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Environment vs. Genes: Which Is Worse for Your Immune System?

Do you ever wonder if your genetics are to blame for why you become sick or contract specific diseases?

Doctors have been trying to answer whether nature vs. nurture influences your health for years.

Recently, a study published in Scope, a Stanford School Medicine magazine, found that the environment is more important than your genetics for shaping how healthy your immune system is.

Researchers looked at pairs of twins and their immune systems to see which plays a bigger role, genetics or the environment.

In the study, researchers took blood samples from 78 identical twin pairs and 27 fraternal twin pairs. Researchers then compared roughly 200 cells that are related to the immune system. They found that there is little to no genetic influence, and the exposure to the environment has a larger influence on your immune system.

What can you do to help keep your immune system healthy in a toxic environment?

Dr. Mike shares the recent study, as well as ways to keep yourself healthy from the effects of the environment.

RadioMD Presents:Healthy Talk | Original Air Date: April 3, 2015
Host: Michael Smith, MD

Healthy Talk with Dr. Michael Smith, MD. And now, here's the country doctor with the city education, Dr. Mike:

DR MIKE: So, what do you think? Nature or nurture. You know, that's the age-old debate, right? Nature versus nurture. I think most lay people, when answering that question. say it's like 50/50. Interesting, most doctors up until recently would have said, "No, it's probably nature (meaning your genetics) 90% of the time, nurture (your environment) maybe 10% of your time."

The thought process has always been that your genes--you know, you get half from your mom, half from your dad—that they're set in stone. There's not much you can do about it. If you've got some bad genes in there, you've got some bad genes in there. You're at risk for disease--high risk for disease. Again, it goes back to that idea that your genetics running your life, probably have more of an impact than nurture or environment.

We're changing that thought process, though. There's been a significant paradigm shift in how we think about genes versus the environment. I have a study that kind of highlights this a little bit. This was published in the journal Cell, January 2015.

"In new studies, researchers have found that our environment is more important than genetics for determining, at least, the state of the immune system."

I think it actually extrapolates to all parts of your body. I do believe now, based on solid research, that the environment does play a greater role. I'm going to explain why, but let's look at this study first. This was a study conducted by the Stanford School of Medicine. It was written up in the Stanford School of Medicine magazine and also, as I said, published in Cell in January 2015. So, here's what they found:

"The researchers studied the differences in the immune system of twin pairs to determine the extent of the roles for genes and the environment. Identical twins have the exact same genome."

That's why they're identical twins. I'm going to stop right there just for a sec. We are now also understanding that that may not be true, just to confuse you even more. The old thought process is identical twins have identical genes. Ah! It may not be so true. In the process of an embryo developing, going from a single cell to two, to four to eight and on, as the embryo keeps dividing, even though the genes that they received, that identical twins received, from mom and dad are identical, in that process of embryo development, there could be slight changes made to genes. Those are called "polymorphisms".

So, technically, identical twins do have the same genes, but there could be slight differences. Haven't you ever seen identical twins and they're not quite the same? I have. Sometimes, they're smackdab exact. Other times, they're not. Anyway, there are already questions about identical twins with the exact same genome. But, for now, let's just assume they do. Let's go back to the study.

"So, identical twins have the exact same genome. However, fraternal twins have the same genetic similarity as other siblings would have. It is typically around 50%, but it can vary."

So, you have identical twins—same genomes. Fraternal twins are going to share half of their genes together.

"Both types of twins had the same environments."

You had identical twins being studied. You had fraternal twins being studied. Both of these twin types were in the same environment in the womb and experienced a very similar environment as children. So, unless identical twins share a trait less than fraternal twins, genes would not play a dominant role.

"In this study, researchers took blood samples from 78 identical pairs and 27 fraternal twins. Then, they compared over 200 cell types related to the immune system."

The researchers are quoted as saying, 'We found that in most cases, including your reaction to a standard influence of vaccine and other types of immune responsiveness, there is little or no genetic influence at work and, most likely, the environment and your exposure to innumerable microbes is the major driver of a healthy immune response.'

Let me just summarize this for you. So, they did this study on twins—identical and fraternal. Apparently, you have a group of twins that should have the exact same genome and another group that share at least 50% and by looking at these two different twin types, they were able to come to the conclusion that the genes really aren't playing that much of a role, or, at least not as big of a role as we once thought in the immune response. I think that's true for other body systems as well. The researchers go on to say that the immune system has to think on its feet. That makes sense.

"The idea has been in some circles, if you sequence someone's genome, you can tell what diseases they're going to have 50 years later. However, that may not be the case as we learn, said one of the researchers, Dr. John Davis, that the genes can be manipulated and he is onto something."

Let me explain this. Let me explain what's going on. What we have learned over the past, really just 3 or 4 years, and most of this research, by the way, comes out of the nutriceutical industry—not the pharmaceutical industry.

Most of the research that I'm about to share with you is coming from companies like Life Extension, where I work. What we've discovered is that your genes are not set in stone. I just did an article, by the way, on this. The title was Your Bad Genes Aren't Set in Stone. What I meant by that was, and this is based on the research that's happened over the past 4 or 5 years, you can influence how genes are turned on and off. There's a lot of power in that. There's a lot of disease prevention treatment and curative power when you have that time of influence over how genes can turn on and off.

So, on one level, because you get half your genes from your mom and half from your dad. Yes. That's kind of set in stone. I mean, you've got those genes. But, what we're learning is there are genes outside the genes—it's called "epigenetics"—above the genes, that you can do: food, exercise, nutrients, even drugs, that can keep the bad genes quiet and activate, to a higher level, the healthy genes. I mean, think about how powerful that is and how that can translate into health and wellness and longevity.

You know, again, when it comes to genetic predisposition for certain disorders, in most cases, it's one of the genes from your parents that's driving it. If we've linked--and I'm just going to make this up. Let's say there's a gene and let's call it the "Ede gene". Ede is my dog. So, we'll call it the "Ede gene". The Ede gene, when it's mutated in a certain spot, increases the risk for diabetes, let's say, by 100%. You're going to absolutely get it, but it turns out, you only get one of those bad Ede genes from one of your parents.

It's very rare to get two bad genes. I mean, it does happen. Those are recessive disorders. That does happen, but it's rare. Most likely, you got a bad Ede gene from your dad and you got a good one from your mom. So, imagine the power, if we can do certain nutrients to turn off your dad's Ede gene—the bad one—and turn on more of your mom's good Ede gene. Man, that's powerful. That's powerful information. This is a whole new field of study called "epigenetics". Another term for it is neutrigenomics. It's just how nutrients, how vitamins, minerals, oils, antioxidant, plant-based, polyphenols, whatever it is.

Whatever word you want to use there—how they can influence the expression of genes in a positive way. It's an amazing new field of study and more of these studies are confirming it, like the one we just read about with the immune system published in Cell, January 2015. You're environment can play a major role in how genes are expressed. That's the new thought process.

Here are three nutrients I'd start taking right now if you want to control your genes in a positive way: black tea theaflavins, 100mg a day; trans-resveratrol 250mg a day and pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ), 20mg a day. Those three have solid research that they can influence your genes in a positive way.

This is Healthy Talk on RadioMD. I'm Dr. Mike. Stay well.