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Your Genes Could Be Causing Your Stress

Part One: Are your genes responsible for your unhappiness?

written by Dr. Tchiki Davis May 22, 2020
Your Genes Could Be Causing Your Stress

Contributing RD&T writer, Dr. Tchiki Davis, discusses chronic stress and its causes. It may be your genes causing your stress, but you can change your diet to help.

They say “stress kills.” I didn’t realize how true this was until last year when, in the midst of writing my first book, Outsmart Your Smartphone, I got really stressed out—for a full month.

At the end of that month, it was like a switch was turned off. In a snap, my body stopped working. I started having major gut health issues. I couldn’t think. I could barely stay awake. My anxiety went through the roof, and I lost nearly twenty pounds in two months. (You can read more of my story here.) But there wasn’t anything “medically” wrong with me.

So I continued to do what everyone said I was “supposed to do” to boost well-being. I did vigorous exercise four days per week. I ate vegetarian and gluten-free. I drank gallons of green tea. I ate a ridiculous amount of healthy fruits and vegetables, but nothing helped. I was very sick and wasn’t getting any better.

It didn’t make any sense. What on earth was going on?

How I Discovered “Toxic Genes”

After being sick like this for almost a year and spending nearly all of my time either in bed or researching how to get healthy, I stumbled upon research on the genetics of detoxification. It turns out there are a bunch of genes that can make it difficult for some people to eliminate toxins from the body—from air pollution, pesticides, fragrances, mold, estrogen, and even stress hormones.

Once these genes start causing problems it can be incredibly difficult to return to health because of the cascading effects they have on every part of the body. I wondered: Maybe these genes could explain why I was having such a hard time rebuilding my health and well-being. I had to find out. So I ordered a genetic test I could take at home, convinced that I had at least one of these “toxic genes.”

When I got my results back, everything suddenly made sense. I had not just one but four of the key genes that make it difficult to eliminate toxins from the body. This discovery is what led me to start researching how to “eat for my genes,” and it is ultimately what helped me get my health back.

A Brief Intro to Genes

So what are “toxic genes”? Well, each of our genes has two parts. We get one part from our mom and one part from our dad. And there are a few different variations (called polymorphisms) we can get from each parent.

Think of them like Legos. Maybe I have a green Lego and you have a red Lego. They fit together the same, but they are a little different. And it turns out some of these differences can make us more prone to have issues with health, well-being, personality, and stress.

Luckily, we do have some control over our genes. If we know which ones we have, we can support them, for example by modifying our environment (e.g., with foods, situations, vitamins). As a result, we can affect how these genes are expressed and improve our health and well-being. So the question then becomes: How do we eat for our genes? 

The answer depends on which genes you have.

Here, in part one of this series, I’ll talk about Cytochrome P450 Genes and Glutathione S-Transferase Genes. And in  part two, we’ll talk about the COMT gene. Each of these genes has an influence on our ability to detox and therefore, our health and well-being.

1. Cytochrome P450 Genes

What are they?

Cytochrome P450 genes (also called CYP genes) are largely responsible for Phase 1 detox in the liver. In Phase 1 detox, fat-soluble toxins are transformed into reactive molecules and free radicals, which can actually be more harmful than the toxins themselves. In a healthy body, Phase 2 detox snatches up and converts these reactive molecules quickly so they do little harm. Then these toxins are removed from the body through urine, feces, or sweat.

But a problem arises if you have overactive CYP genes. You might think this would be good: Your Phase 1 detox system is fast. But it turns out this is quite problematic because Phase 1 is completed quickly, and reactive molecules and free-radicals can build up in your body causing extra harm if Phase 2 can’t keep up. (We’ll talk about those genes in a bit.)

What to do about it:
  1. First, with overactive CYP genes, we need to avoid toxins (e.g., nitrates, smoking, car exhaust, pesticides, preservatives, caffeine, alcohol, parabens, etc.) as these toxins can do more harm on the body than they would to someone without overactive CYP genes.
    • But in our modern world, it’s impossible to avoid toxins. So this step may not be enough to prevent poor well-being. If we want to prevent the damage CYPs can do, we should also modify our diet.
  2. With overactive CYP genes, next, we want to avoid foods that increase CYP activity.
  3. Third, we want to eat foods that reduce CYP activity.
    • For example, research suggests that ellagic acid (which is in strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, and walnuts, pomegranate, black currant) may reduce CYP1A1 overactivity. Additionally, chrysoeriol, present in rooibos tea and celery inhibits CYP1B1 activity; apiaceous vegetables (carrots, parsnips, celery, dill, parsley, etc.) inhibit CYP1A2 activity; and grapefruit juice inhibits CYP1A2 activity. A rat study also suggests that dandelion, peppermint, or chamomile tea significantly decrease the activity of CYP1A2.
  4. Lastly, we may want to consume extra Vitamin C and Vitamin E to manage free-radicals produced by overactive CYP genes.

Important Note: This research applies only to overactive Cytochrome P450 genes.

2. Glutathione S-Transferase Genes

What are they?

Glutathione S-transferase genes (also called GST genes) are largely responsible for Phase 2 detox—the part of detox in which reactive molecules and free radicals (that emerge from Phase 1 detox of toxins) are transformed into more easily excretable substances for elimination through urine, feces, or sweat.

A problem arises when GST genes aren’t working properly. GST genes can be entirely “out of order” (homozygously deleted; also called null or deletion). When a GST gene is “null,” it doesn’t work at all. Somewhere around 20% to 50% of people have a GST null gene.

Luckily, having a GST-null gene isn’t a death sentence. Because each of us has multiple GST genes, as well as other Phase 2 genes, the other genes can take up the slack—if we provide them with the right support. It’s just like if a restroom is “out of order”—the lines for the other restrooms are longer. So we need to do whatever we can to decrease the length of the lines and move the lines through quickly.

What to do about it:
  1. Research suggests that you can support GST genes (and Phase 2 detox) by consuming bitter herbs that promote liver health—things like milk thistle and dandelion.
  2. It’s also helpful to eat foods high in alpha-lipoic acid, which boosts glutathione. These foods include spinach, broccoli, yams, potatoes, yeast, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and beets. Red meat—particularly organ meat—is also a good source of alpha-lipoic acid.
  3. Eating foods high in limonoids (from citrus fruit, especially sour fruit) also appear to support GST.

Note: If you have both overactive CYP genes and under-active GST genes, your problem is compounded because toxins spend more time as highly damaging reactive molecules floating around your body. In this case, it is especially important to eat for your genes.

  • Chow H. H. S., Garland L. L., Hsu C. H., et al. Resveratrol modulates drug- and carcinogen-metabolizing enzymes in a healthy volunteer study. Cancer Prevention Research. 2010;3(9):1168–1175. doi: 10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-09-0155
  • Hodges, R. E., & Minich, D. M. (2015). Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components: A Scientific Review with Clinical Application. Journal of nutrition and metabolism, 2015, 760689. doi:10.1155/2015/760689

This is Part One of a two-part series.

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