When I first started medical school in 1996, genes were all the rage. We were expecting, with the soon-to-be completed Human Genome Project, to start curing diseases and changing the future of medicine. However, with the discovery that the human genome is simpler than that of some frogs (23,000 genes in the human genome, compared to 40,000 in certain frogs), there was a need for a change in our understanding of how genes affect our health.

We are much more than our genes. Since then, further discoveries have led to the understanding of DNA byproducts, called the human transcriptome, within our cells. This includes, interestingly enough, bacteria and viruses that live in our body. We have about 37 trillion cells in our body, but there are an additional 100 trillion bacteria. Also, there are about a million bacterial genes in our body. What that means is – we are mostly bacterial DNA and, by cell count, mostly bacteria.

Back then we were just learning about the human virome, or the viruses that are in our body. Most likely, when this is fully elucidated, we’ll see an even higher number of viruses and viral particles floating around our bodies!

Despite these new discoveries, thinking that we are no more than the sum of our genes, has not changed. The philosophy that if you have a genetic predisposition for disease, such as an autoimmune problem or a cancer, you can’t change that destiny, is still stuck in our national psyche. This “genes are our destiny” philosophy persists even though we’ve seen diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune conditions skyrocket, and the gene theory can’t make sense of what we are currently experiencing.  

This is where epigenetics come into play. Epigenetics is the science of understanding the external factors, such as nutrition, lifestyle, and environment, affect gene expression. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence. 

Metabolomics is an objective lens through which to view the complex nature of how physiology is linked to external events and conditions. This field of study also allows us to measure the body’s responses to perturbations, such as those associated with disease. Perhaps most importantly, it is also the study of how these molecules are essential to our health and wellbeing. Butyrate is one of the metabolomic byproducts, called a short chain fatty acid. It affects our gut health, our brain health, lowers our risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and increases the energy of our cells, to name a few of the benefits! 

We want to have a healthy human microbiome and virome. This is a new concept and, in the world of COVID, it has been challenging to help people to wrap their minds around it.

Many bacteria and viruses are beneficial to our health. We don’t just want to sterilize everything with a chemical cleaner. (One thing is clear, using sterilizing chemicals to wipe down all the surfaces in our houses is not the way forward for health!)

Through epigenetics and metabolomics, we are learning that our health is a composite picture of not just our genes, but also the beneficial bacteria and viruses that live in and on our bodies, along with the environment that allows them to thrive. 

If you’d like to learn more about how you can change your genetic expression and live a healthier life, check out our educational resources on our website.