Heart Disease & Your Genes

Did you know that you can use nutrition to actually affect your genes?

We read a book last week for my Life Cycles class called Feed Your Genes Right by Jack Challem. It was fascinating to learn about how important diet is in turning on or off the genes we may have for certain diseases and conditions. Recent research shows that genes are NOT rigid determinants of our health. We all have the ability to improve the way our genes function through nutrition and other lifestyle improvements. So, no more blaming things on genes!

Nutrients are literally the building blocks of our bodies. If our nutrition is poor, our bodies will have an incomplete, unhealthy foundation. People often do not realize that genes are not fixed; rather, they are flexible and continuously responding to the nutrients we put inside of our bodies, as well as to our emotions and stress levels.

Certain nutrients affect our genes in very specific ways. For example, sugary foods and refined carbohydrates boost our levels of insulin, a hormone that alters gene activity and increases risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. On the other hand, nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables and seafood actually turn off many of our disease-promoting genes, and foods such as kiwis and berries can both prevent gene damage and also repair genes that have already been damaged. As you can see, choosing nutrients wisely can truly affect your health!

Heart disease is characterized by a thickening of the inner walls of the arteries within the heart (sometimes referred to as atherosclerosis). This reduces blood flow, thereby slowing the delivery of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. Some people have genes that predispose them to cardiovascular disease. However, cardiovascular disease can almost always be offset by healthy eating and lifestyle choices.

There are some different genes people inherit that are related to heart disease:

  • There are genes that lead to inefficient utilization of MTHFR, an enzyme necessary for folic acid utilization. This leads to increased risk of heart attack or stroke.

  • Some genes can cause elevated homocysteine levels in the body, a common risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Homocysteine damages the cells that line blood vessel walls, leading to cholesterol deposits.

  • Some genes cause cholesterol-transporting proteins to behave inefficiently. This can lead to higher blood-cholesterol levels and increased chance of heart attack.

  • Certain genes lead to LDL (“bad” cholesterol) being more susceptible to oxidation. Oxidation occurs when people have a poor diet that includes fried, fatty or sugary foods. Oxidized LDL triggers an inflammatory response that leads to heart disease. During the inflammatory response, white blood cells capture oxidized LDL and then release them into blood vessel walls, causing damage.

Below are some nutrients that are very important for someone who has genes for heart disease. Try to incorporate them into your diet in the form of whole foods. However, supplementing can also be very helpful.

Vitamin E: Vitamin E helps prevent LDL oxidation. People with high cholesterol have a greater need for vitamin E because there is more oxidation inside their bodies. Whole food sources of vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, olives, papaya, and leafy greens.

Vitamin C: Vitamin C will work with vitamin E to reduce levels of oxidation inside the body. A lot of research has linked vitamin C intake to longevity and decreased risk of heart attack and stroke. Vitamin C also helps manufacture the heart cells and maintain structure and flexibility of the blood vessels. Whole food sources include papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, strawberries, oranges, cantaloupe, kiwi, cauliflower and kale.

CoQ10: CoQ10, like vitamins E and C, will reduce oxidation and help keep blood vessel walls clear. People with heart failure almost always have low levels of CoQ10. CoQ10 also helps prevent thickening and stiffening of the heart muscle, which leads to poor function. Whole food sources of CoQ10 include sardines, mackerel, grass-fed meats (especially organ meats like liver), pastured eggs, spinach and broccoli.

Essential Fatty Acids: EFAs work to reduce inflammation in the body. Heart disease is an inflammatory disorder of the blood levels, so EFAs are crucial for those predisposed to cardiovascular disease. Processed and sugary foods provide excessive amounts of the nutrients involved in the body’s inflammatory response. However, EFAs such as omega-3 fish oils have an anti-inflammatory effect. Gamma-linolenic acid, oleic acid and antioxidants also support the body’s anti-inflammatory process. Whole food sources of EFAs include coldwater fish such as salmon, herring and tuna; evening primrose oil; flaxseed oil; and olive oil.