“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food.” — This quote from Greek physician Hippocrates, often called the father of medicine, has been used countless times to emphasize the important relationship between health and nutrition. However, food has evolved — for better and worse — since the Age of Pericles. Today’s society in large part relies on fast-food and highly processed options in the hustle and bustle of everyday life; turns to unhealthy food to temper emotions or manage stress; and has a tendency to overindulge and to underestimate the true power of food and its connection to health and wellbeing.
With so much knowledge and information available at the ready today, people should have a clear idea of how effective food as medicine can be. However, there are countless mixed messages and oftentimes people put more emphasis on weight loss (by any means necessary), than on discovering optimal wellness through proper nutrition. It doesn’t help that information about what is considered to be “healthy” changes with the seasons and a one-size-fits–all approach to nutrition doesn’t take into account each individual’s genetic structure or how what they eat and drink impacts their bodies.
Nutrition is one of the core elements of functional medicine, and nutrigenomics is the science that studies the correlation between nutrition and one’s genes in an effort to prevent or treat disease through food. In essence, nutrigenomics can help people discover how their DNA interacts with what they eat and drink so they can begin to live healthier lives.
What one eats is intended to create positive effects on his or her own DNA’s activity and to protect her health. But that is a very individualized “prescription.” Not all food and drink effects people equally. Some people are impacted differently by the same foods or drinks and that comes down to their individual DNA.
Caffeine is a good example of varying impacts because it generally has a profound effect on people one way or another. Those that have a fast caffeine metabolism gene can enjoy a cup of coffee (even before bedtime) and are able to process it three times faster (and also reap benefits such as longevity, reduced risk of heart disease and protection against diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease) than those with the slow caffeine metabolism gene who experience the jitters, elevated blood pressure and get tense as a result of caffeine.
In addition to eating the right foods, time, place and context play crucial roles when it comes to using food as medicine. For example, “stress eating” can have a different impact on the body than enjoying similar foods in a more relaxed, positive setting. When eating under stress or pressure, the body automatically releases stress hormones including cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. The result is a “fight or flight” response — the former often causes people to overeat and the latter causes people to not eat enough or properly digest their food, all of which lead to health issues.
Where people eat can also impact their health. For example eating in the car, which has become a regular occurrence for many busy Americans, can alert the brain of potential danger and cause the body to trigger the immune system to prepare for possible injury. The way it does this is through inflammation. If this trigger is never turned off due to regularly eating on the go, people can experience chronic inflammation simply based on their decision to hit the drive through versus sitting down to enjoy a meal.
Luckily the right foods also have the power to turn off “negative” genes that can lead to health problems. But once again, diet is not a one-size-fits–all solution. The best foods for each patient can vary greatly and are dependent on alignment with his or her DNA. Once a nutrition plan is determined for each patient, her health can be dramatically improved simply by maximizing the mantra of “food as medicine.” Enjoying the proper foods for patients’ specific genetics can help them enjoy quality of life and longer life expectancy as well as other health benefits including weight loss, boosted mood, increased energy and focus, and more.