Nutrigenomics: What is it?

In simple terms, the field of nutrigenomics aims to explain how food, more specifically particular compounds and molecules in foods, interacts with our genes (Houghton, 2010).  The genetic backdrop of your life was written long before you were born; it is determined by familial generations who lived before you came into the physical world.  However, this isn’t to say our lifestyle choices, both the good, and the bad, have no influence on our genetic make-up.  As you will see, it is quite the contrary!

Ironically, our pre-reproductive, rebellious teenage years are the time when the huge responsibility of caring for the genome that our future children and grandchildren will inherit falls upon our shoulders.  These are the years often spent testing our bodies to the limit (as well as the patience of our parents’).

How does diet come into play and how can we take control over our health?

The nature of human cells is to adapt to our constantly evolving environment over a long period of time.  This adaptation process takes thousands of years to occur.  Nowadays, scientists have come to the general consensus that as a result of the fast-paced development of modern technology, including food and agricultural practices, our human bodies have not been able to adapt quite fast enough (Houghton, 2010).

Refined sugars and starches have become a staple of the modern Westernised diet, beginning 8 or so generations ago.  This has not been a sufficient amount of time for our human genome to adapt to such dramatic dietary changes.  Add to the mix the array of chemicals dumped into our environment and food supply, and you can see how easily it is for our cells to become overworked and over burdened by the demand to detox and rid themselves of the modern-day rubbish (Houghton, 2010).

Nutrigenomics has shown us that certain food compounds have the ability to act as switches which can significantly influence the internal health of our cells.  For example, processed, refined, and fried foods can send signals to switch on the genes that promote inflammation.

On the flip side…

Sulforaphane, found in cruciferous vegetables, has been found to activate the cell’s internal defense system, acting as damage control (Houghton, 2010).  Let’s now take a closer look at some examples, based on scientific studies, that help to illustrate the power of nutrigenomics.

The Science Behind Nutrigenomics

According to Folkard et al., (2015) cruciferous vegetables are a rich source of sulforaphane, a compound known to have well established anti-cancer effects against prostate, breast, colorectal, and lung cancer.  In particular relevance to inflammation, sulforaphane has been shown to block the downstream transcription factor NF-kB.  This protein is responsible for controlling the expression of a variety of pro-inflammatory cytokines (Folkard et al., 2015).

A study by Tallino et al., (2015) investigated the link between non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, low copper levels, and high sucrose (sugar) intake with regards to the nutrigenomic effects this would have on gene expression in rats.  Results found that compared with a control diet with adequate copper intake and only 10% sucrose, rats fed either a high sucrose or low copper diet had increased hepatic expression of genes involved in inflammation and scarring of liver tissue, promoting cellular damage to the liver.  All the more reason to pass on the refined sugary sweets and increase your intake of nutrient dense, whole foods.

Lyons et al., (2016) state that trans fats, rancid fats, and high amounts of saturated fatty acids promote the production of inflammatory mediators in the body, such as IL-IB (or interleukin 1-beta).  These inflammatory mediators create havoc, disrupting insulin signaling (responsible for the control of blood sugar) and switching on a pro-inflammatory immune response.  According to Lyons et al., (2016) immune cell infiltration is one of the earliest events observed with regards to the development of obesity, and pro-inflammatory gene expression precedes the high insulin levels, leading to dangerously elevated and sustained blood sugar.  This creates the ideal scenario for the development of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and cancer-major chronic and degenerative diseases of the 21st century.

What you can do about it: Positively affecting your Nutrigenomic Potential

Time for some good news!  It seems the old standby advice may seem simple on the surface, but actually has profound effects on our genetics.  You may have heard much of this advice before, but it’s worth a second (third, or fourth!) read:

  • Getting adequate sleep of 7-8 hours per night
  • Eating a balanced diet based on whole, nutrient dense foods (Vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats, fruits)
  • Cutting back on the alcohol or cutting it out completely
  • Quit smoking
  • Ensuring adequate hydration (Approximately 40 ml per kg of body weight)
  • Eat 2-3 servings of green vegetables per day
  • Keep a positive attitude and outlook
  • Laugh and smile often… it can’t get any simpler than that!


Amanda Harasym

Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist



Folkard D, Marlow G, Mithen R, Fergus L. Effect of sulforaphane on NOD2 via NF-kB: implications for Crohn’s disease. J Inflamm. (Lond). 2015;12:6. PMC4335778.  Retrieved from http://

Houghton C. Switched on: harnessing the power of nutrigenomics to optimise your health. (2010). INTEGRA Publishing.

Lyons C, Kennedy E, Roche H. Metabolic inflammation-differential modulation by dietary constitutes. Nutrients. 2016;May;8(5):247. PMC4882660. Retrieved from http://



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