Your Personal Roadmap to Wellness

Rebecca Ephraim, R.D., C.C.N. | Common Ground

The exciting intersection between natural medicine and human genome mapping

Roger Porter is taming his body’s trouble-making tendencies by taking a walk on the wild side of science. He’s harnessing information gleaned from his genetic make-up to control factors in his life that could promote disease.

Porter’s new insights into his health come as a result of the mapping of the human genome (completed in 2003) and the hyper-drive research that’s putting this genetic DNA blueprint to work. The science behind this is something that integrative health professionals are hailing as a potentially revolutionary leap for natural, preventative medicine.

Significantly, research is revealing that using specifically tailored interventions can modify how genes express themselves. In other words, just because we have a genetic variation that makes us susceptible to a certain disease—heart disease, for instance—it does not mean we will necessarily develop heart disease. That’s because our genes are fluid and flexible in how they “express” themselves and, with the knowledge of our genetic inefficiencies, we can influence the factors that would send them off in the wrong direction.

Porter has just gotten specific health counseling based on DNA analysis of his cells that came from a cheek swab. “Roger’s a person who really needs to pay attention to the part of his life having to do with blood pressure and cardiovascular risk,” says Cheryl Myers, a registered nurse and director of health sciences for Integrative Therapeutics, Inc. (ITI), an Oregon-based company pioneering DNA testing to apply it to natural medicine. She steered us through Porter’s cardiovascular panel of 25 genetic variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs (pronounced “snips”). Porter, 53, agreed to share his results with us as long as we didn’t use his real name.

SNPs allow us to trace gene irregularities we’ve inherited from our parents that are associated with common diseases or health conditions. Once you have this information, you can develop a focused plan to better prevent the possibility of family risks echoing in your health.

Porter’s SNPs, explicitly ADD1, CYP11B2 and LPL, show increased risk of creating blood clots and a sensitivity to salt that can lead to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Knowing his genetic inefficiencies, Porter can incorporate lifestyle changes and, importantly, tailored nutritional supplementation—such as therapeutic doses of fish oil and Co-Q10—that can strengthen his body’s ability to counter how his genes could express themselves to create disease.

Revolutionary Leap

Reminiscent of a science fiction decoder ring but for real, the SNPs decipher health risks specific to each individual … risks that we could only guess at before the human genome was mapped and studied.

We’ve known that many genomic inefficiencies show up with high frequency in our North American population. For instance, about 50 percent of Caucasians in North America have less than optimal capability of metabolizing the B-vitamin, folic acid. Without substantial folic acid, deficiencies can lead to heart disease and, in women, can cause neural tube defects leading to birth defects in newborns. Knowing that you’re a poor metabolizer of folic acid, you’re able to counter that genetic inefficiency by regularly supplementing with high doses of the vitamin.

Because Porter was adopted and knows only that his maternal grandfather died of heart disease, the profile has filled in some blanks for him. “I’ve been struggling with high cholesterol. Now I understand what heredity brings to the table and how I can troubleshoot problems I may be predisposed to,” he says.

That’s one of the primary reasons people want their genetic profiles, according to Patrick Hanaway, M.D., the medical director for Ashville’s Great Smokies Diagnostic Laboratory, that’s also marketing the tests, known as genomics screening.

Hanaway says that, like Porter, many know about a health threat that runs in their families and want more understanding of how to reduce their risk. Others are simply looking for a sophisticated approach to maintaining good health. And then there are those who are struggling with chronic illness and not getting better with conventional treatments. “This is where we’re dealing with the cutting-edge doctors who have the ability to refine their own clinical practice and are able to offer patients or clients testing and understanding,” he says. “It’s helping to identify potential roadblocks for optimizing health and well-being.”

Hanaway and Myers focus on educating integrative medicine practitioners who want to use the genomics testing in their practices. Since their companies believe the SNPs test results need to be explained, patients must go through practitioners to access the testing, which costs anywhere from $200 to $500 for basic panels and up to $2,000 for comprehensive testing; it’s not covered by insurance. Great Smokies collects the DNA sample through either a mouth rinse or blood test. You can find various companies on the Internet marketing directly to consumers but, at this time, there’s no review of their competence.

Putting It Into Practice

Michael Biamonte is a naturopath and certified clinical nutritionist based in New York City who’s been using genomics testing for about a year. “There’s a certain amount of relief felt by patients because now they know it’s not a mystery anymore,” says Biamonte, who works a lot with toxicity and environmental illness and uses the genomics testing to pinpoint detoxification pathways in patients compromised by genetic inefficiencies. Often, he says, those who come to him are seeking answers they couldn’t find with conventional medical practitioners.

“One of the key things is that you can be much more specific with this type of approach because you’re getting [information on] exact gene errors and then a patient knows what physiological problems can be due to [them].”

For those who already take a number of nutritional supplements by using a scatter shot approach to cover their nutritional bases, SNPs provide the opportunity for specific recommendations. “When we go over the tests,” Biamonte explains, “I tell patients ‘these supplements I’m about to recommend are based on your genetics. These are not things you can just take for a brief period of time and then stop. You’re going to have to take these indefinitely because your genes are not going to change’.”

While conventional medicine uses genetic testing to match patients with drugs or assist in the development of new drugs, a natural approach employs genomics testing for minimizing genetic risks through nutritional supplementation while also modifying diet, environmental factors and toxic exposure that match the unique health risks for each individual.

There’s a robust debate over the confidentiality of one’s genetic information, but Hanaway and Myers say their companies ensure privacy and anonymity—by using numbers instead of patient names. Moreover, according to Myers, genomics testing is not considered medical testing. “We’re not looking for disease, this is not a cholesterol check or a white blood cell count so it’s not required to be put anyplace in the [person’s medical] chart. So people can be as private with this information as they choose to be.”

Rebecca Ephraim, a registered dietitian and certified clinical nutritionist, is the national health editor for Dragonfly Media. Contact her by e-mail.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: