Forging Your Own Genetic Destiny

As you may know, at the core of the Primal Blueprint is gene expression – the idea that our genes can be “switched” on or off, or influenced into producing varying amounts of proteins based on environmental factors (like diet, exercise, and exposure to toxins). In fact, the Primal Blueprint is designed around maximizing positive expression and minimizing deleterious gene expression, the idea being that the best way to express our genes is by living like our Primal ancestors. Eating clean, whole foods, getting plenty of exercise, mental stimulation, and sleep – these are the ways Grok lived (if he was lucky), and these are the methods by which our genes are best influenced. And it’s not just conjecture. Time and time again, science (read: unbiased, unaffiliated observations on the human condition) has suggested precisely the same thing about environmental effects on the way our genes work.

You probably also know by now that we relish beating a dead horse – especially if CW is still trying to throw a saddle on the damn thing and ride it. Though that may not be the case with gene expression (rather, almost no one has really caught on yet), we’re not taking any chances. Mounting an effective case against centuries-ingrained ideas about nutrition and lifestyle requires mountains of evidence. With that said, here’s another bit to throw on the pile.

A team of international researchers, observing the effects of cigarette smoking on lung cancer, discovered an interesting new mechanism that further reinforces the link between cancer and smoking. Tobacco smoking was shown to cause hypermethylation (complete or partial deactivation) of a single gene, MTHFR. The silencing of MTHFR in turn seemed to trigger hypomethylation (or systemic dysfunction) in many genes, setting the stage for further cancer development. According to the study’s head researcher, they “found that tobacco-mediated… silencing of the gene, may trigger global hypomethylation and deregulation of DNA synthesis both of which may contribute to cancer development.” All this is to say that researchers have found another, previously unkown mechanism by which smoking tobacco can lead to cancer via altering the ways genes express themselves.

This is simply confirmation that the day-to-day choices we make – whether it’s what to pack for lunch, or hitting the snooze button and missing the gym, or even sneaking a cigarette break – don’t just impact us in the short-term (or even in ways that are immediately clear to us). Rather, they can have long-term consequences (for good or for bad) with genetic implications. And, as we’ve seen with MTHFR, the silencing of even a single gene can wreak havoc on our entire being.

These sound like grave pronouncements to be sure, but they don’t have to be. Knowing truly is half the battle, and the fact that we now know about genetic expression and our ability to affect it simply gives us more options. We like options around here; we don’t like the idea that we are beholden to our genetic destiny, or that a genetic destiny even exists. I guess it all depends on whether your glass is half-full or half-empty – we tend to welcome the news that a few seemingly inconsequential lifestyle choices or environmental factors can have resounding effects on our genetic expression. Because if it can go one way – towards negative gene expression (and, for much of humanity, it seems to be heading there) – it can certainly go the other way. We don’t know about you, but the Primal Blueprint seems to be our best bet for ensuring things go our way.

Further Reading:

Dear Mark: Go Primal in 2009

Loathe Handles: Belly Fat Increases Early Death Risk

Dear Mark: Healthy Body Weight?

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18 thoughts on “Forging Your Own Genetic Destiny”

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  1. Easiest thing to do – follow our genetic (i.e. Primal) blueprint!

  2. Hi Mark,

    I think I’ve come to a lot of the same conclusions you have with regards to health and fitness. However, I was not fully aware of the idea of how our actions can actually turn on and turn off our genes. This is a very powerful idea, and one I’m going to have to give some thought to.

    – Dave

  3. Hopefully I didn’t do too much long term damage to myself in my youth. I will be the first to admit I didn’t always respect the gene expression.

    The SoG

  4. SoG – I believe it is possible in most cases to reverse any of the bad effects you may have caused. Because if not, then the drinking I did in college aught to catch up to me pretty soon as I was a pretty bad binge drinker.

