To sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE.
This article is part of a series on the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
This week, I’m exploring the fact that our genes do not determine our health. If that were the case, there would be no purpose for the dietary counsel in the Word of Wisdom. Instead, the Lord knows that the foods we eat have a powerful impact on the health we can enjoy. In fact, research on the human microbiome shows us that the way we eat has a tremendous influence on how our genes operate in us.
If you’ve missed any of the articles I’ve done so far on the human microbiome, here are the previous titles:
- The Mighty Microbes in Your Body
- The Good and Bad News about Our Microbiome
- Let’s Save Our Microbial Heritage!
- 5 Ways to Care for Your Microbiome
- Food Cravings, Obesity, Mood, and Our Gut
Our Genes are NOT our Destiny!
Ever since we’ve understood the role of genes in our bodies, we’ve placed an exaggerated emphasis on their importance in determining our destiny. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to hear of women deciding to get a mastectomy simply because they have a gene that is associated with breast cancer. We’ve felt trapped in the belief that our genes are relatively static and play an unavoidably determining role in our futures. But these ideas have been challenged and are now discredited, first by the fascinating field of epigenetics and now by research on the microbiome.
The genes in our bodies contain the basic blueprint of biological functions in the body, but not all of the instructions encoded in our genes are being used, or “expressed,” by the genes. Only some of them are being expressed at any one time. We can think of these instructions as being “on” and the others being “off.” At a basic level, this explains why cells with the exact same DNA can have different structures and functions. Some are skin cells, some muscles cells, some blood cells, etc.
Many environmental factors influence how our genes are being expressed. Examples of these factors include stress, exercise, exposure to toxins, and of course, diet. Since many of these factors are under our control, we play a role in whether traits in our genes are expressed. In this sense, rather than our genes controlling us, we can determine the effect our genes have on us! Epigenetics is the field that studies gene expression. Epigenetics suggests that our genes are constantly “in a state of flux, exposed and changing in response to environmental factors.”
What is fascinating is that the tiny microbes in our bodies also influence our gene expression. They can literally turn on and turn off our human genes. This helps to explain why “inherited diseases don’t always afflict family members equally—even in identical twins, who have the same genes but different microbes.” If our microbiome has this powerful of an influence over the expression of our genes, and yet we can begin to change our own microbiota in less than 24 hours through diet, what does that tell us about our ability to influence the expression of our own genes? What are the implications for the prevention and reversal of chronic disease?
We Are What We Eat
Of all the environmental factors that can determine whether we eventually succumb to disease or not, diet is primary. We are what we eat, and no matter how dire our genetic disposition, if what we eat does not trigger the genes to express themselves in disease, we may very well live as long and healthy of lives as those without the ominous genes. There is no need for radical surgery to prevent disease we can more easily prevent by simply changing the foods we consume day in and day out.
The science on epigenetics and the microbiome confirms what whole food, plant-based experts have long told us: genes load the gun, but diet pulls the trigger. That is, genes predispose us to certain diseases, but genes are not destiny. They only present a possibility. This is important to understand if we feel “doomed” by our genes, destined for disease. Partly because our environment plays a tremendous role in whether certain genes are turned on or turned off, less than 5% of all disease may be “caused” by the genes we have. Over 95% of the cause of disease lies in non-genetic factors, many of which are in our control.
All of this may explain the power of diet and why some people experience almost miraculous healing when they change what they are eating. Cancer cells can stop spreading, the lining of the arteries can heal, inflammation can die down, the lungs can heal, and many other serious symptoms may be reduced or even eliminated. All of this tells us that there is great hope for us as we take the counsel of the Lord in the Word of Wisdom as seriously as we can. No matter what our genes say, the Lord promises that if we keep His sayings the “destroying angel” will pass us by (D&C 89:21). Perhaps one reason the destroying angel will pass us by is that when we consume a Word of Wisdom diet the genes linked to disease never get activated!
What Our Microbiome Can Reveal About Us
It seems incredible that the indescribably tiny microbial creatures in our bodies play such a powerful role as to actually direct the expression of our own genes. It is remarkable to learn how complex and sophisticated our microbiome is. It contains about two million unique bacterial genes, almost 100 times the number of the roughly 23,000 human genes, so the number of genes under our potential control is far more than the ones we’ve inherited! Just as our human DNA constitutes our human “genome,” the set of genetic instructions needed to build and maintain our bodies, our microbiome constitutes a “second genome” in our bodies. This second genome works in a coordinated fashion with our human genome, much like an extra human organ.
We know our human DNA is unique, but it turns out that our microbiome is even more unique, and can communicate a lot of things about us. According to gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan:
Your unique microbial footprint, which develops over your lifetime, can reveal a lot about you: your parents’ health, how and where you were born, what you’ve eaten, where you’ve lived, your occupation, personal hygiene, past infections, exposure to chemicals and toxins, medications and hormone levels. The mix is so distinctive that your microbiome is actually a more accurate identifier of you than your DNA.
This makes me wonder, what does my microbiome say about me?
Decisions Determine Destiny
If genes are not our destiny, what is? Our prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, wisely declared, “Decisions determine destiny.” In this case, it is the decisions we make every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Let’s remember why these decisions about our bodies are so important, even essential. Elder Russell M. Nelson gave us these words of encouragement:
With your body being such a vital part of God’s eternal plan, it is little wonder that the Apostle Paul described it as a “temple of God.” Each time you look in the mirror, see your body as your temple. That truth—refreshed gratefully each day—can positively influence your decisions about how you will care for your body and how you will use it. And those decisions will determine your destiny.
Although the human microbiome is incredibly complex, what we can do to nourish it so that it can serve us well is incredibly simple. The Lord spells it out for us in D&C 89 by encouraging us to consume a wholesome plant-centered diet with grains as the foundation. This describes a high fiber diet filled with whole fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.
We are blessed to live in a day when there is a huge variety of good, nourishing whole plant foods widely available. With these nutrient-rich plant foods readily accessible, we have no need for the fiber-less animal foods and fiber-poor processed foods that cannot nourish our microbiome and that contribute to chronic disease. Fortunately, which foods we choose is up to us. Let’s make decisions that lead to a bright destiny!
Feeding Your Microbiome a Healthy Word of Wisdom Diet
For help getting started on a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, both for yourself and for your microbiome, see: “Getting Started.”
Don’t forget that if you have not been consuming a high fiber diet, it can take some time for your microbiome to adjust to increased fiber. Here are some tips for adjusting to a higher fiber diet.
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”
 Ben Locwin, “How epigenetics, our gut microbiome and the environment interact to change our lives,” Genetic Literacy Project (September 15, 2014).
 Boris Arkadievich Shenderov, “Gut Indigenous Microbiota and Epigenetics,” Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 23 (2012). See also: Michael Greger, “Microbiome: The Inside Story,” NutritionFacts.org (November 27, 2015).
 Robynne Chutkan, The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out (New York: Avery, 2015).
 Michael Greger, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease (New York: Flatiron Books, 2015).
 Robynne Chutkan, “The Questions I Get Asked Most About The Microbiome: A Gastroenterologist Explains,” MindBodyGreen.com (August 27, 2015).
 Thomas S. Monson, “Decisions Determine Destiny,” BYU Speeches (November 6, 2005).
 Russell M. Nelson, “Decisions for Eternity,” LDS General Conference (October 2013).