© Whole Foods Magazine March 2005

Feed Your Genes Right

Genes are important to health and nutrients are important to genes

An interview with Jack Challem

By Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D.


Few realize that nutrients determine whether your genes are activated or not. Let’s chat with Jack Challem, “The Nutrition Reporter,” who will help explain the importance of this newly discovered fact.

Over the past few years, a new understanding of the roles of certain nutrients has been evolving. The sad fact is that few professionals, including nutritionists and physicians, are aware of the new discoveries and the implication these discoveries have on our health. This is unfortunate because these professionals are still limited in their thinking that nutrients are involved only in growth and maintenance and can’t possibly have a role in health and disease beyond that of the deficiency diseases such as beriberi, scurvy, rickets and the like. The good news is that Jack Challem has put this new information together in his new book in such a way that all can understand the greater role of nutrients and health as they influence our genes.

Now the health community and non-professionals alike will be able to see that nutrients play a more critical role in health than ever thought before, thanks to Challem’s new book, Feed Your Genes Right. Jack has taken the time to chat with us about these new discoveries and their important health implications here.

To put the new knowledge of nutrients in perspective, let’s review a little history of the understanding about how nutrients are involved with health before we chat with Jack. Beginning with Casimir Funk in 1911, vitamins were one-by-one identified as compounds that were needed for growth, function and maintenance. The roles of most vitamins were normally to become part of coenzymes to facilitate the millions of biochemical reactions in the body. The amounts that were needed to prevent overt deficiency diseases, biochemical function and normal growth were usually determined with short-term studies in young laboratory animals. During the early days of the health food movement, a few biochemists, physicians, nutritionists and others broke away from this limited view of the establishment majority and suggested that these low levels of nutrients may be adequate for the general health of these young rodents, but they didn’t provide optimal health for older humans.

In the 1960s, I developed evidence that certain synergistic combinations of antioxidant nutrients, in excess of the official recommended amounts, reduced the incidence of diseases including cancer, improved overall health and increased the average lifespan. The mechanism behind this improvement in health did not involve growth or deficiencies, but it did involve the maintenance of the health of body components by protecting them against damaging free radicals. I called this approach to health “supernutrition” and published “Supernutition: Megavitamin Revolution” in 1975 to bring my research to the public.

Until then, there was little evidence showing that nutrient levels exceeding the RDA led to better health. The findings led to my patent applications in 1969 and 1970 on antioxidant synergism and the prevention of cancer by selenium. These discoveries were granted U.S. Patent Number 6,090,414. Clinical results from Dr. Abram Hoffer and others supported a role for the B-vitamins beyond the RDA.

This research, along with the “free-radical theory of aging” developed by Dr. Denham Harman, provided an understanding of roles of vitamins not involving their functioning solely as components of coenzymes to promote growth and normal function. Now a greater number of health professionals could understand that nutrients in excess of RDA really do play a role in preventing diseases other than the classical deficiency diseases. In 1992, the New York Academy of Sciences held a symposium entitled “Beyond Deficiency: New Views on the Function and Health Effects of Vitamins” at which many researchers came together to discuss the roles of nutrients in health beyond that of deficiency diseases and growth.

The next revolution in understanding the role of nutrients beyond deficiency diseases began developing in the mid-1990s. This is the role that Jack Challem will discuss with us. Researchers began reporting that certain nutrients interacted with genes and often determined whether a gene became active or not.

The implication is obvious. This explains how antioxidants affect health and disease in profound ways, much more than could previously be explained by the role of nutrients in enzyme function or structural function. Yes, nutrients at the lower levels, required for structure, growth and repair, are very important to health. But, much higher levels of some nutrients, especially antioxidant nutrients, not only reduce the damage from free radicals , but determine whether or not genes are expressed that in turn determine whether or not one’s risk for cancer or arthritis or heart disease increases. You may have good genes, but if they are not expressed, then they don’t help you. You may have bad genes, but if they are not expressed, they won’t hurt you.