  5. Its amazing how quick our bodies will adapt back to years of evolution. In spite of following a bad diet and training regime or even a bad diet and NO training regime…..
    The human body is amazing and will adapt back to how its supposed to function so long as we are nourished correctly and follow primal (short intense) exercise patterns.
    Making smart choices day to day can be hard but the rewards are superb, the other great thing about genes is that once you start signaling them correctly they will help you out by telling you what your body needs and when.
    One aspect I feel that can be neglected or hard to keep on top of in this day and age is handling stress and staying present rather than being caught up in our minds….Some more posts on relaxation and consciousness would be really cool for 2009. Thanks for the great posts Mark!

  6. Oh yeah! Gotta agree, MDA hits a home run, once again.

    “Knowing truly is half the battle, and the fact that we now know about genetic expression and our ability to affect it simply gives us more options. ”

    Recently I was looking into some gluten issues for a friend of mine, and as a result of a hunch from what I learned (plus my husband has a Scandinavian cousin who has was diagnosed with celiac-sprue in infancy), I had myself and my 4th grade son tested for gluten sensitivity, using a newer fecal tests for IgA antibodies, anti-tissue transglutaminase, fat malabsorption, plus cheek swab genetic tests. This new fecal test (because the immune response is more localized and strongest in the gut) is far more sensitive and useful than the blood test and the very invasive intestinal biopsy that has been the standard protocol for detecting gluten damage for the past 50 years (the standard tests only confirm a diagnosis of the celiac sprue that is advanced and severe, not if it’s mild or auto-immune in non-gut tissues elsewhere in the body, like the thyroid, the pancreas, or the joints, etc.).

    Just got the results back. For those interested in learning more about testing, see www dot enterolab dot com . Thanks to Stephan at Whole Health Source blog for the test recommendation. And as Worker Bee says, “knowing truly is half the battle.” Anyone who knows me knows once I focus on something, I *have* to know, one way or the other. And now I know.

    We both were positive for two copies of gluten sensitive and/or celiac genes, which means even without testing, we now know my husband has at least one copy of the celiac gene, too, and both my parents have at least one gluten sensitivity gene copy. It also means that all children I would have (ok, there’s only ever going to be one) would have at least one gene predisposing to gluten sensitvity from me and all children my son will have will have at least either a celiac gene or a gluten sensitivity gene from him. Ok. GF diets for our lineage, I guess. That’s a doable plan.

    We were both positive for fecal IgA anti-gliadin antibodies (anti-gluten), positive for fecal anti-tissue transglutaminase IgA (detection of autoimmune response to gluten), and my son had some mild fat malabsorption (could affect fat soluble vitamins absorption and therefore mineral availability for growth, teeth, and overall health, etc.). So we both have active reactions to gluten and my son has slight fat malabsorption, perhaps from some mild damage to his gut that will need to heal. Btw, in kids, one of the most common “non-gut” symptoms of gluten sensitivity is irritability and ability to concentrate, which I had definitely noticed recently when he would have bread after a period of no bread consumption (I only bought 2 loaves a bread a month for him). And I had been picky about carefully choosing 7 grain bread (less wheat) that was pretty close to what I could bake myself – sprouted, whole grain, flourless, no unnecessary additives like soy flour, added isolated wheat gluten, etc. Oops. Wasn’t fermented (sourdough), either.

    Makes sense when I think of my hypothyroid condition, too, because in the years before I knew I was hypothyroid, I was baking bread using bread machine recipes with added wheat gluten, and later, I consumed LC breads with added gluten and soy flour to boost protein and reduce starch. At first on LC, the lowered BG-insulin response provided improvement, but then the low thyroid symptoms increased, perhaps due to the additional gluten and soy. Dropping soy and most packaged foods helped a lot, but I never suspected the gluten. Bit by bit, the puzzle picture is becoming clearer as pieces fall into place.

    It wasn’t so surprising, when I think about it and from what I have learned, experienced, and deduced over the past few years as I have dug deeper into the connection between food and health, historic and pre-historic diets, and ancient/modern human physiology. I knew we don’t need grains and especially not gluten grains, and that we didn’t evolve eating them. I had cut grains out almost entirely to manage my BG, but I hadn’t removed them entirely from my son’s diet, though I had limited them at home.

