Updated: Mar 20
We hear a lot about genetics these days, from using it to find out where your ancestors came from to testing for specific diseases. But what genes are, what the study of genetics covers, and how genetics can be used as an impactful health recommendations tool is still somewhat a mystery to most.
Here's a quick guide to what genetics is and how it can lead you to your optimal health.
What are genes?
Genes are bits of code found in our DNA that carry and create our various unique traits. Obvious examples are our eye color or height, but genes can also inform other things like our metabolism, how our cardiovascular system works, or if we might be predisposed to disease. 99.9% of our genes are the same as everyone else’s, but it's that .1% that make us truly unique — and from where we can gain the most insights into how our bodies function.
What is genetics?
Genetics is the study of genes. It's the study of how traits are passed down through families, which genes affect which body processes, and how different genes express themselves, but most importantly how we respond to the world around us, the food we eat, the exercise we do, and the stress we encounter.
What are genetic variants?
That .1% of our genes that isn’t like everyone else’s is important because it's where genetic variants come into play. Genetic variants are simply ‘spelling changes’ in our genetic code that may impact how the gene works. People that have a specific genetic variant may find their cellular or systems functionality impacted in some way, making it different than someone else’s — sometimes for the better!
What are some examples of genetic variants?
Genes can do all types of things in a person's body, and variants can influence functionality all the way down to the cellular level. For example, the ACE gene influences our potential for fitness endurance or power. The GSTM1 gene helps eliminate toxins from our body. The HFE gene affects our iron storage. The APOE gene impacts inflammation. As you can probably guess, any variation that alters a gene’s functionality can contribute to everything from general bad health to chronic disease.
How do genetic variants impact my health and wellness?
A common misconception is that our genes are set for life, and we can't change them. We can’t change the code, but if we know what genetic variants a person has, and how their genes express themselves in various ways to influence a person's health, then that person can make lifestyle and food choices that take those genetic variants into account. For example, someone may have a genetic variant that causes them to store iron too well. That means that we can do further testing and if need be recommend treatments that will address any excess iron. Or someone may have a genetic variant that impacts their ability to metabolize caffeine. They know then that they need to cut back on that extra cup of coffee!
What is genetic testing and what does it do?
How do we find out what a person's genetic makeup is? Take a test! Genetic testing is fast and painless, and typically involves a simple cheek swab. The results, however, are complex, and can provide insights into cellular function, systems function, cardiovascular health, how we manage our energy intake, nutrient processing, and more. And the best news is the you only have to do this test once, because it will never change!
Why should I get my genes tested?
To reap the benefits listed above! If you knew your genetic makeup that explained how your body functioned and reacted to the world around you, there's no limit to what kind of insight that could provide into your health. You could eat the foods that would help optimize your health and you could do the exercises that are right for your metabolism and energy levels, based on your genes. Your genetics can also point towards the root causes of illness and disease that could help us create a much more tailored treatment approach. In other words, your genetic test is like a blueprint that will help you know how to build your health and wellness correctly.
Get to Know Your Genes
You may think you know yourself pretty well, but you can get to know yourself a lot better by getting to know your genes. They won't just give unique insights into how your body functions, but can put you on the path to optimized health and wellness — maybe the path you've always been searching for.
Gina Ditta-Donahue is a certified Family Nurse Practitioner and Anti-Aging Medicine provider. She is Your Functional Medicine Partner, helping people identify and treat the root cause of their symptoms. She is co-founder of Elevate Functional Medicine.