By Dr. Mercola
"You are what you eat" is one of the most profound and instructive sayings ever to be passed down to us through the ages, and thanks to an explosion of exciting new research into the way that food directly affects your genes, it can no longer be written off as merely a metaphorical expression.
In fact, food provides far more than just the material "building blocks" and "fuel" for the 'body-machine; it is also a source of genetic information, which is capable of informing the cells and processes within your body, for better or for worse.
What is quite amazing is the difference in biological response when comparing the right and wrong types of foods.
In fact, new research has revealed that eating the wrong plants can actually directly alter your genetic expression, which can lead to a myriad of diseases.
Micro-RNA Molecules from Your Food May Control Up to 30 Percent of Your Genes
Never before could it have been imagined that your "genes" could be so profoundly affected by things you eat.
There is also the field of lectinology, which has opened our eyes to how plants – particularly grains and legumes – have a set of defenses, not unlike "invisible thorns," which can cause direct, non-immune mediated harm to a wide range of tissues and organs within your body.
Medical science is beginning to awaken to how profoundly food is intertwined with health and disease, and how nutrients affect genes, and how our genes respond to nutrients. This, in fact, is the field of study known as Nutrigenomics – something, I believe, you will be hearing far more about as the science begins to gain wider appreciation. It is a burgeoning new field, in fact launched soon after the completion of a working draft of the Human Genome project (2003), which failed to provide the long sought after "holy grail" of modern biology.
In a nutshell, the project failed to identify one gene for every one protein in the human body, forcing researchers to look to epigenetic factors -- namely, "factors beyond the control of the gene" – to explain how the body is formed, and how it works. What is the most important factor beyond the control of the gene? Diet.
Eating the Wrong Plants Can Mess With Your DNA Expression
Chances are you've never heard of micro RNA (miRNA) … but that doesn't mean it hasn't already been impacting your health … RNA is one of three major macromolecules, like DNA. Micro RNA are basically small pieces of RNA that interact with your genes, essentially stopping certain genes from being expressed.
MiRNA exists in human body fluid naturally; for instance, researchers have detected high expression levels of immune-related miRNAs in breast milk, particularly during the first 6 months of lactation. It's thought that this genetic material is transferred from mother to baby to help modulate the development of the infant's immune system. Cow's milk also contains miRNA, which is currently being explored as a possible new standard for the quality control of raw milk.
However, micro RNA also exists in plants, and for the first time research has shown that eating the wrong plants may transfer this plant miRNA to humans -- with potentially devastating implications.
The study, published in the September 2011 edition of the journal Cell Research, determined that microRNA from cooked plant foods like rice, wheat and potatoes can in fact collect in your blood and tissue, leading to a number of potential health problems.
The study further revealed that microRNA remains completely stable after not only cooking, but through the digestion process as well. Most importantly, the researchers found a significant quantity of microRNA in the human body, concluding that:
" … plant miRNAs are primarily acquired orally, through food intake."
So whenever you eat rice and certain other plant foods, including potatoes and wheat, you are ingesting genetic material that may turn certain genes "off." To date, microRNA has been implicated in a number of diseases ranging from cancer and diabetes to Alzheimer's disease. But what exactly is microRNA, and why is it so important?
"Gene Regulators" in Your Rice, Wheat and Potatoes
MicroRNA has been widely shown to alter many critical biological processes, including apoptosis – the process of programmed cell death and DNA fragmentation. As a result, the dysregulation of microRNAs has been linked to cancer and various other diseases. However microRNA are also responsible for regulating your genes on a very large scale. As mentioned, it has been estimated that miRNAs account for less than 1% of genes in mammals, but that up to 30% of genes are regulated by them.
Amazingly, microRNAs are known to regulate the flow of genetic information by controlling the translation or stability of something known as messenger RNAs, which is a molecule of RNA that carries valuable genetic coding information within your body.
