That’s because what you eat and how you treat your body are what ultimately determine your health. It's just a matter of knowing how to turn off the disease genes and turn on the genes for health and longevity.
We’ve known about the importance of a good diet and lifestyle for a long time, but more recent developments in the our understanding of how our genes work are renewing our understanding of diet and lifestyle factors as the true drivers of health or disease.
With the mapping of the human genome came a promising new understanding of the disease process. We found that certain genes associated with certain diseases. It seemed we now had a way to telling who was going to get sick and with what disease. Fortunately for us, it didn’t turn out to be that simple.
There is no certainty that you’ll get any of the diseases foretold in your genes. In studies on identical twins (who have identical genes) most of the time it is only one of the two twins will go on to develop the hereditary condition. Just having the gene isn’t enough. You also must express, or activate that gene, which could otherwise lay dormant your whole life. So the obvious question is, “what triggers the gene?” This question sparked the birth of a new field of study called epigenetics. This is the study of how our genes interact with the world around us. What determines which twin will get sick? What activates that dormant gene and triggers the disease? As you might suspect, this interaction is much more important than what genes you have. After all your genes don’t decide if you are going to get sick, they only influence what kind of disease it’ll be when you do. You may be surprised to find this, but in fact our genes are all pretty similar. When it comes to our genetic information, we are all about 99.9% the same. Go ahead and look it up. The genetic variation between any two humans is only one-tenth of one percent on average. So, that’s the part we can’t control (the 00.1%). The vast difference in how we all experience health and disease comes more from which genes are turned on (or expressed) and which genes aren’t. That’s the part we can control (the other 99.9%). Think of your genetic information as blades of grass on a football field. The amount of difference between any two people is represented by the strip of grass that is painted at each end of the field to mark the start of the end zone. All the rest, the other thousands upon thousands of blades of grass, are exactly identical. (The entire playing field.) Now imagine that each blade of grass contains a specific set of instructions. One blade carries a set of instructions that, when coded causes a process that helps heal wounds, another contains the instructions for hair to grow, there is a set of instructions for the different processes of how your immune system works, and the exact structure of your eyebrows…even ones that trigger diseases, all written in short snippets on these blades of grass. Epigenetics is the study of how your body chooses which blade to pluck and read. Some of these genes have sets of instructions that start processes in the body that result in health, and some result in processes that hasten aging and erode health. The fortunate thing is that you choose which set of instructions your body turns to with the choices you make throughout the day. These choices are called epigenetic triggers, and the most influential trigger, by far, is diet.
One famous example of epigenetic activation relates to a gene called the sirtuin gene. This gene codes for a set of instructions that has wide reaching beneficial effects in the body. It reduces damage to DNA, fights cancer and promotes longevity. When animals were induced to express this gene more they lived longer, sometimes 10-20 percent longer, sometimes, way longer, like twice as long. Translating that information into studies on humans and other mammals is difficult, partly because our systems are so much more complex, and also because of our already relatively long lives, but some studies are showing that similar benefits occur in humans as well. This is where epigenetics really gets exciting, because there are compounds in some foods that trigger this gene to express. When you eat these foods your body gets a message to go pick this particular blade of grass out of the field and run the instructions found on it. Not surprisingly, the foods that induce this gene are the same sort of foods that we have always recognized as healthy, but now we understand a little more about why they are so healthy. Some of the most powerful triggers include the compounds quercetin and resveratrol. These are both compounds in a class called polyphenols that are found in fruits and vegetables. These specific polyphenols trigger the sirtuin genes. Good sources of these compounds include red wine, grapes, currants, capers, citrus, strawberries, and dark colored berries. Eating these foods more cause this particular, very beneficial section of your genes to be expressed more often.
Another snippet of genetic information that is particular protective is called the ARE, or anti-oxidant response element. When this section of genetic information is activated there is a global anti-oxidant process that takes place throughout the body. This effect is several hundred times more potent than you can get from simply getting exogenous antioxidants. There is a receptor called Nrf-2 (nuclear factor 2) that becomes activated by certain foods, which in turn sends a signal to the nucleus of the cell, telling it to activate the ARE genes. Some of the foods that activate this nrf2 receptor include rosemary, green tea, broccoli, coffee, and turmeric.
This field is extremely exciting, and so far we have only scratched the surface of complexity regarding epigenetic triggers. There is an important take away: your food determines your genes. Very little is pre-ordained. Remember that the compounds that trigger beneficial genes tend to be the phytochemicals found in food. Foods that have a higher phytochemical content, like organic food, a wide variety of fresh multi-colored vegetables, fresh herbs, and spices will be the most potent activators of various epigenetic triggers. Be sure to make these a priority in your diet. It’s not as if we needed another excuse to eat a diverse diet, rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, but it seems you are running out of excuses not to.
In the west we recognize 4 seasons, but in Chinese Medical thought, there is an extra, fifth season and it is the most important one. Each of the seasons has a special association in Chinese Medicine. Every time we transition to a new season, a whole new energetic is brought to the forefront. Chinese Medical theory has developed a very sophisticated set of associations with these seasons, going all the way back to the ancient text, “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic” written in the third century BC. This text associates flavors, organs, and emotions to each season and advocates ways to stay in balance with those seasons. Maintaining health through the year by staying aligned with the seasons has become a sophisticated part of Chinese Medical theory and practice. So, what easy steps can you take today to be true to the seasons, including our current, fifth season, known as late summer?
The Farmer's Market is a great place to get foods that are appropriate to the energetics of a given season. The foods that are made available by nature in your locale at a given time, also happen to be the right foods for that time.
