James Swanwick: Genetics – how much of your genetics influences your body and your physicality and your ailments? How much of it is lifestyle choice and can we change our genetics from our lifestyle? Some of the questions we’re going to be asking on today’s episode, and I brought in a genetics expert, Dr. Erica Gray, the Chief Medical Officer of MyToolBox Genomics. Dr. Gray, thank you for being here. How are you doing?
Erika Gray: I’m doing fabulous. Thanks for having me, James.
James Swanwick: So tell me about genetics, our genes, genomics. Tell me a little bit about your understanding and your research and what kind of findings you have discovered in terms of how that influences our physical health overall.
Erika Gray: As a child, my father, who’s a civil engineer would often take me out to jobs with him, so we can have some bonding time, and he could teach me a few things. The first stop we always had to make was at the city, and it was terribly boring, especially as a child. One day I said, can we just skip this part? Because he would always walk away with massive amounts of blueprints and so this is really tedious for me. He said, no, I can’t because this is where I get the lay of the land. This is where I know where the sewer line is, and the manhole because I can’t do my job without these blueprints. It occurred to me that we practice medicine without checking our blueprint. Our DNA is our blueprint to us, it’s that guide. Now it is so accessible, and it’s economical, we can actually get that information to really start understanding what that health trajectory looks like. What are the steps that we can take to change that trajectory if it’s not in alignment with what we envision for ourselves?
James Swanwick: So is it possible to change our genetics as we get older?
Erika Gray: We can’t change our genes, because that’s what we’re born with. But we can change the expression of it and that’s the study of epigenetics.
James Swanwick: That’s it. Yeah. So I read a book, I think it was called Epigenetics by Sharon Moalem. There was a study that showed that they had looked at two twins, and one of them was bullied at school, and the other one was not. Later life, the one who was bullied, suffered from obesity and diabetes, the other one who wasn’t was not. A study of the genetic makeup indicated that the one who was overweight and had more stress and anxiety had higher levels of cortisol in his body. and the argument was that his genetic expression had changed. Does that sound right?
Erika Gray: That sounds right. Another example is the astronauts, the twin astronauts who went into space. When they came back, there were visible physical differences between the twin who went into space and the one who stayed on the ground. The media went crazy and said his DNA changed, his DNA never changed the expression of it and the methylation of these certain genes did. That’s exactly what happened with the twin that was being bullied, he had certain genes, they got turned on by the environment, or maybe other ones got turned off so maybe certain genes that would secrete more calming, neurotransmitters got turned off. He had that heightened vigilance and that heightened response to the bullying as a compensatory mechanism.
James Swanwick: Yeah. So when people say, I drink too much, it’s in my genes, or I’m overweight, it’s in my genes, or I’m not a natural athlete, it’s in my genes. I got bad genes from my dad, I have high cholesterol, because of my dad. How much of those statements are accurate and how much of those are inaccurate?
Erika Gray: I think it becomes the lifestyle that we lead. Oftentimes, we tell ourselves a very good story to say, well this is why I am the way I am and we throw up our hands and we just surrender ourselves. We say, well, it’s out of my hands but really, it’s not. I think that is the most fascinating thing that I’ve seen when I look at a bunch of people’s genetics, is you will get some people who look incredible from a genetic perspective but yet their lifestyle and the trauma that they have gone through, they are terribly overweight, they’re suffering with all kinds of health conditions. When you dig into it, you realize as the environment that they surrounded these genes that lead to these manifestations of, for example, obesity. Conversely, you also see people who don’t have great genes. They’re predisposed for diabetes, they’re predisposed for colon cancer, various irritable bowel conditions, and they are pristine. When you look at their lifestyle, it makes sense.
James Swanwick: Got it. From a standing start, how do we figure out how much of what’s going on is our genetics and how much of it is a lifestyle? In order to know where we’re going, we kind of need to know where we are, right? So what is the first step?
