Liz Dobak, Contributing Writer
Dr. Nicholas Perricone, a pioneer in the field of nutrigenomics, defines nutrigenomics as the study of the effects that certain foods and nutrients have on genetic expression. According to Perricone, certain nutrients can block disease, decelerate aging, and prevent weight gain by enabling certain genes to be expressed while suppressing the expression of other genes.
A few genes that can be enabled include those that cause anti-aging, reduce inflammation and increase cognitive function. Moreover, genes that can be suppressed include those that have a negative effect on health and well-being by making the body more susceptible to certain diseases and illnesses.
One study conducted by Dr. Perricone in the field of nutrigenomics that led to invaluable insights in the field was a study in which he used diabetes as a model of accelerated aging due to inflammation. Studying diabetes enabled Perricone to understand the effects of blood sugar irregularities and their role in the production of free radicals leading to glycation and inflammation. Glycation is an inflammatory, biochemical process that occurs when a glucose molecule binds to a protein molecule without the influence of enzymes. This process is extremely damaging to all organ systems. Moreover, free radicals cause inflammation and accelerated aging in the body.
Dr. Perricone’s research in this study showed that many nutrients previously thought to work through an antioxidant mechanism actually do not. Rather, these antioxidants have a small domain in the molecule that acts as a pro-oxidant, which is incorrectly identified by the cell as a free radical. This incorrect identification “fools” the cell into “turning on” its genetic mechanism to up-regulate and produce 15 to 20 different proteins that give the cell protection. The advantage of triggering the production of protective enzymes with these nutrients is that these genes keep manufacturing those agents, which gives the body prolonged protection. This study found that watercress cells elicit a tremendous amount of production of these protective enzymes.
Other studies have been conducted that substantiate these findings. The research of one such study was conducted by scientists from the University of Ulster and was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. According to this research, eating watercress daily can increase cell resistance to DNA damage caused by free radicals and can significantly reduce DNA damage to blood cells, which is considered to be an important trigger in the development of cancer.
Another study conducted by Perricone in the field of nutrigenomics used sepsis as an accelerated aging model. Sepsis was selected as the focus of the study because the influence that sepsis has on the body on a cellular level closely mimics the process of aging that occurs over the course of several decades. Sepsis is an acute, severe and systemic infection that leads to septic shock, which causes multiple organ dysfunction syndrome (MODS). Traditionally, it was assumed that the function of these vital organs was disrupted by MODS because an insufficient amount of oxygen was being provided to these organs. However, the findings of this study indicated that sufficient amounts of oxygen were available to these organs. These organs were not able to utilize the oxygen due to a disruption in the function of the mitochondria, which are the organelles that produce energy in cells. The inability to use oxygen to create energy and maintain the health of vital organs is called cytopathic hypoxia. This discovery caused Perricone to classify the process of aging as a special case of cytopathic hypoxia. After establishing this new classification, Perricone experienced tremendous success in using the same therapeutic intervention methods used to treat septic shock to reverse the aging process and decrease the onset of age-related diseases.
Though nutrigenomics is a very young field of study, extraordinary discoveries and advances have already been made that have given it a bright future in the world of health and nutrition. In fact, the future of nutrigenomics is so promising that many nutrigeneticists have already made it their mission to use this revolutionary field of study to reduce and ultimately eliminate health disparities through the study of diet-genome interactions as they relate to chronic diseases and illnesses.