Now we’re getting to where Jack Challem can help us. Jack Challem is a prolific health industry author and owner/editor of The Nutrition Reporter, an industry newsletter.

I have known Jack Challem since the days when he wrote nutrition articles for Bestways, starting in 1974, and Let’s Live, starting in 1978. Jack, who calls himself, as well as his publication, “The Nutrition Reporter,” has written for many periodicals, including GreatLife, Modern Maturity, and the Saturday Evening Post. He also has written more than a dozen books including The Inflammation Syndrome: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Arthritis, Skin Problems, Allergies and Asthma (Wiley, March 2003), Syndrome X: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Insulin Resistance, with co-authors Burt Berkson, M.D. Ph.D., and Melissa Diane Smith (Wiley, 2000), and The Natural Health Guide to Beating the Supergerms, with Dr. Richard Huemer (Simon Schuster, 1977).

Jack’s body of work includes his books, his newsletter (accessible at www.nutritionreporter.com) and more than 1,000 magazine articles. Jack is currently the series editor for the Basic Health Publications’ User’s Guide Series of health books, a collection of paperbacks that is available in many health food stores.

On three previous occasions, Jack was our guest in this space. In June 1997 we discussed “Supergerms;” in March 2000, we had a conversation about “Syndrome X;” and, most recently, we chatted about “The Inflammation Syndrome” in March 2003.


Passwater: What does nutrition have to do with our genes?


Challem:               Nutrition has everything to do with our genes. In fact, in the course of writing Feed Your Genes Right, it became clear that various nutrients are “cofactors” for normal gene activity. Genes cannot do a thing without nutrition.

To explain, most of us have been taught that our genes determine what traits we inherit from our parents, and that genes also determine our risk of disease. It’s the old idea that some disease, such as heart disease or diabetes, runs in the family.

But genes also contain the biological programs that guide what our cells do on a day-to-day basis, from building proteins and enzymes to burning sugars and fats for energy. For all of these activities, genes require good nutrition for normal functioning. Bad nutrition sets the stage for malfunctioning genes and disease because normal genetic instructions cannot be carried out.


Passwater: Why look at genes?


Challem: Everything that happens in our bodies is the ultimate result of gene activity. One way to look at this is to realize that genes are our body’s software programs. They program everything that happens. But they require good nutrition to “boot up” and function normally.


Passwater: Can we change some of our genetic programming?


Challem:               To a great extent, the answer is yes. If we couldn’t change our genetic programming, there would be no point in eating healthier, taking vitamin supplements, or exercising. Everything we do, everything we eat, and even what we think influences how our genes function. Exercise stimulates genes to make more muscle cells. High-fiber foods turn on genes in the gut that, subsequently, turn off cancer-promoting genes. There has even been some research that when men think about sex, they increase the activity of genes involved in testosterone production.


Passwater: But we were all taught that we cannot change our genes, right?


Challem:               That’s what we were taught, but new research is showing just the opposite. For example, our genes inevitably change for the worse as we age. That’s because our genes suffer increasing damage, and that’s one of the features of aging. We can accelerate the breakdown of our genes by eating bad foods, smoking, being too stressed, and drinking too much alcohol. But we can slow down the age-related breakdown of genes by eating healthy foods, taking certain nutritional supplements, controlling stress, and exercising moderately.


Passwater: Exactly how is nutrition specifically involved in keeping our genes healthy?


Challem: It’s involved in several ways. One, the B vitamins are needed for the body to make new DNA and genes, which are needed for making new cells for healing and normal growth. These same vitamins help repair damaged DNA and even regulate some genes, such as telling cancer-promoting genes to turn off. Vitamin E and other antioxidants protect genes from dangerous molecules called free radicals.


Passwater: Before you go further, would you explain for our readers the differences between DNA, genes, and chromosomes?


Challem: DNA is a microscopic double strand of molecules that contain all of the genetic information in your body. Every cell (except sperm and ova) in the body contains a full suite of DNA. DNA is essentially a collection of words, but in a molecular language. DNA words are made from four chemical letters called nucleotides.