What's more, this plant miRNA has been shown to interfere with human microRNA by mimicking it and binding to the receptors. In the study, researchers examined the two highest levels of these microRNAs in human participants, and found that it is shockingly prevalent among many dietary plant staples.
As results of the study show, three microRNAs were detected in rice and other foods including Chinese cabbage, wheat, and potato. Of course these are all highly common food staples for many families not only in the United States, but around the world. This means that you may be unknowingly consuming plant microRNAs that could be increasing your risk of cancer and other disease. Even more concerning is the fact that the study authors observed this effect in both healthy men and women, reporting:
"Upon investigation of the global miRNA expression profile in human serum, we found that exogenous plant miRNAs were consistently present in the serum of healthy… men and women."
What you eat, therefore, is who you are in the most literal sense possible.
This fact, while often overlooked, is fundamental in understanding how to optimize your health. If you eat the right foods, you thrive; eat the wrong foods, and you suffer. The problem is the field of nutrition is infused with the same intensity of impassioned debate and confusion as religion and politics – and rarely, only rarely do you get a clear picture of what is good for you, as an individual.
It can take a lifetime to figure out how to perfect a diet, particularly one suitable for you as an individual. The good news is that modern research is beginning to make headway in figuring out what is good for virtually all humans, at least in most cases. Certain foods appear to be problematic for many … and most grains continue to be at the top of this list.
Lectins: "Invisible Thorns" of the Plant Kingdom
MicroRNAs are only one component of plant foods that stretch beyond the scope of vitamins and minerals … Did you know, for instance, that many of the plants we consume for food, particularly grains and legumes, contain chemical and physical defenses that protect against being eaten?
These include anti-nutrients that interfere with the digestion of starches (anti-amylase), proteins (protease inhibitors), minerals (phytate), and many other similar molecules. Sprouting, fermentation, cooking and processing can sometimes reduce and/or eliminate these substances, but not in all cases.
There is one category, of particular interest, known as lectins. Lectins get their name from the Latin word legere, from which the word "Select" derives – and that is exactly what they do: they select (attach to) a very specific number of biological structures.
Lectins are capable of disrupting the health of the creatures that consume them, often piercing through the protective coating of their digestive tracts, and gaining entry into systemic circulation.
Wheat, for instance, contains an exceptionally small lectin known as wheat germ agglutinin or WGA, which is capable of attaching to the surface proteins of nearly all of its natural predators, from bacterial to fungi, worms to insects, mice to men.
Because all of the these creatures are composed, in part, of the biopolymer n-acetyl-glucosamine, and because WGA is designed to attach – exactly and exclusively – to this glycoprotein (part sugar, part protein), it is Nature's ingenious way of saying: "Hey, back off!" – at least when it comes to eating excessive amounts of the seed storage form of the mature grass plant, e.g. cereal grains.
"Nature engineers, within all species, a set of defenses against predation, though not all are as obvious as the thorns on a rose or the horns on a rhinoceros. Plants do not have the cell-mediated immunity of higher life forms, like ants, nor do they have the antibody driven, secondary immune systems of vertebrates with jaws. They must rely on a much simpler, innate immunity.
It is for this reason that seeds of the grass family, e.g. rice, wheat, spelt, rye, have exceptionally high levels of defensive glycoproteins known as lectins. These 'invisible thorns' are an ingenius means of survival."
Lectins were first discovered in castor bean casings, which contain the lectin ricin. Ricin is so toxic that only a dose the size of a few grains of salt can kill an adult if injected or inhaled. In fact, the US military investigated it for potential military use in the First World War. Like micro RNA, lectins are capable of directly affecting gene expression within cells.
The Very Real Danger of Genetically Engineered Foods
Given the fact that research now shows microRNA are appearing in humans who eat rice, it brings up many questions about the way the food we eat interacts with our physiology. While the Cell Research study had nothing specifically to do with genetically modified foods, the implications have everything to do with them.
