Detox Genes: CYPs and GSTs
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They say "stress kills." I didn't realize how true this was until last year when, in the midst of writing my first book, Outsmart Your Smartphone, I got really stressed out—for a full month.
At the end of that month, it was like a switch was turned off. In a snap, my body stopped working. I started having major gut health issues. I couldn't think. I could barely stay awake. My anxiety went through the roof. And I lost nearly 20 pounds in two months. (You can read more of my story here.) But there wasn't anything "medically" wrong with me.
So I continued to do what everyone said I was "supposed to do" to boost well-being. I did vigorous exercise four days per week. I ate vegetarian and gluten-free. I drank gallons of green tea. I ate a ridiculous amount of healthy fruits and vegetables, but nothing helped. I was very sick and wasn't getting any better.
It didn't make any sense. What on earth was going on?
How I Discovered "Toxic Genes"
After being sick like this for almost a year, and spending nearly all of my time either in bed or researching how to get healthy, I stumbled upon research on the genetics of detoxification. It turns out there are a bunch of genes that can make it difficult for some people to eliminate toxins from the body—from air pollution, pesticides, fragrances, mold, estrogen, and even stress hormones.
Once these genes start causing problems it can be incredibly difficult to return to health because of the cascading effects they have on every part of the body. I wondered: Maybe these genes could explain why I was having such a hard time rebuilding my health and well-being. I had to find out. So I ordered a genetic test I could take at home, convinced that I had at least one of these "toxic genes."
When I got my results back, everything suddenly made sense. I had not just one, but four of the key genes that make it difficult to eliminate toxins from the body. This discovery is what led me to start researching how to "eat for my genes," and it is ultimately what helped me get my health back.
A Brief Intro to Genes
So what are "toxic genes"? Well, each of our genes has two parts. We get one part from our mom and one part from our dad. And there are a few different variations (called polymorphisms) we can get from each parent.
Think of them like Legos. Maybe I have a green Lego and you have a red Lego. They fit together the same, but they are a little different. And it turns out some of these differences can make us more prone to have issues with health, well-being, personality, and stress.
Luckily, we do have some control over our genes. If we know which ones we have, we can support them, for example by modifying our environment (e.g., with foods, situations, vitamins). As a result, we can affect how these genes are expressed and improve our health and well-being. So the question then becomes: How do we eat for our genes?
The answer depends on which genes you have.
Here, in part one of this series, I'll talk about Cytochrome P450 Genes and Glutathione S-Transferase Genes. And in part two, we'll talk about the COMT gene. Each of these genes that have an influence on our ability to detox, and therefore our heath and well-being.
1. Cytochrome P450 Genes
What are they?
Cytochrome P450 genes (also called CYP genes) are largely responsible for Phase one detox in the liver. In Phase one detox, fat-soluble toxins are transformed into reactive molecules and free radicals, which can actually be more harmful than the toxins themselves. In a healthy body, Phase two detox snatches up and converts these reactive molecules quickly, so they do little harm. Then these toxins are removed from the body through urine, feces, or sweat.
But a problem arises if you have overactive CYP genes. You might think this would be good: Your Phase one detox system is fast. But it turns out this is quite problematic because Phase 1 is completed quickly, and reactive molecules and free-radicals can build up in your body causing extra harm if Phase two can't keep up. (We'll talk about those genes in a bit.)
What to do about it:
2. Glutathione S-Transferase Genes
What are they?
Glutathione S-transferase genes (also called GST genes) are largely responsible for Phase two detox—the part of detox in which reactive molecules and free radicals (that emerge from Phase one detox of toxins) are transformed into more easily excretable substances for elimination through urine, feces, or sweat.
A problem arises when GST genes aren't working properly. GST genes can be entirely "out of order" (homozygously deleted; also called null or deletion). When a GST gene is "null" it doesn't work at all. Somewhere around 20% to 50% of people have a GST null gene.
Luckily, having a GST-null gene isn't a death sentence. Because each of us have multiple GST genes, as well as other Phase two genes, the other genes can take up the slack—if we provide them with the right support. It's just like if a restroom is "out of order"—the lines for the other restrooms are longer. So we need to do whatever we can to decrease the length of the lines and move the lines through quickly.
What to do about it:
Note: If you have both overactive CYP genes and under-active GST genes, your problem is compounded because toxins spend more time as highly damaging reactive molecules floating around your body. In this case, it is especially important to eat for your genes.
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Hodges, R. E., & Minich, D. M. (2015). Modulation of Metabolic Detoxification Pathways Using Foods and Food-Derived Components: A Scientific Review with Clinical Application. Journal of nutrition and metabolism, 2015, 760689. doi:10.1155/2015/760689