This fifth season takes place in what we typically would call late summer. In Paul Pitchford’s classic textbook, “Healing with Whole Foods”, he describes the fifth season this way:
“Late summer, a short and relatively unrecognized “season,” is approximately the last month of summer and the middle of the Chinese year. It is the point of transition from yang to yin, between the expansive growth phases of spring and summer and the inward, cooler, more mysterious fall and winter seasons. A pleasant, tranquil, and flourishing season, it is as if time stops here and activity becomes effortless, dreamlike. Unity, harmony, and the middle way are summoned between the extremes.” (1.)
In order to align yourself with the season of late summer, you should try to enjoy and savor the sweetness of the warm, abundant late summer and enjoy the foods that are so plentiful during this time of year. A good metaphor for this period is captured by a ball thrown up into the air. This point in the year is akin to the point a ball reaches at the zenith of it’s path. After rising up (passing through the warming and growing period of summer) the ball stops for a split second at the apex. If you were inclined to anthropomorphize our ball, you could image it taking a much deserved breath to stop and appreciate the view and note how far it had risen. This is exactly the energy you want to try to embody in this time of year. Take a moment and savor the abundance of the season and truly experience the sweet warmth of it in a leisurely way.
This season is also known for such foods as ripe, sweet stone fruits, early squash, and plentiful fresh veggies. There is a wholesome sort of sweetness present that is captured perfectly by fresh peas picked off the vine and popped out for heir pods into your mouth. It’s isn’t at all like the overpowering sweetness from candy or pastries, rather it seems to capture the warm sun in every bite. That is the sort of food that becomes most nourishing at this time. The foods recommended by Paul Pitchford for this time of year include: “mildly sweet foods, yellow or golden foods, round foods, and/or foods known to harmonize the center: millet, corn, cabbage, garbanzo beans, soybeans, squash, potatoes, string beans, yams, tofu, sweet potatoes, sweet rice, rice, amaranth, peas, chestnuts, filbert, apricots, and cantaloupe.”
Biomedical Evidence also Supports these Concepts
You may notice that these foods are good sources of carbohydrates, and that is no surprise as the “mildly sweet” flavor is largely a result of complex carbohydrates (as opposed to the overly sweet flavor of refined carbohydrates). As such they are ideal for a time of year when you could expect a high level of physical activity. This is the case in late summer. This is the time of year when the weather and environment allows, and the future mandates the most activity in order to prepare for the coming seasons of relative scarcity. The increased activity makes this sort of high energy food appropriate and even necessary. This is in sharp contrast to the foods recommended for the winter (a time characterized by inward movement and a relative decrease in activity), which include (again from Paul Pitchford’s “Healing with Whole Foods”) heart soups, dried foods, small dark beans, seaweeds, and steamed winter greens. The energy needs of the body are appropriate to the foods suggested in each season, and indeed the foods typically available locally tend to be the same foods that are ideally suited to the body at that time.
One of the seasonal associations noted thousands of years ago, is for specific flavors. The summer associates with bitter, the late summer with sweet, fall with spicy, winter with salty and spring with sour. The seasons also associate with organs, again summer with the heart, late summer with the spleen, fall with the lungs, winter the kidneys and spring with the liver. Each flavor is thought to affect that specific organ, and in fact the early practice of herbal medicine was built on this concept. Biomedical research has made some new discoveries that lend additional credence to this concept. Recently, a research group working out of the Queensland School of Biomedicine discovered that taste receptors are present on the heart! (2.) And these taste receptors are for the bitter flavor, exactly the flavor that Chinese Medicine assigned to the heart organ. Not only that, but when researchers exposed these receptors to a bitter substance the contractile force of the heart was inhibited. It is remarkable that the ancient practitioners of Chinese Medicine could have determined this relationship thousands of years ago.
Americans are particularly opposed to the bitter flavor, and it spurs us to a very unbalanced diet. Our aversion for bitterness is not a universal dislike across cultures. In many cultures around the world, the bitter flavor is sought out as much as our more familiar savory and sweet flavors. Many cultures consume small amounts of bitter alcoholic drinks as “digestives,” supporting healthy digestive function after a big meal. Angostura bitters are even used by many alternative medicine practitioners to stimulate digestive function. Some bitter foods are also being recognized as particularly healthy, dark chocolate and dark leafy greens to name a few, hopefully they will help to open our palates to this whole new world of satisfying flavors. Chinese Medical theory would suggest that our avoidance of one flavor in exchange for an over-indulgence of the others is partly to blame for the epidemics of chronic disease occurring in America (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity). Indeed, a biomedical exploration of the attributes of these flavors and the impact of the foods that carry them would certainly support this claim. Seeking out a wider variety of flavors and eating more fresh, local and seasonal foods will all help to provide more nutrition as well as the particular nutrients that optimize your health at any given time of year.
A few easy ways to get in tune with the seasons:
1. Incorporate more healthy bitter flavors in your diet in the summer (greens, grapefruit, and dark chocolate are some easy ones), more spicy in the fall (like radishes, parsnips, ginger, and daikon), more salty in the winter (seaweed is a great option), and more sour in the spring (this is a great time to use more fermented foods, and some high quality vinegar on those fresh young salad greens!).
2. Eat what’s locally available as much as possible; going to the farmer's market for your produce is a great way to make sure you are eating seasonally.
3. If you’d like more information or to personalize this sort of a dietary approach for your unique health concerns, seek out a nutritional appointment with a practitioner of Chinese Medicine.
I'm Kieran, clinician and founder at The Parani Clinic. I'm an acupuncturist, herbalist, and functional medicine practitioner for the past 10 years. I have a deep curiosity in health, biology, culture, medicine, history, and a healthy obsession with the pursuit of the perfect state of health.