MicroRNA appears to have dangerous implications for human health, so it stands to reason that genetic modification, which by definition involves organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered, may too. Further, it brings up a whole new way by which GM foods might harm human health, considering researchers have been using genes very similar to micro RNA to "turn off" certain plant genes.
As reported in The Atlantic:
"Researchers have been using this phenomena to their advantage in the form of small, engineered RNA strands that are virtually identical to miRNA. In a technique called RNA interference, or RNA knockdown, these small bits of RNA are used to turn off, or "knock down," certain genes.
RNA knockdown was first used commercially in 1994 to create the Flavor Savr, a tomato with increased shelf life. In 2007, several research teams began reporting success at engineering plant RNA to kill insect predators, by knocking down certain genes. As reported in MIT's Technology Review on November 5, 2007, researchers in China used RNA knockdown to make:
' ...cotton plants that silence a gene that allows cotton bollworms to process the toxin gossypol, which occurs naturally in cotton. Bollworms that eat the genetically engineered cotton can't make their toxin-processing proteins, and they die.'
'Researchers at Monsanto and Devgen, a Belgian company, made corn plants that silence a gene essential for energy production in corn rootworms; ingestion wipes out the worms within 12 days.'
Humans and insects have a lot in common, genetically. If miRNA can in fact survive the gut then it's entirely possible that miRNA intended to influence insect gene regulation could also affect humans."
The research on micro RNA also has implications on the very doctrine by which biotech companies make claim to GM food safety: substantial equivalence (the idea that there is no difference between GM and non-GM crops). There is obviously much left to be discovered about how DNA and RNA interacts with human beings … and it is becoming increasingly clear that plants with altered DNA cannot be "substantially equivalent" to their natural counterparts. The Atlantic continues:
" … if companies like Monsanto want to use processes like RNA interference to make plants that can kill insects via genetic pathways that might resemble our own, some kind of testing has to happen. A good place to start would be the testing of introduced DNA for other effects -- miRNA-mediated or otherwise -- beyond the specific proteins they code for. But the status quo, according to Monsanto's website, is:
'There is no need to test the safety of DNA introduced into GM crops. DNA (and resulting RNA) is present in almost all foods. DNA is non-toxic and the presence of DNA, in and of itself, presents no hazard.'
Given what we know, that stance is arrogant. Time will tell if it's reckless. There are computational methods of investigating whether unintended RNAs are likely to be knocking down any human genes. But thanks to this position, the best we can do is hope they're using them. Given it's opposition to the labeling of GM foods as well, it seems clear that Monsanto wants you to close your eyes, open your mouth, and swallow."
How Can You Eat to Optimize Your Genetic Expression?
Given the knowledge that the food you consume ultimately becomes the life source of your entire body, it is important that you eat well not only to utilize vital nutrients but also to optimize your genetic expression.
This is cutting-edge information, but it is becoming very clear that there is far more to "food" than vitamins and minerals. Research has only scratched the surface into micro RNAs and their impacts on human health, but the preliminary research suggests they may provide one more method by which grains may harm your health.
For most, it appears healthy eating entails limiting carbohydrates from grains and potatoes, and instead focusing on carbs from vegetable sources. This is in line with the "Paleo" way of eating, which involves focusing on foods that are in line with your genetic ancestry, such as vegetables, nuts and grass-fed meats, while limiting sugars and grains. Cereals, potatoes and bread were non-existent prior to the dawn of agriculture, and there's reason to believe these foods are discordant with our ancient genome. We need to relearn what foods are ideal for our bodies not just to live on, but to thrive on.
You can find more information about how to eat to support positive genetic expression in my nutrition plan. Also keep in mind that your diet is but one way to influence your genetic expression. Your emotions, pharmaceutical drugs, exposure to pollutants, and even exposure to sunlight (vitamin D) and supplements like curcumin play a role in how your genes are expressed.