    What *was* surprising to me, was that we were both positive for casein, a protein found in milk. I only had the casein IgA test done because the lab includes it at no charge when ordering the complete Gluten IgA and Gene panel. Wow, I never suspected dairy or casein as a problem for us. You have no idea how much we love good dairy foods in our house – though perhaps we’ve tolerated them better because for the past few years I avoided buying cheap excessively industrial dairy – we’ve been consuming probiotic-rich raw milk, good quality raw aged cheese, homemade fresh goat cheese (lower in casein than cow’s milk), high quality whole milk plain yogurt, etc. But still, we are showing an immune reaction to the casein, and my son has that slight fat malabsorption test result to consider.

    Gluten and casein are two very common food proteins in modern Western foods that are recognized to cause a lot of grief in some humans and they are both found in “new” foods in the human diet (about 10,000 years less), in populations that became pastoralists (herders) and agriculturists instead of remaining hunter-gatherers. These potentially problematic proteins are hard to avoid without some effort in Westernized diets, as they are ubiquitous and part of the collective culture in so many ways – even the language is infused with references to wheat and dairy (“land of milk and honey”, “separating the wheat from the chaff”, “staff of life”, “milk of human kindness”, etc.).

    Gluten-sensitive enteropathy ( ) is increasingly thought to be a potential factor in failure-to-thrive in infants; stunted growth; infertility; dental enamel and other dental defects; asthma; allergies; exzema; psoriasis; CVD; autoimmune diseases; Type 1 Diabetes, some forms of GI dysfunction including IBS (chronic diarrhea and/or constipation); arthritis; and more, as well as other conditions caused by nutrient malabsorption and resultant deficiency) and incidence and diagnosis is on the rise, though gluten sensitivity is still *very* under-diagnosed. One of the problems with addressing the issue is that the standard tests that too often fail to detect subtle gluten-mediated IgA response, as well as the inability of conventional medical specialties to look at the body as a whole instead of as fractionated and unrelated systems. Enterolab suggests that as much as 30% or more of the US population has at last one of the genes that predisposes one to gluten sensitivity (these genes are most common in those of European heritage, which make sense in terms of historical adoption of foods with those proteins). Official estimates of gluten-sensitive enteropathy are lower, but still quite common. Some of the most cutting edge celiac-gluten research is occurring in Italy, of all places, because gluten disease rates are very high there, about 1:200. Take that, mythical “healthy Mediterranean diet with lots of bread, pizza and pasta”!

    There is some speculation that the traditional practices of soaking and fermenting (sourdough) grains (gluten grains are wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, and perhaps oats, and other grains contaminated with gluten grains in the harvesting, storage, and processing) might break down the large gluten protein structure and reduce/fail to trigger the damaging auto-immune response. The same speculation applies for casein, as culturing and fermentation, especially with raw dairy, might cause enough change to the protein to render it less problematic. But modern industrial food processing, not to mention incorporating gluten and casein as individual additive ingredients to boost protein content in packaged convenience foods, denatures the proteins and fails to incorporate many of the beneficial steps taken in earlier times with these staple foods. The denaturing from high heat, rapid, and forceful industrial pasteurization and industrial extruding processes , etc. may prevent proper protein digestion (breakdown) in the stomach (and especially in a population of people who routinely pop anti-acid meds and therefore have less acidic stomachs/impaired digestion) so the problematic protein arrives in the small intestine intact instead of digested, prompting an immune response (danger alert!). What a can of worms!

