Dr. Jay Goodbinder is a board-certified chiropractic internist — but that title doesn’t exactly capture the topic to which he’s devoted his life and career: epigenetics. Through his own personal health journey and his subsequent education, he became one of the foremost experts on epigenetics, founding The Epigenetics Healing Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Read on to hear his insights on this fascinating area of study, including what epigenetic factors impact your health, how lifestyle can overcome genetic disposition, what you need to understand about something called “gene methylation,” and more.
*This is a short clip from our interview with Dr. Jay Goodbinder. Click here to watch the whole thing.*
How a Genetic Disposition Led Dr. Goodbinder Down His Career Path
In his early twenties, Dr. Goodbinder was dealing with a severe case of psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. His skin was covered in scabs and scales, and his hands had become so swollen and scaly that he describes them as completely unusable “basketballs.” His condition sent him into a spiral of depression, without any real will to keep living. “It was an awful situation,” Dr. Goodbinder recalls.
At the time, he was seeing a pain doctor who gave him cortisone injections every other month to help keep the psoriasis in check (he would later learn that cortisone shots should be given no more than three or four times per year). At the end of his rope, he appealed to his doctor to try to understand why this was happening to him and how he could fix it for good. His doctor essentially dismissed the question, telling him that it was his genetic disposition and thus unchangeable, so he’d simply have to learn to live with it. Rather than suggesting any strategies for getting to the root of the issue, the doctor offered to prescribe him a new drug.
The drug prescribed to Dr. Goodbinder was Enbrel, a biologic drug that inhibits certain parts of the immune system (biologic drugs are pharmaceuticals that contain components of living organisms). Insurance didn’t cover the prescription, so he paid for it himself, shelling out thousands of dollars per month for the dose. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to take it. He’d looked into the side effects and was shocked at what he saw: lymphoma, leukemia, kidney failure. “It just sat in my refrigerator for two years and I never used it,” Dr. Goodbinder says. “So I looked into becoming a doctor of some sort.”
Disillusioned by conventional medicine and driven by a desire to heal his own condition, he began researching different types of health practitioners. Eventually, he fell upon chiropractic. “The chiropractic model was, give the body what it needs and it will heal itself,” he says. “I love that.”
He became a chiropractor, but that wasn’t enough; he felt he needed more tools to truly fix people, rather than trying a few things and then referring out to conventional doctors. So after his chiropractic training was over, he went on to spend three years studying functional medicine to become a chiropractic internist. A chiropractic internist, essentially, is a doctor of chiropractic who has advanced training in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions beyond just joints and muscles.
What Dr. Goodbinder had seen in the list of Enbrel side effects had really lit a fire underneath him. He believed that the body could heal itself without drugs, and was determined to figure out how. “I looked at what certain drugs were doing and I said, ‘There has to be a natural way in the body. Your body has to be able to control those chemicals naturally,’” he remembers. So he immersed himself in research, learning how different compounds within the body affected one another and how lifestyle choices, in turn, affected those compounds.
“I just kept going through the body systems going, ‘Okay, so how do I raise that up? And why would this be down?’” he says. “And then boom, boom, boom, fix those.” He was able to use this system to overcome his genetic disposition toward psoriasis, and eliminate all six medications he’d been prescribed at age 23. He made it his life mission to help others do the same, which is how he found his way to epigenetics.
So, What Exactly Is Epigenetics?
Essentially, epigenetics refers to all molecular pathways in your body that affect if and how a particular genotype (your genetic makeup) gets expressed in a phenotype (the physical manifestation of your genes). The term epigenetics was coined in the early 1940s by a British biologist, who defined it as:
The branch of biology which studies the causal interactions between genes and their products which bring a phenotype into being.
Dr. Goodbinder offers his own definition, in the form of an analogy: “You’re in a room. All the walls are covered with circuit breakers. These tiny billions of circuit breakers everywhere. When you’re born, a handful of the breakers are popped. There are all these circuits that lead into the room, and these circuits are things like diet, hormones, toxins, deficiencies, stress management, not drinking enough water, whatever. At some point in time, when enough of those go wrong, you have more circuit breakers pop. And those are genes.”
