For common genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, the cause is a defect in a single gene. However, in the case of cancer, coronary artery disease (CAD), or diabetes, changes in many genes play a role in who and why someone gets the disease. For example, more than 30 variations in genes were found to be significantly associated with an increased risk of CAD. Just thinking about this large number of genes, you might get the impression that somehow they can explain our modern chronic disease epidemic. But, that is mostly false. These genes have not changed at all over the last 40,000 years. What has changed is our lifestyle. What we eat, our physical activity levels and our ability to handle psychological stressors determine whether some of these genes will be turned on or off, and how they function when they are in the “on” position. The truth is, our genes alone do not determine if we will develop diseases. Lifestyle factors that interact with our inherited genetic material overwhelmingly determine if we will develop CAD, cancer, diabetes or obesity. Understanding the relationship between genes and lifestyle is becoming so critical, that soon it will not be possible to interpret the role of genes in the development and progression of disease without taking into account the lifestyle habits of carriers of those genes.
For example, phytochemicals that are naturally and abundantly found in vegetables and legumes can help suppress genes that might predispose someone to disease. When people with genes that predispose them to heart attacks rarely eat veggies and fruits, their risk increases from 20 percent to 200 percent, according to a study published in PLoS Medicine
! If, however, their “bad” genes receive an abundant dose of veggies, their risk of heart attack plummets and is no different than people without those genes. Basically, the disease-promoting nature does not manifest when the genes are turned “off.” And here’s the really exciting news: They were not turned off by some fancy, new drug, but by humble, simple vegetables. So, the next time you enjoy your leafy greens, berries or legumes, listen for the sound of thousands of genes turning on or off in your genetic orchestra.