Erika Gray: So the first step is taking an inventory of where you’re at. So whether that is lab testing, and when I talk about lab testing, I’m talking about things that are not just your basic chemistry panels, but really starting to get into different nuances like maybe insulin levels, or glutathione levels, or vitamin C. Things that are going to give you an idea of where you are today, and you match that up with your genetics. Now you’re going to start to see, wow, I am predisposed for type two diabetes, and look at this, my insulin levels are going up, my glucose is going up, this is something I need to take action on today. In contrast, you know, for me, I don’t have any markers for any autoimmune conditions, and that matches with a family history so that’s not something that I necessarily worry about. I do have a family history of type two diabetes so that is the one I’m focused on, I can see it in genetics, and I can see it in my lab work if I’m not taking action. So you have to take an account of where you are today and then you match it up with what the trajectory looks like.
James Swanwick: Yeah. When you get those results, how do you take the test? Is it saliva or blood?
Erika Gray: It’s saliva, I should grab my kit. It is just a spit sample and so you’re just going to spit in there, and then send it off to the lab. They’ll sequence it for you and you’ll get your results back in an app. The really cool thing is that in the app, you can actually set it for what your types of health goals are. So if it’s improving your physicality, if it’s weight loss, if it’s overall health, and then the app will adjust the recommendations based on your genetics and what your goals are, to really make that a dynamic offering for you.
James Swanwick: And where can people go to get that test?
Erika Gray: They can go to https://www.mytoolboxgenomics.com/ and make sure they put in the coupon code Swanwick because we have a special discount for them in there as well.
James Swanwick: https://www.mytoolboxgenomics.com fantastic. So you’re spitting in the tube, you’re sending it back, and then you’re getting the results in the app then you can see what foods you should eat more, what foods you should eliminate, what time of day, or what type of exercise you might do or not do. Is it that kind of stuff, is that kind of the breakdown?
Erika Gray: It is a myriad. So you’ve got your health, we’ll talk about the vitamin deficiencies, we’ll talk about the different types of exercise. We’ll talk about the diet, you know, more carbs, are you more sensitive to carbs, do you need more protein, are you more sensitive to sugar. Another section of genetic insights would start looking at things like stress and pressure, your environmental pressures. We can look at blood pressure, we can look at cognition, we can look at gut irritability, so it’s really starting to tie the environmental exposures that we have with some of the genetic markers. You can also get epigenetic results, which we’ll talk about immunity, biological age, memory, age, hearing age, and eye age. That is really the next level of DNA testing, because we may think that we’re living a lifestyle that is very pro, so that’s anti-inflammatory, but we find out that we’ve actually turned on genes that are promoting inflammation. Now we can actually start to measure that as well.
James Swanwick: Goddess, what are some of the things that stand out that can influence our genes and you know, the expression of our genes the most? I’m immediately thinking about things like alcohol or processed foods, or sugars or sedentary lifestyles. But let me just throw it over to you, what are the more common things that kind of have the biggest leverage?
Erika Gray: Microbiome, our gut has three to five pounds of bacteria really, really powerful with changing our epigenetic expression. Toxins, that’s where the alcohol absolutely is going to come into play. Diet and then circadian rhythm, are we going to bed out of sync with what our body is really designed to do? I think alcohol is incredibly important because there’s a number of different areas that alcohol is gonna deplete our nutrients, it’s going to tax our liver. A lot of times we turn to alcohol when we are feeling greater stress or greater pressure as well. But we don’t realize that alcohol is now going to be playing a role in that additional deficiency that maybe we’re already genetically predisposed to as well.
James Swanwick: Got it, okay. How have you and maybe changed your lifestyle in particular, based on what your reading has been? Maybe you know any other family member or friend that you’ve had take the test, any anecdotal story about how they’ve changed it also.