    But for the time being, I’m not going to rely on hoping that soaking/fermentation will render these proteins safe enough for my son. He’s growing and needs all his fat soluble vitamins, and it’s not worth the risk. Time for gluten and casein-free in our household. The gluten won’t be hard to banish; it was already half out the door. The casein will require more adjustment. Good thing I’m already familiar with some alternatives, like coconut milk. And my son gave me one of my wish list items for Christmas – a rotary coconut grater (from an Indian or East Asian market) so I can make fresh coconut milk – how serendipitous!. I hope to ditch the coconut milk from cans. You can see one style of coconut grater in action here – . They are under $20. I bought coconuts last night and will try out the grater soon.

    So, more than ever, I keep coming back to “…the Primal Blueprint seems to be our best bet for ensuring things go our way.”

    Way to go, indeed. Sorry for the length, though. Doesn’t seem to be a Primal answer for that. Grunts don’t do it for me 🙂

  7. The fact that what we are doing now might only manifest itself 40 years from now can make it difficult to make healthy choices! Fortunately, my body can tell immediately when it is not receiving optimal fuel. Great post, Mark!

  8. It’s interesting that you mention the glass half full vs. glass half empty philosophies – not sure which way around you meant it, but I have always felt that it is an excess of glass-half-full mentality in relation to diet that leads to the terrible diets many people have.

    They consider that eating a piece of fruit or some vegetables in the course of a day is cause for celebration and in some way renders less significant the garbage they are inflicting on themselves the rest of the time. The ‘Five-a-day’ campaign in the UK, well intended though it may be, has to some extent encouraged it because it seems to imply that once you have ticked those boxes nothing else really matters. Ok, the people running the campaign have never said that, but it’s human nature to look for excuses to indulge one’s desires.

  9. This is an interesting topic, one I’m intrigued with because I keep reading bits and pieces about HGs with high rates of smoking (e.g., Kitavans – 70%+ and Massai around the same), yet none of the common associations. Of course, organic home grown tobacco is probably a lot different that the heavily processed kind with all the additives.

    Then, just the other day, I realized that in terms of association, one can reduce cancer risk by about 30% if they smoke now and quit. However, by just getting vitamin D levels about 50, associative risk is reduced 50%, and getting up to 70-80 eliminates risk from an epidemiological standpoint. Doesn’t mean you won’t or can’t get it, just that the epidemiological association, a very strong one, is that the lower the D, the more cancer, and that’s worldwide. Look at the “smile” graphs on this post, tracking cancer rates against latitude.

    It all makes me doubt that smoking is a prime cause of the things it’s associated with, but rather a helper, i.e., if a person has a diet that causes all the inflammation we all know so well about, then cigarettes are just one more thing — probably a rather powerful one — that tips things over beyond the body’s ability to deal with the toxins.

  10. Dr Gundry has an interesting take on gene expression in his book Dr Gundry’s Diet Evolution. Same theory/idea as Mark with an explanation of why they work this way.

  11. Hi Mark, you’re most welcome for the link to your walnut oil article! I’ve been exploring your site a little in the past few days and the idea of “old” ways of eating intrigues me. It’s definitely tempting, with all your talk of higher energy and lower body fat and such. However, I am a committed long-distance runner and triathlete. Nothing anyone can say could change my mind, it’s a passion of mine. That said, do you think this eating plan can fit into an lifestyle of intense training? 100 g carbs a day just doesn’t seem like enough to fuel the body. Everything I’ve read in sports nutrition says carbs are the building blocks and fuel for proper training.

    Is it really one or the other, or can I incorporate the Primal Eating lifestyle into my athletic lifestyle? Also, didn’t our ancestors eat whole grains? What’s so bad about whole grains like millet, spelt, whole wheat, and oats? I hear everywhere how great they are for you. Also, how does your approach differ from “The Maker’s Diet” by Jordan Rubin?

    Anyway, thanks for listening to my confusion. Maybe I’ll find the answers with a bit more research on your site.


  12. Dear Mark,

    I have great respect for your dietary advice and the outstanding results that you and others have when following the primal blue print. I also suspect that you are correct in thinking that good diet may influence gene expression in a good way.