In more biologic terms, epigenetics involves histones, which are the proteins that pack and order our DNA. Histones are structured a bit like a spool of thread, with all of your genetic data wrapped tightly around itself. When it’s wound up like this, the DNA isn’t readable by your body, so certain genetic dispositions don’t get exposed.
“But as you go through life and experience more and more stressors — which can be emotional stress, not just physiological or biochemical — that spool is going to open up and all of a sudden your body can read it,” explains Dr. Goodbinder. “And it says, ‘rheumatoid arthritis.’ It says, ‘thyroid disease.’”
So to put it in a nutshell, we’re all born with certain DNA — those are our genes, and they define our genetic dispositions. But whether or not we actually express those genes depends on a variety of different epigenetic factors like diet, exercise, environment, and other elements of your lifestyle.
Genetic Disposition vs. Lifestyle: What Matters More?
So epigenetics looks at how your lifestyle impacts the expression of your genes. But the question remains: which of these two forces is more powerful? To answer this question, Dr. Goodbinder first points out the important distinction between congenital and genetic, which people often get mixed up. A congenital trait is something that you’re born with, that’s hard-wired into your DNA. A genetic trait is something that’s in your genes, but may or may not be expressed.
Now that that’s covered, let’s look at what the science says on whether DNA or epigenetic factors play a bigger role in your health. It’s a complex question, and the answer differs depending on the individual circumstance, but the body of research suggests that our genes play a far less important role than many of us have been led to believe.
Craig Venter, a pioneering researcher in the field of genetics, sequenced his own genome and had some very concrete takeaways about what it showed. He explained at a conference that human biology is incredibly complex, and that our genes actually have very little impact on life outcomes. “Our biology is way too complicated for that and deals with hundreds of thousands of independent factors,” Venter said. “Genes are absolutely not our fate. They can give us useful information about the increased risk of a disease, but in most cases they will not determine the actual cause of the disease, or the actual incidence of somebody getting it. Most biology will come from the complex interaction of all the proteins and cells working with environmental factors, not driven directly by genetic code.”
Other studies would seem to support Venter’s takeaway. In one, Google partnered with Ancestry.com to look at how our genes affect lifespan. They used data from 54 million family trees on the Ancestry site, looking at how longevity passed from one generation to the next. Through a complex mathematical model, they determined that genetic disposition only accounts for 10% of lifespan variability among people. In other words, you’re in control of 90% of the things that will affect how long you’ll live.
Another study looked at the role genes play in cancer risk. Many of us are used to thinking of cancer as genetic, looking to our immediate and extended family to determine if we have a higher risk of developing certain kinds of cancer. But according to one scientific review, only about 5-10% of all cancers can be attributed to genetic defects, with the remaining 90-95% resulting from lifestyle factors like poor diet (30-35%), tobacco (25-30%), infections (15-20%) and other epigenetic factors.
Gene Methylation: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?
One concept that comes up again and again in the field of epigenetics is that of gene methylation. It’s important to have a grasp on it, because it’s crucial to the understanding of how your genes impact your health and how you can use epigenetic factors to overcome your genetic disposition.
Broadly, gene methylation is a mechanism through which cells can control gene expression. “It’s basically like a key that sits into a gene and allows you to express something or not express something,” says Dr. Goodbinder. “Methylation itself is just the activation or inactivation of bodily processes, and that’s controlled by genes. So when we talk about methylation, we’re talking about how efficient you are at making certain body processes work, from a genetic basis.”
He explains that sometimes the issue is something being undermethylated, whereas other times the issue is too much methylation. Either way, there are things that the right practitioner can recommend that can help get things back in balance. Generally, the compounds needed to fix the issue are things that can be found in the natural world, either in food or supplements, and so with some trial and error, any gene methylation problems can be fixed.
Dr. Goodbinder gives the example of DIM (3,3′-Diindolylmethane) which is a biologic compound often taken as a supplement but also in cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens, which can help with the methylation issues that might eventually lead to certain cancers. However, he’s quick to point out that testing is essential before anyone begins a supplement regimen or significant dietary change, since there are many epigenetic factors at play in each individual. For instance, for people with a certain genetic variant, eating too many DIM-containing leafy greens will result in their body creating a neurotransmitter that causes anxiety.
