In the current trend toward explaining diseases genetically with high enthusiasm for the Human Genome Project, the question arises; what is the role of heredity in human disease, in contradistinction to the role of environment?

Dr. Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., in his recent presentation of Functional Medicine Update, quotes a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine of 44,788 pairs of identical twins in Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. They were assessed for risk of cancer. If one had a cancer, what was the risk that the other twin would develop it? Twenty-eight anatomical types of cancer were assessed. It was found that heredity played a minor role, significant in only 10 to 25 percent of the cases. Prostate and colorectal cancer had a higher hereditary factor, but for the other common major forms of cancer, environment was most important.

Dr. Bland quoted other studies from mainstream nutrition journals and the New England Journal of Medicine, showing how important the dietary part of the environmental factor is in the development or prevention of cancer. Heterocyclic amines on the surface of fried and broiled foods are carcinogenic (cancer causing) in animals. Aflatoxin found often on peanuts is highly carcinogenic, and other molds on poorly stored grain contribute to cancer. Of course, foods that have more chemical residues such as pesticides are at higher risk than organically grown foods.

Dietary factors that protect against cancer (termed dietary anticarcinogens by Dr. Bruce Ames), are five to nine servings of vegetables and fruit per day, which provide the antioxidants quercetin and isothiocyanates; high fiber intake; liquids — 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 quarts per day; black and green tea polyphenols; and fish, which has omega-3 oils.

Whole grains were found to be more protective than refined grain products. The Journal of the American College of Nutrition made a review of the factors in whole grains. A whole array of anticarcinogenic phytochemicals, fiber, resistant starch (oligosaccharides), phenolic compounds, antioxidants and trace minerals. These substances in whole grains can boost immune function, support cellular repair systems, and decrease inflammatory stress reactions and oxidative stress. These functions all oppose the development of cancers in their various stages.

In Dr. Bland’s lecture at the symposium on Nutritional Management of the Underlying causes of Chronic Disease, he explained that genes have switches that can be turned on or off by the nutritional and hormonal environment of the cells. Furthermore the switching mechanism is not just on/off, but acts more like a rheostat, with a whole range of phenotypic expression, the variability being affected moment by moment by a multitude of nutritional factors.

Dr. Bland has written a whole book entitled “Genetic Nutritioneering,” all about how we can reprogram our genes with nutrition.

So we see that not only cancer genes but all of our other genes are profoundly affected in their expression by our lifestyle choices in the grand uncontrolled experiment called our life.

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