Erika Gray: I love telling the story about my ninety-year-old grandmother because people will say, how old you know, at a certain point is it too old to take the test so I always tell the story about my grandmother. She had chronic sinus infections for several years, and my mom was convinced she was allergic to dairy. She finally took the test and we found out she was indeed missing the genes and started missing the enzyme. The genes were not making the enzymes to break down lactose and she said, so I really cannot handle dairy and we said yes, and she said, because of what my genes are telling you, and I said, yes, she goes, okay. She finally was willing to give up dairy based on that information, because before then she always had an explanation as to why she had a drippy nose, or why she had the chronic sinus infection, so it’s never too late to start. For myself, I mentioned type two diabetes but the other thing that I found fascinating is choline is a really wonderful nutrient that helps both our brain and also our liver. A lot of people don’t realize that if you are choline-deficient, you are at a higher risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and that’s really on the rise and choline is the nutrient that helps with that. If you have the gene that is not helping you make the choline from your food, you’re going to again be at increased risk for that. So that was really fasting and then you just have different nutrients, different understandings of how we handle stress. I use my husband for examples of slow COMT, so he tends to be a little more tunnel vision, a little bit more prone to anxiety and concern versus my daughter and I are not. So a lot of times our worldviews were initially in conflict until I really understood the genetic role that it was playing from a fundamental perspective for us.
James Swanwick: Let me ask you a little bit more on the alcohol. How is alcohol toxic to our brain and liver from a genetic perspective?
Erika Gray: So when we consume alcohol, we break it down and the different enzymes are going to be breaking it down like the acetaldehyde is under genetic control. What ends up happening is if you’re a slow alcohol metabolizer, the alcohol metabolites are gonna stay in the liver longer so you’re going to feel those effects a lot more. Those metabolites are not getting cleared out and those can be incredibly damaging to the brain, as well as to the liver. You need nutrients to come in and help support the liver, you need your glutathione, you need vitamin C as an antioxidant, you need your B vitamins and we know that alcohol depletes B vitamins terribly, as well as potentially changing the gut microbiome. So when you start putting all of those things into consideration, you may be raising homocysteine levels, which is damaging to the brain into the arteries. You may be changing your gut microbiome so now you’re not making the necessary neurotransmitters. You can’t underestimate the power of the alcohol and what it is doing not just in the liver, but in other very important organ systems in the body.
James Swanwick: You mentioned that vitamin C, B vitamins. What are some other things specifically for people who maybe have been drinking consistently and now they’ve stopped and they’re kind of doing a detox or they’re, they’re now experimenting with the alcohol-free lifestyle. What are some of the supplements you’re encouraging them to take.
Erika Gray: Definitely the B vitamins, especially your folate and your B6. Look for an activated B6 version, look for activated folate and it will say something like methyl folate or pyridoxal five phosphate so it’s a longer word around the B vitamin. Glutathione is really, really wonderful for the liver. You can easily get that through N-acetylcysteine, which is a precursor to glutathione and then your body will convert it’s N-acetylcysteine or NAC into glutathione for your body and as well as really repairing the gut microbiome and your gut because we also know that alcohol can potentially lead to leaky gut. You might have more food allergies as well so tracking some of your food allergies and doing gut repair can also be incredibly helpful.
James Swanwick: Great, thank you for that. What about things like Tylenol and over the counter drugs, maybe like aspirin or, I mentioned Tylenol or Advil, things like that. Does that change our genetic expression? How is that impacting us?
Erika Gray: Unfortunately, a lot of these over the counter drugs deplete our nutrients even further. We know that for example, proton pump inhibitors actually increased the pH of our gut so now we’re not absorbing our B vitamins. We know that birth control pills deplete lots and lots of our B vitamins, so for women again, if you’re drinking and you’re taking birth control pills, you may be really depleting the B vitamin stores and magnesium that you have. Tylenol is the big one, Tylenol depletes glutathione. What ends up happening is that if you’re drinking, and you take Tylenol, this can be a really terrible combination for your liver, because the same enzymes that your body is going to use to take apart that to detoxify the Tylenol is also being used to detoxify the alcohol. A lot of people will feel like I’ve had a hangover, I drank too much, not feeling well, do not take Tylenol. You really want to be a lot more mindful about your alcohol consumption and support it with the B vitamins and glutathione, some activated charcoal, if you know you’re going to be going out drinking.