“Nothing’s right for everybody,” says Dr. Goodbinder. “I’ve realized that over time. I’ve seen it over and over. You can’t form any opinion based on just one genetic snip.” A genetic snip refers to a “single nucleotide polymorphism,” which is a genetic variation at a specific position in a DNA sequence, aka one individual piece of genetic information.
Epigenetic Factors: What Lifestyle Choices Impact Gene Expression?
It’s clear that epigenetics is a complex field, and that the best approach for each person will depend on their individual genetic disposition. However, there are some clear no-brainers when it comes to lifestyle choices that can positively impact how your genes play themselves out in your health.
According to Dr. Goodbinder, here are some of the central epigenetic factors that shape your gene expression:
Exercise. “Move. If you’re sedentary, that’s the worst thing,” says Dr. Goodbinder. He explains that certain genetic conditions like osteoarthritis can be easily prevented simply by regularly moving your body. He puts movement as the most important of the epigenetic factors.
Diet. “If you’re eating things that are inflammatory all the time, that’s a stress on your body,” he explains. And since increased inflammation or stress causes the tightly spooled histones to unwind, exposing more genetic information, this is a bad thing.
Environmental exposures. Toxins in the environment also cause inflammation and stress the body. “If you have environmental exposures, those are all stressors on your body. If your toxins are up, those are all stressors,” he says. “And as you get stressed, your body will try to survive. And so it’ll do everything it can to let you know, ‘We got a problem.’” Your body’s way of letting you know about problems is called symptoms.
Gut health. Poor gut health causes inflammatory markers in the body to go up. Very early environmental factors, like whether or not a person is breastfed, can impact their microbiome and thus their gene expression. However, later in life we all have the ability to improve our gut health through our daily choices.
Deficiencies. Being deficient in something can impact gene methylation as well as create potential stressors on the body. Thankfully, most compounds that impact gene expression are readily available in supplement form or in certain foods.
Ultimately, anything that creates a stress on the body can result in undesirable genes being expressed. “Under high levels of stress, your body will try to survive,” explains Dr. Goodbinder. “That’s when you start unrolling DNA in order to read it so that you can really protect yourself. So your lifestyle directly affects things.”
One thing to do right now to prevent bad genes from expressing? Join the 2021 Spark Health Program while registration is still open! In this program, we’ll be cleaning out the toxins in your food, home, and personal care products together.
The WellBe Takeaway on Epigenetics
Our interview with Dr. Goodbinder gave a fascinating glimpse into an exciting and expanding field. Epigenetics is complex and highly individualized, and it’s also a relatively new science where we’re still learning quite a lot! Here are the key things to remember about epigenetics and how they affect your health:
Epigenetics is the study of how your genotype (aka the genetic information contained in your DNA) affects the expression of phenotypes (aka the physical manifestation of a trait). In other words, it looks at how your lifestyle and environment impact your innate genetic disposition.
Research has shown that genetics play a much smaller role in our health than previously thought. Only about 5-10% of cancers are genetic, and genes will only take 10% of the responsibility in determining your lifespan.
Gene methylation is an important concept in epigenetics. It refers to the process through which cells control gene expression. Under- or over-methylation can often be the root of health issues, but dietary and lifestyle changes or supplements can bring gene methylation back into balance.
As you go through life and your body encounters stressors, it tries to survive by unspooling your tightly-wound DNA, revealing more genetic code. Thus, if you keep your stressors low, you’ll prevent harmful genetic dispositions (like, say, cancer) from being read by your body.
Many epigenetic factors impact gene expression, but the most important takeaway is that if you help your body avoid stress, you’ll have the most favorable outcome for your health. This means maintaining good gut health, avoiding environmental toxins, exercising, eating a nutritious diet, and getting exercise.
Have you used lifestyle choices to overcome genetic factors? Share your experience in the comments below!
Watch our full interview with Dr. Jay Goodbinder to learn just how effective at-home DNA testing kits are, why he believes fear can have such a big impact on genetic expression, why we each have to be our own parent, what people get wrong about the MTHFR gene mutation, and much more.
The information contained in this article comes from our interview with Dr. Bobby Price, naturopathic doctor, doctor of chiropractic, and chiropractic internist. Dr. Goodbinder earned his B.A. from the University of Kansas, where he graduated valedictorian and magna cum laude, and spent four additional years training in functional medicine and epigenetics. He is the author of the book Defending Your Life. You can learn more about him here.