Lifestyle changes can’t alter DNA: Claiming it can is a public disservice

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If you’ve got a health concern, there’s a supplement out there for you. Unfortunately, most of them come with no clinical trials, no vetting of safety information and certainly no follow up data. But perhaps one of the most bogus claims I’ve ever seen is the notion that using supplements to balance the body’s hormones would ‘heal’ a person’s DNA.

Naturopath Alan Christianson wrote just such a thing in a three part series on the health of the thyroid and adrenal glands this week on Huffington Post. The thyroid and adrenal glands are powerful hormone makers. Their hormones control myriad elements of metabolism. In Part One of his blog he describes the thyroid and adrenal glands and their impacts on health and quality of life. There’s some information here that’s not as clear in the scientific literature as Christianson makes it seem, but largely it’s okay.

The trouble comes when he starts Part Two. “This second installment will allow you to understand how your DNA, the very code of life that allows you to thrive, can be healed and how your thyroid can help,” Christianson writes.

Let’s unpack this statement: What could he possibly mean by heal your DNA? Does he mean changing the mutations in the genome that can cause harmful health issues. The field of gene therapy has been working on that for decades, and only a few treatments capable of doing that have been developed. The symptoms that Christianson mentioned—fatigue, weight gain, hair loss, insomnia—are not caused by one gene. We have no idea how many are involved. It could be dozens or thousands.

No lifestyle intervention is going to chemically change the structure of a gene to switch out a bad base pair and put in a good one. That’s just not how the system works.

Christians goes on to be more specific. He’s referring to epigenetics. Basically, how DNA is folded in each of our cells affects which genes are turned on… meaning a lot of protein is getting made from them… or turned off. Our lifestyle and environment do play a role here. They turn on some genes, turn off others and set or reset the volume of others still.

“Epigenetics are always changing to real time information about your health and can cause the same gene to act in thousands of different ways,” Christianson writes.

‘Thousands of different ways’ seems like a stretch. But if we’re talking about a whole network of genes involved in a certain trait, Christiansons’ thousand estimate is probably correct.

But then he turns back to faulty language: “Getting specific care for your thyroid will be a critical step in making your genes happy.” What is a happy gene? If he means that a harmful mutation in a gene was erased, he’s completely wrong. If he means turning the volume down on a gene that makes a harmful protein, he could be right. But because he isn’t clear, we can’t possibly know his meaning.

Christianson does present an interesting synthesis of ideas we hear every day. We know having certain genetic mutations puts us at higher risk for health issues. We know that some lifestyle choices do the same. But we largely discuss them as separate issues. Even within the medical research community, lifestyle is studied and genes are studied, but their relationships are just coming into focus. Figuring out how lifestyle changes combine with specific genetic profiles is likely to be the key to effective, efficient and lasting health interventions.

It’s true, for example, that when people lose a lot of weight, or have an infection or start exercise regularly they begin expressing genes in different patterns. It’s impossible to say that these are though epigenetic processes alone or other physiological and metabolic factors like the microbiome’s reaction to weight loss.

But Christianson should certainly not claim that adopting healthy lifestyle habits or taking any number of vitamins an supplements is going to heal or repair DNA. One may react to these interventions and they may begin to express proteins differently, but they won’t be able to change the genetic blueprint lodged at the center of every cell in the body.

The connections Christianson makes between symptoms, lifestyle and the health and function of these endocrine glands are a little dubious, too. These, he claims are the pathways with which we can change genes. We don’t yet know the exact relationship between fatigue, the thyroid and the epigenetic markers surrounding certain genes. Christianson, for example, recommends adhering to a set schedule for wake, sleep and mealtimes. That will likely help a certain set of people feel more energized. That’s a great thing. But that same intervention won’t edit the gene network that caused the individual to be at higher risk for sleepiness in the first place.

This is not to say that lifestyle interventions are weak or unimportant. To the contrary, they are the most effective ways to treat some diseases and reduce the risk of others. But nothing, neither medication nor marathon running is going to fundamentally alter your DNA. Christianson is correct however, when he says lifestyle can change what your body makes of it.

Meredith Knight is a contributor to the human genetics section for Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science and health writer in Austin, Texas. Follow her @meremereknight.

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  • Sarah DeAnna

    I always admire the devils advocate but I am living proof that you can alter your genetic expression… (not change your genetic code unless you are using the CRISPR… but change it’s expression via lifestyle choices is possible and is #TheFuture). #DNA

    • yougottabekiddin’

      You mean like prevent diabetes through a sensible diet and exercise? Or prevent future lung cancer by quitting smoking? Or do you mean woo wooo stuff like eating x y or z to “cure” cancer?

      • Nedward Marbletoe

        x and y have good evidence as anti-cancer foods. z does not however.

