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In 2006, researchers made a fascinating discovery: After dozens of studies found that drinking coffee escalates heart-attack risk, this new inquiry revealed that while coffee did up the hazard significantly for some, the exact opposite was true for others. For those individuals, consumption of one to three cups daily actually lowered the danger of a heart attack.

In the past, these people might have been labeled outliers and their results dismissed. But the researchers found that the difference was due to variations of a gene, CYP1A2, which controls the enzyme that breaks down caffeine in the liver; some people have a slow version, while others harbor a fast one. They theorized that quickly processing the caffeine unleashed coffee’s beneficial effects — the healthy polyphenols and antioxidants.

The study is part of a burgeoning research field called nutrigenomics, which explores how nutrients and our 20,000-plus genes interact. Its advocates see it as a game-changer for our health.

“We now recognize that virtually every gene has some either direct or indirect relationship to nutrition,” says functional-medicine pioneer and biochemist Jeffrey Bland, PhD.

“Genes affect our metabolism, cellular uptake, distribution, absorption, and elimination of everything that we ingest,” explains coffee-study leader Ahmed El-Sohemy, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. “Genes can determine our likes and dislikes of various foods, our olfactory smell sensors, and our taste receptors. Genes also influence our appetite and satiety.”

And the reverse is also true: Our nutritional choices affect our genes — which ones get turned on and express themselves (a field of study known as epigenetics).

Most current dietary recommendations are one-size-fits-all, so it’s not surprising that the ketogenic diet that helped your Aunt May lose weight didn’t work for you, or the caffeine shots others take for boosting sports performance leave you feeling sluggish. “What’s good for one person might actually be harmful for somebody else,” warns El-Sohemy.

Scientists foresee nutrigenomics aiding us in myriad ways:

  • Optimizing health by identifying bioindividualized nutritional requirements or deficiencies. “Individual genetic differences can help us predict whether or not a specific food is going to be good for us, have no effect — or may, in fact, cause harm,” says El-Sohemy.
  • Managing weight by pinpointing the most effective dietary strategy.
  • Preventing, mitigating, or even curing disease.
  • Harmonizing pharmaceuticals’ effectiveness with our specific genes, a related field called pharmacogenomics.

Nutrigenomic tests are now available at prices ranging from $250 to $350 through clinics or direct to consumers from companies specializing in the field. With a simple cheek swab or saliva test, dozens of genetic markers can be identified, and healthcare professionals can use the results to create a personalized diet.

“The test will give sense to what a person might be doing to improve their health,” explains Bland. It could, for instance, identify whether someone might have an issue with diets high in saturated fat, need more B vitamins, or have a problem with certain forms of magnesium (therefore needing to focus on sourcing it from magnesium-rich whole grains and green-leaf vegetables rather than supplements).

“And then there will be more detailed questions . . . like what is a specific formulation that might assist me because I have osteoarthritis or I have early-stage dementia or I have prediabetes or I have dyslipidemia and cardiovascular-disease risk?”

The study of nutrition and gene variations known as SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) is still in its infancy, but research is ongoing. (For more on SNPs, see “Making Sense of SNPs“.) “Once you’ve had a gene test done, it just adds to your interpretive ability as new information becomes available,” Bland says.

This originally appeared as “Nutrigenomics: The Future of Nutrition” in the October 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

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