Nutritional Genomics, or Nutrigenomics, is a multidisciplinary science which deals with the study of how our food interacts with our genes and how our genes determine our response to our food or certain chemicals found in our food. Nutrigenomics is being hailed as a science which has the potential to prevent, alleviate or even treat certain chronic diseases, by simply making slight changes to what we eat.
The human body is made up of trillions of tiny, microscopic, living entities called “cells.” These cells are the embodiment of the human body as a whole. The activities that our body performs are actually the sum total of all the activities performed by our individual cells. This means that if even a single cell is removed from our body and is given the right conditions, say, in a laboratory, it is capable of independent growth and of performing all the functions of life, viz. growth, nutrition, excretion and reproduction.
The cell harbours various intracellular organelles, pretty much similar to our body organs and systems. The activities of the cell are divided amongst these organelles. An organelle called the “nucleus” is the chief amongst them all because it controls the activities of all other organelles and the cell as a whole. It does so due to the presence within it of a long thread-like molecule called “DNA (De-oxy ribo nucleic acid).” Although the name might not sound fascinating, the DNA is by far the most enthralling and mesmerizing molecule in all of Creation. It is called the “Master Molecule of Life.” A DNA has on its extremely long structure all the information needed for performing various life processes. That is, everything that is ever needed to run a cell and a body as a whole is written on the DNA in a coded language.
DNA can be compared to an Instruction Manual of life. Just as a manual might have separate chapters or sections to help understand various aspects of a machine, for example; the DNA also has discrete segments, each of which has instructions for a particular activity. These segments are called “genes.” Scientists believe that human DNA might have as many as 20,000 genes which together run the entire show. The information that is written on the genes is read by an elaborate process inside the cell and this information is used to manufacture proteins. Proteins are the functional and structural units of cells and they are the ones who will get the work done as per information written on the genes.
Scientists have found out that certain chemicals in the food that we consume have the ability to attach to certain genes inside our cells and thus bring about modifications in the way these genes work. They may switch the genes “ON” or “OFF” or have an impact on the final outcome of their activities; i.e. protein synthesis. Researchers have found that certain foods can make us susceptible to certain diseases and disorders; not due directly to the foods, but because we have certain genes with which these foods interact. Research has proved that dietary chemicals have the ability to alter gene expression (when the information on the gene is read and protein is made using the information, it is said to be gene expression).
The conceptual basis for this new branch of genomic research can best be summarized with the following five tenets. [Kaput and Rodriguez,Physiol. Genomics, 2004]
1) Common dietary chemicals act on the human genome, either directly or indirectly, to alter gene expression or structure.
2) Under certain circumstances and in some individuals, diet can be a serious risk factor for a number of diseases.
3) Some diet-regulated genes (and their normal, common variants) are likely to play a role in the onset, incidence, progression, and/or severity of chronic diseases.
4) The degree to which diet influences the balance between healthy and disease states may depend on an individual’s genetic makeup.
5) Dietary intervention based on knowledge of nutritional requirement, nutritional status, and genotype (i.e., “individualized nutrition”) can be used to prevent, mitigate or cure chronic disease.
From the above it is quite clear that what we eat determines how our body will respond to it and that food can be a causative agent for the onset of many diseases and disorders through a variety of ways. Nutrigenomics holds a promise of “personalised health.” We have convincing scientific proof that no two human beings will react to a food (or a chemical contained in it) in a similar manner. We can use this science and its ever-expanding library of research to better understand the patient’s genetic make-up vis-à-vis his/her diet and its effect on his/her health.
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