Our unique genetic makeup is often thought of as a pre-determined ‘blueprint’ for our health and our likelihood of developing certain chronic diseases. Functional Medicine takes a more nuanced view.
Counter to the determinist outlook, the Functional Medicine approach fuses the latest in genetic science and systems biology, with a deep understanding of the equally important (sometimes even more important) influence of environmental and lifestyle factors on how disease presents and progresses in a patient.
Effective Functional Medicine treats every patient as the individual they are. It requires a detailed and holistic understanding of a patient’s biochemical individuality, unique life history, environment, and lifestyle. By piecing together this full picture of a patient, and unravelling the interconnected systems and chain of reactions within the body, we can refine a highly individualised approach to both treatment and prevention.
So, while certain genes may make you more susceptible to developing specific diseases, we put the emphasis on understanding the ways in which your genes are stimulated and triggered. Our genetic makeup can directly impact how our bodies react to environmental and behavioural factors – and luckily, in most cases, those are things we can control.
What’s in our genes?
Whether inherited or influenced by other factors, there’s a genetic component to almost every disease and human trait1. The genetic material within each cell is packaged into units known as chromosomes. Human cells have two sets of chromosomes – one inherited from the mother, and one from the father. Within each chromosome, are many different genes, each one with a unique DNA sequence which directs the production of proteins.
While every cell contains our complete DNA, the different genes are used selectively depending on the specific organ they’re in and function they need to perform. Some genes can be activated at different stages of development, or be triggered in response to a stimulus – such as stress or infection. Through the proteins our genes encode, they can determine things like how efficient our immune systems are, our ability to metabolise different foods, even our reactions to toxins2.
Understanding genetic disease
A gene mutation (a change in the DNA sequence of a gene) can result in the production of an altered protein that can’t perform its intended function. There are numerous mutations that can occur, resulting in thousands of different diseases and disorders. Genetic diseases can be single-gene (a mutation in one gene), chromosomal (larger mutations) or multifactorial (when it’s the result of a combination of genetic, environmental and behavioural factors). Examples of multifactorial diseases include heart disease and diabetes.
While this may seem quite complex, the bottom line is that our genes function within the context of – and can be influenced by – our environments and our behaviour, including what we eat, how we exercise, and what medications we take. What we do and what we’re exposed to can therefore influence the way our genetic traits function3.
Research has shown that ‘modifiable health factors’ including one’s level of physical activity, fitness, diet, smoking, and even alcohol consumption over one’s lifetime are likely to contribute to cardio vascular disease mortality4.
After an initial consult with a Functional Medicine practitioner, based on your medical history, family history, and current health, some tests may be required – including genetic tests.
Genetic testing can be performed on a sample of blood, hair, skin, amniotic fluid or other tissue (for example, a swab from the inside of your cheek). The tests identify specific changes in DNA, chromosomes, or proteins depending on the type of disorders being tested for4.
The results help create a solid understanding of possible genetic weaknesses which in turn can inform decision making around how to best manage your unique risk factors through sustainable lifestyle and environmental interventions.
Precisely because we’re each unique in our genetics and life history, the preventative measures we take and treatment programs we are prescribed should be highly personalised and designed with an understanding of what our bodies need and react to.
By changing the factors that are within our control in the right ways – including our environment, nutrition, lifestyle, and mindset – we can greatly influence our health, and even to an extent, change our genetic destiny.
Are you ready to take charge of your health? Start your journey to optimal wellness by booking an online Functional Medicine consultation with Dr Matt le Roux right here.
1,2 Genetic Alliance; The New York-Mid-Atlantic Consortium for Genetic and Newborn Screening Services. Understanding Genetics: A New York, Mid-Atlantic Guide for Patients and Health Professionals. Washington (DC): Genetic Alliance; 2009 Jul 8. CHAPTER 1, GENETICS 101. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK115568/
3 Mitchell, Jonathan A et al. “The impact of combined health factors on cardiovascular disease mortality.” American heart journal vol. 160,1 (2010): 102-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2897813/
4 Genetics Home Reference. How is Genetic Testing Done? https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/testing/procedure