James Swanwick: Someone said to me the other day, if it’s advertised on TV, it’s not good for me. I thought that was pretty good actually because you see Tylenol advertised on TV and you see a lot of these drugs and Sudafed and you know, cold and flu tablets and things like that. When you kind of dig a little deeper and you realize it, they may indeed give you temporary relief from the cold, etc. but it’s doing a lot of other damage.
Erika Gray: It is. Actually, that’s a really good point that you just brought up because I was thinking fresh fruits and vegetables are never shown on TV, it’s always processed, it always comes out of a box. We know that processed foods are really a great way to accelerate aging and there’s a new study that has just come out to speak about that but I don’t think that people realize that when you take the different medications. And again, they often serve a very specific purpose and as a pharmacist UI, there’s a place in time for it but this is not something you want to be on chronically. If you are on any type of chronic medication, it’s really a wake-up call to take a look at what’s going on in your life, to see what types of deficiencies are going on, where the genetics might be playing a role. Because for a lot of people, when they clean up their diet, they clean up their lifestyle, especially when it’s tied in conjunction with what their genetics are going to support, they get a lot of relief and a lot of symptom improvements.
James Swanwick: I don’t know too many people who don’t have some vanity or ego about them. Everyone wants to look good, everyone wants to look the best they can in particular, people want to slow down or reverse the aging process. They did a fascinating study out of the UK some years ago that showed that people who don’t sleep particularly well have 30 to 40% more visible crow’s feet and wrinkles on their skin. Same with alcohol, people who drink alcohol consistently have noticeably drier skin. Because of course, our skin is the body’s largest organ and when you drink alcohol, it’s a natural diuretic, and it dehydrates you, that’s going to make your skin look weathered. So my question really is twofold, the first question is how do we slow down and in some cases, try to reverse the aging process. I don’t know how we can reverse the aging process unless we’re in the movie Superman to where he flies around the Earth backwards and kind of goes back through time, but maybe how do we slow down the aging process?
Erika Gray: So the three big ways we’re going to slow down the aging process is going to be, are we supporting ourselves from a nutritional perspective? Are we getting adequate sleep? And are we nourishing our microbiome because really, when you start putting that concert together, that’s where you’re going to get the most benefit. There’s such a great phrase people say “I will sleep when I’m dead” or “I will sleep when I get older”. What you don’t realize is as you mentioned, when you are not sleeping, when you have fragmented sleep, the gene expression that is being turned on and off is going to be changed and it’s going to be accelerated. There are great studies that show even one night of fragmented sleep or staying up all night changes our glucose levels, it changes insulin sensitivity, and it throws off our circadian rhythm. So now when you have done those things just for one night and think about the amount of sleep deprivation we have, as a society, you can imagine how we are accelerating the aging process. So naturally, it’s going to happen that we’re going to age but the question is, how quickly do we do it, and can we slow down some of the aging genes that are getting turned on. So those three factors that I just highlighted are really going to be the key ways to be able to slow, to decrease how much methylation really is from a scientific perspective is happening at those aging genes.
James Swanwick: So just to break those three things down again for me, will you?
Erika Gray: Yes, sleep, diet, microbiome/environment. So you’re with the toxins or the type of environment we’re living in because that’s going to tax our body and our resources the most.
James Swanwick: Got it. In relation to sleep, obviously, you can see I’m wearing a pair of Swannies, blue light blocking glasses that I produced from my sleep company, Swanwick Sleep, and I know you wear blue light blocking glasses, when and under what circumstances do you wear yours, and what benefits have you got from that.
Erika Gray: So I should be wearing them at all times when I’m on the computer, but I use them at night. I also put blue light, I have a blue light blocker on my phone, I have a blue light blocker on my computer as well, because the research has come out over and over again to show that the blue light, the wavelength is really damaging truly for our sleep. It lowers melatonin levels, it raises cortisol, which is going to lead to greater fragmented sleep, it’s not going to promote deep sleep. What I found is by making these two changes for myself, using the blue light blocking glasses, and then also increasing magnesium at night, specifically, like something like magnesium three and eight, I’ve been able to take my deep sleep for about 45 minutes to more like an hour and 15, hour 20. A lot of people don’t realize those changes that are happening unless they’re tracking it as well. So blue light blocking glasses, anything that you minimize the amount of blue light you’re getting at night is absolutely key for your health.
