Can You Manipulate Your Genes To Improve Your Lifestyle?

Influencing your genes can improve your performance and even beat cancer.

Modern genomicists say the future is personal. Clinics are popping up in a neighbourhood near you that will test your genes to help you shed kilos, live to be a hundred, and take your talent for swimming butterfly to the podium. One swab of the cheek, and they’ll unravel your double helix and reveal your genetic potential. We sent three MH guinea pigs – along with a bundle or research, a fair amount of curiosity and some healthy scepticism – for the ultimate in selfies: a gene-based diagnosis of where their power lies.

When I asked fellow trail runner Genevieve Jardine how she was preparing for her next race, The Three Cranes – 100km through the Karkloof forests – I didn’t expect her to say she was having her genes tested. I was thinking kilometres covered and fartleks ticked off, rather than a DNA analysis.

But Gen says she wants to know how to train specifically for her own body. If she knows what genes she has she will know what to eat, what supplements to take, what injuries she might be prone to; and whether, continually running long distances, her body will cope or just curl up and sob on the side of the track.

With more knowledge about what makes her unique, she can live optimally; better and longer. And know how many doses of extreme fun to have along the way.

“In my family,” she says, “there’s cancer on one side and cardiovascular disease on the other. I suspect I’m not going to be a 95-yearold woman blowing out my birthday candles with the smoke from my Marlboro Light. So I want to do what I can.”

I’m all admiration. For I am a lifelong member of a different group of humans: those, in the big old tarot game of genetics versus life on planet Earth, who have drawn the Knight of Wands. Impulsive and energetic, I pull on cheap takkies and charge forth on very long trail runs with a couple of plasters for blisters, muttering about “living in the moment”. I pretend I’m not 20 years older than I feel, and that my body has always been respected as a temple.

close up illustration of a dna strand for dna analysis

Along with pretending to be immortal – and a classic B-minus- type personality, a terror of any medical tests, various addictions, green eyes and a big mouth – I seem to have inherited a rebellious and sceptical attitude. (From both my parents, so I can blame both nurture and nature.)

How many times have we been told by experts to eat potatoes, and then not to eat potatoes? How many enormous peer-reviewed double-blind studies have there been on everything, the results of which are inconclusive or proved wrong a year later? What about self-fulfilling prophecies, the placebo effect, people topping themselves when they find out they may be predisposed to getting Altzheimers?

What about just the stress of being tested, for anything? What about the fact that scientists are busy trying to add more African genomes to the world’s library, as there’s very little genetic data about us at all?

Complex Science

The field of modern genomics is exciting, but mind-spinningly complex. In the body, genes interact, cancel each other out, get switched on or off. Genes make amino acids, amino acids make proteins, and proteins – as enzymes and hormones – drive our bodies. Some variants pass unnoticed; some have a huge impact.

Few are fully understood, and the science community is grappling with how to make sense of rapidly burgeoning datasets. How specific gene variants might express themselves is a universe of possibility. And there are very few genes that have been studied to the point that any medico would recommend taking clear action as the result of a DNA analysis.

However, scientists are certainly finding links between genetics and the fields of nutrition and exercise. In the area of scientific fortune telling there are now dedicated journals, and conferences every couple of weeks.

On lifehacker.com, Beth Skwarecki writes that science shows “Inuit people from Greenland have genes that may help their bodies process their culture’s traditional high-fat diet. Meanwhile, many of us have a variant of a gene called FTO that makes us more likely to be overweight. “But scientists who study the genetics of nutrition think it’s premature to base nutritional advice on your DNA. That FTO gene, for example, has only been shown to make a few pounds difference in body weight. But the sales pitch is just so tempting.”

This is the future, though. The era of personalisation.

Investigating The Genes

Like a good investigative journalist, I drive into the field, cruise the ‘SNP-edia’ (a gene encyclopaedia, basically), and look up some of the studies on genes implicated in sports injury. For the gene COL1A1, for example, there’s Association of polymorphisms rs1800012 in COL1A1 with sports-related tendon and ligament injuries: a meta-analysis.

close up illustration of a dna strand for dna analysis

And I find that “It has been reported that the single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) rs1800012 in COL1A1 might be associated with the susceptibility to sports-related tendon and ligament injuries such as ACL injuries, Achilles tendon injuries, shoulder dislocations and tennis elbow.”

Then the kicker: “But the data from different studies have been conflicting.”

After a few more conflicting results, less like a good scientist and more like an eager hack, I look for guinea pigs: people to get swabbed, who are not afraid of medical tests and their own genes. Men’s Health editor Arthur Jones and creative director Rob Cilliers agree to do the DNA analysis at the 3×4 Clinic in Cape Town, while Genevieve tests at a clinic in Durban.

