testing/profiling, as a way to know what diseases you are more prone to, so that you can take the appropriate preventive steps.
My fear is that soon, insurance companies will insist upon genetic profiling, and then “load” those with predispositions for certain diseases. This is bound to happen as the science of predictive genomics becomes more precise. The BRCA genes are about 90% accurate in predicting breast cancer.
Nutrigenomics is about tailoring your diet/nutrition to suit your genetic profile in the hope of achieving good health, and avoiding the diseases you are most susceptible to. Combined with an appropriate healthy lifestyle, it should be a smart strategy to overcome inborn genetic programming. The “eat for your blood type” practice is one such application.
For those with known genetic disease, some forms of genetic therapy have enabled many to lead healthier lives and survive much longer than before. Cystic fibrosis is one such disease that has seen tremendous benefits from genetic therapy.
Today, I would like to share how we can enhance whatever good genes we inherit, and hopefully block the bad genes too, by natural means.
The first thing we need to do is to protect our genes from damage (use sunscreen against UV radiation, avoid unhealthy foods). Next is to provide raw materials for the millions of new cells made daily. Antioxidants and nucleic acids can be obtained through a diet of fresh, raw fruits and veggies (but cook your tomatoes), and supplements.
While our genome contains over 20,000 genes, this represents only about 2% of our DNA. Of the known genes, not all of these are expressed or activated at any one time. Genes are also programmed to be activated or expressed at a certain age (there seems to be an inbuilt timer, perhaps in “regulator” genes that switch the different genes on and off), and under certain conditions.
There are many genes that are known to influence health and longevity. SIRT1 is one such gene. It controls certain enzymes, which repair damaged DNA, and also increase the number of mitochondriae (the cell’s energy powerhouses). Healthier DNA and more efficient energy production means better cell function, and therefore, better overall health. This makes you biologically younger.
Scientists discovered that SIRT1 expression is increased by calorie restriction (CR – high nutrient, low calorie diets), and animals fed the CR diets become lean, healthy and live longer. These findings have been consistent in many animal experiments.
Studies on the effects of fasting in humans have shown benefits in preventing/improving the metabolic syndrome, which are similar to the findings in animals. CR is now accepted as an anti-ageing strategy, but it is difficult to follow if you live in a food paradise like Malaysia!
Fortunately, scientists also discovered that taking resveratrol, a superstar of anti-ageing supplements, also gives the same effects in animals. Mice fed with high fat/high calorie diets for a year were found to be obese, have diabetes, liver damage, and short life expectancy.
However, another group of mice given the same diet, but supplemented with resveratrol, were free of these problems. Resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant that has since been shown to have many health benefits (mostly in animal studies).
Resveratrol first came to the limelight as the explanation for the “French paradox” – why French men have much lower heart disease rates than their American counterparts although their diets are similar. Scientists found that their high consumption of red wine had something to do with the phenomenon (red-grape skin contains resveratrol).
While it is good that this led to studies on resveratrol, it is now realised that it is the phenols, and not the resveratrol in red wine that explains the benefits.
Resveratrol is produced by many plants in response to stress and infections. Resveratrol supplements are mostly sourced from Japanese knotweed.
Another “hot” anti-ageing supplement is based on cordyceps extracts. Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) is a unique parasite fungus that infests, consumes, kills and mummifies the ghost moth caterpillar (hence, it is also called caterpillar fungus).
It has been used in traditional Chinese (and Tibetan) medicine as a medicinal mushroom for ages. It is known to fight fatigue, and is used to improve vitality and for treating a variety of ailments.
Modern scientific research has revealed that it activates the genes that control cell purification (detoxification and metabolic waste disposal) and energy production. It helps protect the liver, improves insulin sensitivity, and is anti-inflammatory (inflammation is now accepted as the reason behind many diseases, including cancer).
These are just two examples of natural stuff that can modulate gene expression. There are thousands of other natural nutrients out there waiting to be researched.
One of the most important determinants of cellular longevity is the length of the telomeres at the ends of our chromosomes. With each division, the telomere shortens, until it is too short for cell division to occur. The longer the telomere, the “younger” are your cells.
It is now possible to measure telomere length through a blood test. For a full explanation of this interesting subject, read Staying young (Fit4life, May 8, 2011).
Let me just highlight that we can enhance health (and hopefully, longevity) by inducing telomerase (the enzyme that repairs and elongates telomeres) activity. Some of the nutrients that have been found to enhance telomerase activity include astragalus extracts and colostrum (most probably due to the growth factors it contains).
Since cancer cells also divide infinitely because they can continually renew their telomeres, some of the anti-cancer properties of natural nutrients or herbs may be due to their telomerase-inhibiting action. These include resveratrol, garlic, curcumin, vitamin E, fish oil, silymarin and quercetin.
All the natural nutrients mentioned above have multiple health benefits, as is true with most food and herbal medicines.
If some nutrients enhance telomerase, and others inhibit it, won’t they then cancel out each other? This is an important consideration when taking supplements, because for drugs, some interactions between different drugs may cancel out or enhance their respective effects.
Fortunately, in nature, the positive and negative effects are usually selective. For example, when we feed friendly bacteria with prebiotics, we need not worry about feeding the bad pathogenic bacteria too, because they prefer different foods.
Likewise, telomerase activation and inhibition in healthy and cancer cells seem to operate differently. For example, some experts believe that resveratrol induces telomerase in normal cells, but inhibits telomerase in cancer cells. This may be true for many other nutrients too.
A most exciting discovery is that the mind actually influences the switching on/off or expression of the genes. This gives scientific credence to motivational slogans such as “You are what you think” and “Change your thinking, change your life”.
Epigenetics is the science of the influence of other factors (e.g. mind, diet, exercise and environment) on our genes. While our genome is our genetic blueprint, external factors can be so strong such that the development of our cells can be more influenced by our thoughts, diet, lifestyle and environment than by the genes.