James Swanwick: Yeah. Just to go backtrack, again on the alcohol because I know this is a particularly interesting topic for me, obviously, I have a program that helps people quit alcohol. Genetically speaking, if someone is drinking, let’s just say someone is not an alcoholic, but they are drinking at least a couple glasses of wine or beer or whatever their drink is per night each night, you know, 5-6-7 times a week, couple of drinks, they’re not getting drunk, but you know, they’re drinking to take the edge off each day, they’re drinking to relieve them of their stress. Genetically, what do you feel is likely happening to that person.
Erika Gray: I suspect that the root cause is probably with how they’re handling their stress. There’s a really good enzyme that you can look at called COMT, and especially in the brain. People who are slow COMT, again, as I mentioned, could be more prone to anxiety to worrying, versus the fast COMT tends to break down the dopamine faster, sorry, the slow COMT has more dopamine that sticks around on fast COMT breaks it down faster. So they are looking for more dopamine fixes, and they tend to be engaging in more addictive type behaviors or extreme sports. What ends up happening is that depending on where you are with your COMT, depending on some of the other genes that play a role in how you perceive stress, I think a lot of people will turn to alcohol as a way to take the edge off because they can immediately feel that effect. The question is why are we feeling the stress more? Are we having more fragmented sleep so we’re not feeling as relaxed so that way so constantly, we’re more quick to anger, we’re more frustrated during the day. Even just not realizing the role that when we drink, we’re raising our blood pressure as well and we know that that can also have cognitive effects. Also what they grow up with, if they see their parents always winding down with a glass of wine, there’s a normalization that happens with it instead of people really stepping back and saying, why am I doing this and what are some other contributing factors that may be making me even more sensitive or more prone to this, to using alcohol to Band-Aid yourself.
James Swanwick: Irrespective of the reason why they would be drinking, whether it’s societal pressure or the normalization of alcohol or marketing or their parents did it or whatever, the consumption of it on a genetic level? What impact could that be having? How is alcohol or the toxins of alcohol, how is that affecting our genetic expression?
Erika Gray: For two perspectives, as I mentioned, how we break down alcohol. Slow alcohol metabolizer is, it’s gonna be much more dangerous for them when they’re drinking alcohol. The other aspect of it is our body, as I mentioned, makes glutathione but we also have genes that code for the production of glutathione so we are not making adequate glutathione, we’re not protecting our liver. And that’s a really common gene that a lot of people have, it’s in the GST families in the Glutathione-S-transferases (GSTs) family. So now you’re drinking, you don’t realize you have the genes that are not helping you make enough glutathione. So you’re causing greater liver damage, unwittingly and again, as you mentioned, it’s more like the chronic drinks. It’s not a lot, but it’s happening constantly over time.
James Swanwick: Yeah, it’s death by 1000 cuts.
Erika Gray: It really is.
James Swanwick: Okay, great. So the website that we can get that test from again, if you would, please, Doctor,
Erika Gray: It’s https://www.mytoolboxgenomics.com and don’t forget to use the coupon code Swanwick in there for your special discount.
James Swanwick: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for sharing your expertise and your guidance with us on all things genetics, and our genes. This was fascinating, particularly about, you know, my two big interests, which is sleep and alcohol.
Erika Gray: My pleasure, and I so appreciate the service that you’re putting out there for people because I think people really underestimate how alcohol interferes in their life, and in sleep and relationships. I’m just so grateful that you’re out there doing this for people.
James Swanwick: Dr. Erica Gray, Chief Medical Officer of MyToolBox Genomics. Thank you so much.
Erika Gray: Thank you so much, James.