  • Ben L

    It’s impossible to know clinically or by anecdote or personal opinion if different genes are functioning in different ways. Losing weight is a thermodynamic process, nothing more – so expending more calories than consumed will lead to increased leanness. This has nothing to do with differential genetic expression, simply caloric exertion.
    Additionally, the fringe claims of ‘adrenal fatigue’ and misunderstanding the biochemistry of the thyroid gland has led to thousands of nonscientific blogs and websites (google it sometime, it’s unbelievable) written by people who don’t understand science or how to appraise data. Adrenal fatigue is not a medical diagnosis, and these centers which claim to help people ‘reclaim’ their thyroid function naturally have no basis in fact or reality. None of the treatments at those so-called clinics work, and they are often priced as a pyramid scheme.

  • Alan Christianson

    Thanks for the mention Merideth. you rightly stated early on that my articles were about epigenetics. Later on you rightly mentioned that the interventions I discussed could not change genes but seemed to forget that they could alter epigentics, which was my topic.

  • Bibibibibib Blubb

    Epigenetics does alter your DNA. It literally changes the chemical makeup of the dna in your body. Epignetics does not change the sequence but it does alter it and it has shown to be heritable too. It can literally switch off whole genes or regulate the expression of them, that is nothing but altering DNA.

    “But nothing, neither medication nor marathon running is going to fundamentally alter your DNA.”

    This statement of yours is truly falsified:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25484259

    Please. What is with these nonsense articles attacking epigenetics? Are some genetic determinists paying you to write this drivel?

    • LILLIBET

      DNA that states whether you are male or female CANNOT be altered.

      • Bibibibibib Blubb

        Prove it.

        • LILLIBET

          I don’t have to prove it DNA has already proven it. The very simplest thing that DNA can tell you is whether or not you’re male or female. This is hard science all surgery drugs in anything else to do to your body is nothing but cosmetic. If Bruce Jenner were to take a DNA test today it would still state that he is a man. The man has fathered what- six children? get over it. DNA is hard science it isn’t my opinion.

        • LILLIBET

          You flunked science didn’t you? Sex determination. A baby’s genetic sex is determined at the time of conception. When the baby is conceived, a chromosome from the sperm cell, either X or Y, fuses with the X chromosome in the egg cell, determining whether the baby will be genetically female (XX) or male (XY).

        • LILLIBET

          DNA Basics
          Back to DNA Basics
          If a person has a total gender reassignment – (sex change) no matter how extreme the operation goes with hormone injections etc; on a DNA level, the sex of that person is absolute?

          -A curious adult from Singapore

          July 23, 2004

          No amount of surgery, hormone injections or anything else will change someone’s DNA from a man’s to a woman’s (or vice versa).

          As you know, for humans, sex is determined by the presence of a Y chromosome — humans with an X and a Y chromosome are male and those with two X chromosomes are female. No current (or probably future) technology can replace a chromosome in all of our trillions of cells.

          In fact, it probably wouldn’t matter if they did. The genes on the Y chromosome sort of get the ball rolling for becoming a male. Once that has happened, the system can go on indefinitely.

          How does the Y chromosome make someone a male? There is a gene called SRY on the Y chromosome that allows certain genes to be turned. Once on, these genes cause testes to form instead of ovaries.

          Once the testes form, they make lots of testosterone. As you know, testosterone is the “male hormone.” However, testosterone by itself can do nothing — it needs a protein called the androgen receptor to have any effect. Like testosterone, the androgen receptor by itself can’t do anything either.

          When the androgen receptor and testosterone get together, they turn on lots of genes. In the womb, these genes cause male plumbing to develop. At puberty, the genes that are turned on cause you to get a deeper voice, more body hair and muscle mass, make sperm, etc.

          As you stated in your question, in a sex change operation, the patient is given hormone injections. In a female to male change, they are given testosterone injections. The reason this works is that women have lots of androgen receptors. In fact the gene for the androgen receptor is found on the X chromosome.

          Why would women have any androgen receptors lying around? Women have the androgen receptor because their ovaries and adrenal glands make testosterone. They just don’t make enough to turn on the genes needed for a deep voice, etc. — women have about 10 times less testosterone than do men*.

          So as you can see, with a sex change operation the underlying DNA stays whatever sex they started out with. The hormone injections, though, cause a different set of genes on the DNA to be turned on so that you get, for example, a male pattern of gene expression in someone who is XX.

          *The situation is similar in a male to female change. The hormone is estrogen and the receptor is called the estrogen receptor. Both men and women have the estrogen receptor which can be found on chromosome 6.

  • It’s true that the DNA sequence can’t be changed, it is fixed for the whole life. However, our genetic code is just a blueprint that can be interpreted in millions of different ways.

    “Within each of us there’s a spark that can light the way to health. There are no incurable diseases, only incurable people.” — Bernie Siegel, MD

    “We are not victims of our genes. We are masters of our own destiny.” – Lissa Rankin, MD

    • LILLIBET

      DNA that unequivically tell us our sex cannot be altered.

  • Bohdan Hodiak

    Thank you for an excellent article. It is really irritating that so many ignoramuses are getting space with woo woo thinking. Did you know there are “quantum nutrients”? Soon there will be quantum toilet paper.