Dr. Yael Joffe, chief scientific officer at 3×4 Clinics, has spent much of her career becoming an internationally recognised expert in the field of nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics. She’s been reviewing the literature since 2000, and is frequently published in peer-reviewed journals. She explains that she uses DNA as only part of her assessment of a client, to drive intervention. It is just one tool in her toolbox.

“We look at genetics, we look at epigenetics. Stress. The immune system. Gut flora. Symptoms. Toxin exposure. “Everything is an interaction: either genetics plays more of a role or less of a role. Then we can look at how interventions can change gene expression. Nothing is set in stone.

“Yes, you might have a sequence that predisposes you to a disease; but we can compensate, by getting the genes to act in a different way.” Joffe tests 82 genes. Genes, she says, that have enough science behind them. Based on the results, she then gives her clients information about three key areas, and suggestions for four key interventions.

So, with scant information about her subjects so far, we put her test to the test:

Guinea Pig No.1: Arthur Jones, Men’s Health Editor

Key Areas: Oxidative Stress, Inflammation and DNA Damage

“I would have been surprised if you were obese,” says Joffe, having met Arthur’s genes before meeting the man himself. Nutritionally, Arthur should follow a Mediterranean diet, but must watch out for salt: three of his genes indicate the possibility of high blood pressure and hypertension.

He should limit animal fats and favour plants, limit caffeine intake, and avoid sugar during training, which would affect recovery. Joffe recommends including omega-3 oils, flavonoids, resveratrol, and minerals and nutrients for healthy joints – Arthur confirmed that he has suffered from knee issues (torn anterior cruciate ligaments and cartilage in both knees) in the past.

In terms of exercise, Arthur has the power gene! So Joffe was able to recommend regular moderate exercise, not overdoing it, having some rest days. She suggests interval training and moderate-intensity endurance, in combination with short-duration power exercises.

Joffe stressed the importance of warm-up and cool-down sessions, and indicated that Arthur would be good at short, swift bursts of activity. Although he will probably never get a Comrades silver (and Arthur confirms that his time was just under 10 hours), the right strength training would support his running.

a blue atom

Guinea Pig No.2: Rob Cilliers, Men’s Health Creative Director

Key Areas: Oxidative Stress, Inflammation and DNA Damage (Methylation)

Rob shares some of Arthur’s power genes, so much of the same advice applies to him. If he wanted to be on the podium, choosing sports requiring power would be playing to his strengths.

With regard to methylation (enzymes dealing with DNA repair and damage), however, Rob has some genes that point to potential problems. He was born with a club foot, which can be the manifestation of a methylation disorder; as can autism, and a cleft palate.

He has also overcome a non-aggressive cancer. At the time of publication, Joffe was working with Rob on specific dietary interventions, to help prevent a recurrence.

Another of Rob’s genes deletes enzymes necessary for detoxification, so stress and overtraining are concerns for him. Joffe explains: “Exercise is anti-inflammatory at first, which is why it’s so amazing and good for you. But when we pass a training threshold, it becomes pro-inflammatory and oxidative. The oxidative stress has gone passed its tipping point. It has gone from beneficial to harmful. It becomes an epi-genetic stress.

“How quickly you reach that threshold will depend on what your underlying genes are. If you have genes that are already inflammatory, you’ll push yourself over more quickly. So your underlying sequence influences how much training you should do.”

two blue lab tubes for dna analysis

Guinea Pig No.3: Genevieve Jardine, Dietician

Key Areas: Inflammation And Detoxification

The most notable result from Genevieve’s tests was that she has a gene that doesn’t deal well with oestrogen. This problem is also linked to inflammation. As caffeine is inflammatory, she needs to cut down on coffee. In preparation for running long distances she now takes anti-inflammatory supplements and iron, to reduce her chances of injury.

Genevieve’s genes do suggest that she’s suited to endurance exercise, and that she can recover quickly; so she can exercise every day. She says she knows she must never smoke; and she eats a lot of garlic and onions, to help her body detoxify.

Genevieve uses nutrigenomics to good effect in her practice as a dietician – it gives her another layer of information, another piece of the puzzle. Though a lot of the information is general common sense, there’s nothing harmful in it; and it allows her clients to maximise their potential.

So after all this, Genevieve asks me, will I get my genes analysed?

The thing is, the last time I handed over a piece of my flesh it was to a palm reader – my future was literally in my hands (admittedly, also in a dodgy bar in London). She told me I was suggestible, dramatic, and would probably only come into my own when I was 35 at the very least (I was about 25 at the time).

Reassured, I immediately packed my backpack and gallivanted lots more than I probably should have. What I’ve done to my body, and what the current science says that I would actually believe, I can’t be sure.

And truth (and enough data) aside: I’m not sure it would prolong my life, but it might ruin my fun!


Related: 5 Super Simple Ways You Can Hack Your Fat Genes To Lose Weight