Environment vs Genetics for Disease

March 2nd, 2011

Throughout history medicine has explored the role of genetics versus environment in the development of disease.  When you visit your doctor, a strong emphasis is placed on your family history to determine your risk factors for disease. The types of medical tests and how frequently they are ordered will often be determined by your family history.  So, why is it that 70-80% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of it?  This statistic and others like it, have caused doctors and scientists to evaluate the role of nutrition, exercise and lifestyle factors in the development of chronic disease.

With recent scientific advancements in the area of genetics, we have an evolving field of nutrigenomics.  Human clinical studies are now proving that diet, nutrition, exercise habits and emotional health determine genetic outcome.  We are learning how the environment of the cell effects how genes are read.  That is, which genes are turned on or off, and even how genes can be read differently, producing drastically different outcomes of health or disease based on lifestyle factors.

Many Naturopathic doctors and other alternative healthcare practitioners refer to this micro-environment within and surrounding our cells as the terrain of the body.  I like to use the analogy of the terrain being comparable to the soil in our gardens and crops.  When we use clean, organic soil that is rich in nutrients and minerals, we will grow non-toxic and  vitamin rich vegetables.  In the same way, the terrain or environment that surrounds the cells of our body is influenced by many factors of our environment; such as toxicity, diet and nutrition, exercise habits and emotional well-being.

What I love about this perspective is that it enables the doctor to empower their patients to take action to improve their health. Now, instead of the old message that goes something like…”there’s nothing you can do, it’s genetic” or “you will be on this treatment for the rest of your life”, doctors have the resources to say “with diet and lifestyle changes, we can support your body’s ability to heal itself, increase your resistance to disease and even remove metabolic factors that promote cancer”.  Throughout this blog we will explore some of the physiological factors that affect the  terrain that promotes cancer development; but keep in mind, many of these factors contribute to all types of chronic disease.

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