DNA forms functional units called genes. Genes code for, or program, the construction of specific proteins and enzymes. These proteins and enzymes are used to build tens of thousands of biochemicals in the body. In a sense, genes are the actual instructions for getting things done.

Genes are organized into 23 pairs of chromosomes. Chromosomes are sort of like a 23-drawner filing cabinet that contains our genetic information.


Passwater: What got you interested in nutrition and genes?


Challem:               In 1996, Dr. Bernie Rimland told me about the late Dr. Henry Turkel, who had used large amounts of vitamins to treat children with Down’s syndrome. This is a very serious genetic disease involving mental and physical retardation, and the genetic defect cannot be changed. But Dr. Turkel was, to a great extent, able to circumvent the genetic defect with vitamins. A small number of other doctors has accomplished the same thing. The earlier the kids started taking vitamin supplements, the more likely they would be to grow up with near-normal appearance and higher intelligence. I figured that if Turkel could modify the consequences of a genetic defect of the magnitude of Down’s syndrome, there are probably few genetic defects that we cannot modify. Of course, you and I want to reduce our own risk factors for disease as much as possible, and improving gene function is an important part of this.


Passwater: A lot of universities and companies are conducting research on nutrigenomics.


Challem:               That’s right. On one hand, I think this research is important because the findings are very specific. For example, there are at least 15 variations in the gene governing vitamin D utilization, and most of these variations increase the risk of osteoporosis, cancer, or other diseases.

On the other hand, I think many of these researchers are ignoring the obvious and trying to reinvent the wheel. For example, variations in the MTHFR gene reduce how well a person uses folic acid, a B vitamin. The health consequences can include heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, cancer, depression, and birth defects. Having the genetic variation, called a polymorphism, can create a functional deficiency of folic acid if dietary intake is marginal. But the consequences are hard to distinguish from an outright folic acid deficiency in a person without the genetic polymorphism. What you eat has a huge sway in how your genes function. Taking extra folic acid seems to offset problems with the MTHFR gene.

By the way, conservative estimates are that 10% of Americans are deficient in folic acid. I think the actual percentage is much higher. But sticking with the conservative estimate, at least 28 million Americans have impaired DNA function because of low intake of just one nutrient.


Passwater: So you’re convinced that we can change how our genes function and thereby reduce our risk of disease?


Challem:               That’s right, and the research and clinical evidence backs that up. I’ll give you three quick examples. First, women who have an MTHFR genetic defect have a higher risk of giving birth to babies with birth defects. When women take more folic acid or B vitamins in general, the problem is solved. Second, some people have a version of the APOE gene that increases their risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Some forms of the gene interfere with the body’s handling of cholesterol and other fats. However, people with these genes who take vitamin E have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Third, people with sickle-cell anemia—mostly African-Americans—are likely to suffer from blood clots, pain, and premature heart disease. But taking B vitamins, vitamin E, and other supplements reduces these problems, which are the result of an inherited genetic defect.


Passwater: I think most people have absolutely no idea that the healthy and normal functioning of our DNA and genes depends on good nutrition.


Challem:               There are a couple of reasons for this lack of understanding. One is that nutrition largely remains a blind spot in medicine. Because of aggressive marketing and advertising by the pharmaceutical industry, most physicians think in terms of drug therapies rather than nutritional therapies. Things have improved a little in recent years, but nutrition remains a huge blind spot in medicine. Nutrients are the building blocks of the body, and drugs can’t correct nutrient deficiencies.

Over the past few years, medical researchers and biotech companies have positioned genes as the Rosetta stone for understanding our risk of disease. Yes, genes hold tremendous sway over our risk of developing diseases. Yet our DNA and genes depend on good nutrition and many individual vitamins and minerals. When our nutrition is bad, we cannot make, repair, or regulate the activity of our DNA and genes—and we get sick and die.


Passwater: For example?


