We all know of breeds of dogs that are genetically predisposed to certain diseases: labradors get hip dysplasia, rottweilers and Golden Retreivers get cancer, Chihuahuas have kneecaps that pop in and out. But what if there were things we could change so that those disease didn’t have to happen? When the Human Genome Project was completed, the researchers realized that genes were responsible not only for telling our cells how to look, and act, making up each individuals unique appearance and biochemistry, but also what proteins, hormones, and co factors to make or not make, influencing how our individual cells behave.
“Epigenetic changes represent a biological response to an environmental stressor that can be inherited through many generations via epigenetic marks. But if you remove the environmental pressure ‐ the epigenetic marks will eventually fade and the DNA code ‐ over time ‐ begin to revert to its original programming.”
–John Cloud, Why Your Genes Aren’t Your Destiny
So if our genome is influenced by our environment, what does that mean? There are some parts of our genome we have no control over, the air we breathe, the places in which we work. for our pets, life is much the same, but they have fewer controls over the environment we create for them. What they eat, what they drink, how much they exercise. The other key piece of epigenetics is that each organism’s response to the environment is individual. The study of epigenetic has spawned several other fields of study. Nutrigenomics looks at how food and nutrients affect how our DNA is expressed, Proteomics looks at how multiple proteins affect the body, or protein expression/ activity patterns. Metabolomics looks at the effect of metabolites, or products of biochemical reactions affect the body. We are familiar with the effect of eating broccoli on the body, it provides us with phytochemicals, many of which are not identified, that protect the cells from cancer. Xenobiotics are the toxins in our environment that interact with our genes to cause certain proteins and cofactors to biochemical reactions to be released.
This is very confusing, so a simplistic explanation goes like this: if plastic residue that your dog drinks in tap water causes a certain sequence of genes to produce a protein that causes cancer cells to not know to die, then a tumor has the opportunity to grow. If your dog eats eat broccoli, it down regulates the sequence of genes the plastic upregulates, and then upregulates a different sequence of genes that causes the individual cancer cells to die faster, because the immune system can now recognize that they are abnormal.
Functional medicine on the human side of medicine is a way to look at each individual and help their body function better by making specific recommendations about diet, supplements, exercise and lifestyle changes to get to the best level of health for each individual. It utilizes the concepts learned from epigentics, metabolomics, and nutrigenomics to formulate a health plan, and recognizes that there is a gap between overt disease and wellness that is not being addressed. Like Traditional Chinese medicine, Functional Medicine looks at the roots of disease rather than the symptoms or branches waving in the breeze. Functional Medicine is designed to help more effectively integrate science, research, and clinical insights to treat and prevent disease and maintain health. Established and emerging diagnostics, therapeutics, and prevention strategies are extensively covered, including the use of diet, nutraceuticals, exercise, body/mind techniques, and the adaptation of lifestyle to an individual’s genetic risks and environmental exposures. I hope to adapt this information for pets to help provide relief for several conditions that plague pets and are difficult to treat regardless of the way they are tackled, including skin disease, cancer and allergies.
So in regard to the question in the title, no, your labrador does not have to develop hip dysplasia, but it is important to recognize that some where down the path of choices we have made, the outcome becomes inevitable. Having said that, there are still good ways to manage disease and return to an improved level of health. Stay tuned for more information as I learn more new tricks.
[Cloud, John. “Why Genes Aren’t Your Destiny.” Time Magazine. Jan.18, 2010, 50‐51.]