    As a scientist, I would ask that you please refrain from discussing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gene expression, as science has yet to establish what these mean. There is no such thing as negative gene expression, and there are only a few well established examples of ‘bad’ genes or ‘bad’ gene expression. And even for those examples, the gene may be both good and bad, and the mechanisms controlling gene expression are unknown. Truth be told, scientists look at changes in gene expressions and can make little sense of them beyond a few unexplained patterns and correlations.

    It is interesting to see how scientific inquiry gets translated into polarized popular opinion. Please remember that science is a human process; it is NOT objective and NOT unbiased. Scientific results can be published, but remain unaccepted by the research community. Meaning, don’t believe everything you read, even if you read it in a scientific journal.

    I apologize for standing on my soapbox for a minute. You have an outstanding blog and great advice for people. Keep up the good work!

    Best Wishes,

  13. Bonnie – I just replied to a similar question/comment in another board, but wanted you to be included in on this discussion so I’ve copied it here as well:

    Alex, sorry you feel the references were a “waste of time” and understanding gene expression is “useless”. The book will explain all this in detail. I guess I missed Bonnie’s comments earlier as well. She suggests that there is no “good” or “bad” gene expression; and she is correct. Genes don’t know or care when they switch on or off. They simply respond to the signals they are given by other genes or by chemical signals in their immediate environment. Type 2 diabetes happens when some specific genes are desperately responding to a chronic excess of toxic sugar in your bloodstream. They don’t know or care that you get sick in the long term because they are only responding in the short term (to keep you alive or to try to maintain homeostasis). Autoimmune dieases are the result of genes associated with your immune function over-reacting to perceived threats (which may or may not be real). Mesenchymal stem cells “decide” to become fat cells or muscle cells or bone cells depending on signals you (through your diet and/or other behavior) send the genes that are involved in their maturation or transformation. When I talk about “good” or “bad” gene expression, I have “anthropomorphosized” the discussion with an understanding that my readers get what I mean by good and bad – that some gene direction is favorable to health, longevity, fitness, etc and that some is not.

    Genes are being switched on (or not) every second of every day of your life. You reference working out. Your workout choices most assuredly direct which genes involved in muscle growth, energy production, bone density, etc get switched on (or not). That’s why marathoners look different from body-builders. It’s not magic. It all comes down to the signals generated by YOUR choice of activity (as well as your choice of what you eat in fueling that activity). Genes respond to everything we do. Not all, of course, but many more than most people could ever imagine. That’s the personal power that we wield and what we at MDA find so fascinating.

  14. Practitioners sometimes have a more useful intuitive understanding of nature than science does. If your experience and observations lead you to believe that exercise has a profound influence on the human body, then you may not be interested in the slow development of rigorous scientific explanations for your observations. Indeed, it is difficult to have patience with science when the rigor of collecting and analyzing data limit the scope of questions can be answered.

    This narrow view limits the progress we can make. When scientists are skeptical of practitioners’ wisdom, and when practitioners ask scientists to speculate, we all loose. It is much better for us respect each other and learn from what each can bring to the table. There are some outstanding examples of cooperation between scientists and practitioners: some coaches constantly put biomechanics research into practice, and certainly scientists are trying to create useful models for the effect of exercise and diet on gene expression. Mark’s posts on gene expression and health are great for helping everyone see the whole picture.

    Genes constantly change their expression levels in response to their cellular environment. In many cases, we do not know yet which environmental changes have the greatest influence on each gene, or which genes have the greatest influence on the healthy function of each tissue type. We also do not know which actions we can take to most influence the cellular environment of different tissues. All of these environmental changes are extremely difficult to measure in a statistical sense, and studies like this are expensive to conduct. I look forward to the day when we overcome these obstacles, and we begin to develop useful biological models for diet, exercise, and health.

    1. All I know is I’ve been primal for about six weeks now and every time I go by the mirror, I say to myself who is that young thin faced goodlooking bastard. Wife loves it too. The sex is much better too. primal love, nothing better, except of course more primal love. Grok on primal brothers and sisters.