Challem:               This is where the details are fascinating. Several B vitamins play essential roles in the cellular production, repair, and regulation of genes. Folic acid is one of the key players. Interestingly enough, this is not new information. Rather, it is buried in the technical language of biochemistry books. Biochemists, as you know, explain that “one-carbon metabolism” is needed to make new DNA. These carbon atoms come from the B vitamins. Without these vitamins, we could not make the nucleotides, which are the chemicals that form the chemical “letters” of DNA. When a pregnant woman does not consume enough B vitamins, she will either miscarry or she will give birth to an infant with spina bifida, cleft palate, or some other type of birth defect. The problems develop because of inadequate or improper DNA production.


Passwater: You make the point in your book that most genetic problems—and the subsequent risks of disease—are acquired rather than inherited.


Challem:               For the most part, that’s true. I think it’s reasonable to assume that most of us carry some subtle inherited genetic weaknesses. Others inherit more serious problems, such as hemochromatosis or sickle-cell anemia. But most genetic damage is age-related, meaning that it accumulates over time, as we get older. A lot of this genetic damage is caused by free radicals. Some of it is also caused by errors that creep in when DNA makes a copy of itself during normal cell replication. Little by little, the genetic information in our DNA and genes deteriorates, leading to instructions full of typos. Basically, the body loses the clear genetic instructions to process foods, make proteins, and so forth.


Passwater: So basically, Feed Your Genes Right is an anti-aging concept?


Challem:               Slowing down the aging process is a central part of the concept. The older you get, the less stable your genes become and the more likely they are to malfunction. The risk of degenerative diseases increases with age, that is, with an increase in genetic damage. If you can keep your biological age less than your chronological age, you will have less genetic damage than other people your age.


Passwater: What about diseases that seem to run in families?


Challem:               Some, such as sickle-cell anemia, hemochromatosis, and celiac disease involve inheriting a genetic variation or mutation. However, researchers have so far failed to find any kind of genetic smoking gun for people with diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, or cancer. Of course, there are a few genes that increase the risk of these diseases, but they affect only a small number of people.


Passwater: What about the BRCA 1 and 2 breast-cancer genes?


Challem:               Women who have these genes, mostly women of Eastern European Jewish heritage, have an increased risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. But these cancers account for less than 10% of all breast cancers. These are not inherently “bad” genes because they serve functions in lactation and suppressing cancer cells. The BRCA genes become problematic only when they become damaged. So the question becomes how to reduce the risk of BRCA damage. I think that’s best done through diet and supplements. It’s important to point out here that 90% of all breast cancers are unrelated to any specific gene abnormality. They are the result of gene damage in a variety of breast cells.


Passwater: What kind of supplement recommendations do you make in Feed Your Genes Right?


Challem:               My supplement recommendations fall into three areas. One, I recommend high-potency B-complex vitamins, which support the production, repair, and regulation of DNA and genes. The B vitamins are also involved in “DNA methylation,” which attaches “methyl groups” to DNA. You need B vitamins for methylation and for production of methyl groups (which consist of three hydrogen atoms and one carbon atom). These methyl groups attach to cancer-promoting genes and turn them off. So if you want healthy DNA and genes, you need to take B-complex vitamins.


Passwater: And the second category of supplements?


Challem:               These are supplements involved in mitochondria, cell structures that burn glucose and fat for energy. They include alpha-lipoic acid, carnitine and acetyl-L-carnitine, coenzyme Q-10, several B vitamins, and other nutrients. Keeping the production of energy efficient—and these nutrients do just that—reduces the body’s production of free radicals.

These nutrients also enhance production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the chemical form of energy in the body. ATP has at least two functions related to normal DNA activity. One, it provides the energy DNA needs to move and do its job, such as to unwind. Two, ATP also provides what biochemists call an “adenine ring” to the very structure of DNA. Without ATP, you can’t make DNA, and without certain nutrients you can’t make ATP.


Passwater: The third category of supplements?


Challem:               These are antioxidants, which help prevent free radical damage to DNA and genes. They include vitamins E and C, Pycnogenol, lutein, and so many other natural substances. But antioxidants have more non-antioxidant functions as well. For example, free radicals turn on many of the body’s stress-response genes. After a while, these genes should be turned off, or their activities will hurt us. Antioxidants turn off these stress-response genes.


Passwater: What about your dietary recommendations?


Challem:               I spent a lot of time thinking about why so many people feel better, are healthier, and look better on one sort of high-protein diet or another. The key is not high protein or low carb so much as it is nutrient density. I think this is a different and better way of figuring how the best diet for most people.

Whether you believe in evolution or not, the simple fact is that humans originally ate nutrient-dense diets. These diets consisted of different amounts of animal protein, fish, and vegetables. Bread and soft drinks were not part of this original diet. For normal gene function, we need to eat a nutrient-dense diet. Such a diet contains protein and a lot of non-starchy vegetables and fruit. These are all nutrient-dense foods. It’s as simple as that.


Passwater: Isn’t something missing?


Challem:               I think we’ve gotten ourselves in big trouble by eating a lot of foods that are not nutrient-dense. Most of these foods are sugars and refined carbohydrates. They don’t provide much of anything except very pure sugars and starches. When we consume them, our blood sugar levels go up, followed by increases in insulin. Insulin is a very potent hormone, very likely the most ancient of all hormones. It does more than just bring down blood sugar. It also regulates gene activity, and high levels of insulin turn on genes involved in making fat cells, in promoting cancer, in clogging arteries, and in accelerating the aging process.

A lot of people argue that we “need” carbohydrates. Well, I think we need small amounts of fiber-rich carbohydrates. But in terms of nutrient density and fiber, non-starchy vegetables are unquestionably superior to processed sugars and grains—and even superior to whole grains. The best whole-grain bread falls short of non-starchy vegetables.

I think many people argue in favor of carbohydrates for other reasons as well. One, I think many people are addicted to various carbs, and they’ll rationalize their addiction, just the way alcoholics and smokers do. Two, there are very large and very powerful agricultural and food companies that want people to keep eating the carbs. The more carbs you eat, the fatter you become, the fatter their profits become.

I do, however, see a need for increased carbs among people who exercise. When I started exercising regularly, I found that I had to increase my carb consumption a little in order to maintain my weight. Beyond that, excess carbs turn on all of the wrong genes in our bodies. By the way, exercising turns on a lot of health-promoting genes and turns off a lot of disease-causing genes.


Passwater: You mentioned earlier that our thoughts and emotions affect our genes. Could you elaborate on this?


Challem:               Everyone knows that stress is bad for health, and that chronic elevations of cortisol (a key stress hormone) are damaging. Cortisol actually turns off many normal genes and reduces the production of new replacement cells. This has been particularly well studied in the brain. Stress and cortisol kill brain cells. Conversely, learning, engaging in creative pursuits, and exposing yourself to cultural activities increases the body’s production of new brain cells. If you’re stressed, it’s very important to learn to de-stress and to find some personally satisfying activities.


Passwater: What do you hope people remember after reading Feed Your Genes Right?


Challem:               Everything in the book! Seriously, though, a lot of people in conventional medicine have ridiculed the benefits of diet and especially supplements. Opinions in nutrition are almost like religious beliefs. People will argue and defend untenable positions, such as saying that we can get all the nutrition we need out of some vague balanced diet or that we actually need to eat sugar-containing foods.

It’s very difficult, however, to argue against the scientific basis of genetics and, now, nutrigenomics—the marriage of nutrition and genetics. This is all molecular biology, and it’s about as hard as hard science gets. My point is that our genes are like the software programs in our computers. They don’t do a thing until you turn the computer on and start typing. In our bodies, genes don’t do a thing by themselves. They respond to their environment, and that environment is largely nutritional. Physical activity, stress, and emotions also influence gene activity, but most of it comes back to nutrition. Next time you put something in your mouth, ask yourself: are you feeding your genes right?


Passwater: Jack, thank you for putting this important information in a book and for sharing the information with our readers. WF


© 2005 Whole Foods Magazine and Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D.

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