The Nurture Assumption and Genomics

by CE Gant on August 3, 2011

Having certain genes which guarantee me lifetime struggles with insomnia, I voraciously read lots of books to cope. And as I travel frequently, I never know what books pop up to eventually bore me into a good snooze.

While visiting my brother and sister-in-law recently, I happened upon a Pulitzer Prize finalist copy of The Nuture Assumption, why children turn out the way they do, by Judith Rich Harris. Sometimes well-written, provocative books have the opposite effect and keep me awake into the wee hours. Such was the case here.

The Nuture Assumption makes a compelling case, based on sound research on identical twins and other data, that within reasonable attempts to provide our kids with a non-abusive environment, parenting does not matter much in how your children turn out!

I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but you may now point out to those obnoxiously, proud parents who raised exceptionally talented and gifted children, that they are full of braggadocio hot air. And other parents, who despite their best efforts, nurtured kids who became dropouts, addicts and flunkies, can now get off their guilt trips.

Identical twins, separated at birth and brought up in utterly different circumstances, turn out pretty much the same. In fact their quirky traits, talents and behaviors have astonishing similarities. So, in other words, within reasonable limits of a nurturing, non-abusive environment, raise your “fur-children” (dogs) any way you want, but Mastiffs will generally turn out to look and act like Mastiffs, and Chihuahuas will generally turn out to look and act like Chihuahuas. The only variable that seems to matter much is genetics.

This is not to say that as parents, we should still not try our damnedest to raise our kids in loving, nurturing environments, with as many educational, athletic, spiritual, cultural and growth opportunities as possible. It’s just that scientific evidence strongly suggests that your child’s genes matter a lot more than anything you can do to be a good parent.

Predictive Genomics

This assumption that nurturing matters along with one more fact, could radically change your whole perspective on parenting. How genes express themselves (called “epigenetic expression”), is not cast in stone, and the genetic expression of your children, provided we know what genes we are dealing with, can be altered extensively. The scientific name for this emerging medical field is “predictive genomics .” (Try googling this term, and peruse some of the 1,700,000 websites!)

Almost all human beings have many common genetic quirks or mutations, called polymorphisms. Furthermore, both the “normal” and the mutated genes express themselves in many different ways, a process called pleiotropy. A classic example of pleiotropy is a relatively common, genetic disease, PKU or phenylketonuria, which you may have heard about. PKU is so common that all babies in the USA are tested at birth, because if not addressed right away, this genetic polymorphism causes “pleiotropically” different and terrible symptoms, including mental retardation, reduced hair and skin pigmentation.

PKU is caused by quirky genes which encode for an enzyme called phenylalanine hydroxylase, which converts the amino acid phenylalanine into tyrosine (another amino acid) The PKU polymorphisms produce impotent enzymes, so phenylalanine builds up to very high levels, causing this devastating disease. PKU is totally benign if a diet free from phenylalanine is immediately instituted at birth and maintained for life. Thus, even severe genetic polymorphisms, if diagnosed, can be rendered relatively harmless, through targeted changes in diet, toxin exposure, nutrition, lifestyle and stress levels.

For instance, I have treated many middle-aged, male patients in my 35 years of practicing medicine this way (called functional medicine), whose male relatives, even non-smokers with normal blood pressure and cholesterol, all died by age 50 with heart attacks. They know their number is up, and they wanted to know if their quirky, early-heart-attack-causing genes can somehow be switched off.

After assessing their testing, the polymorphisms are identified, interventions are instituted, and like a PKU patient, laboratory retesting later shows that the risks which were tearing up their arteries, have disappeared. What’s also nice about predictive genomics is that their male relatives can now all benefit from switching off the early-heart-attack-causing genes.

Perspective on Parenting

So how does this change the whole perspective of parenting? If most of the available evidence suggests that parental nurturing does not matter much and genetics is the main determinant in how kids turn out, and genes can be tested and some switched on and others switched off with lifestyle, dietary, toxicity and environmental changes, parents can now empower themselves with interventions that will make a difference.

Let’s suppose that most of your close relatives became addicted to drugs, alcohol, tobacco or psych meds by the time they reached adulthood. Wouldn’t you want to know which of these familial genes are putting your child at risk for these behaviors, and switch them off before they get exposed to the triggering psychotropic chemicals?

Predictive genomics changes the whole parenting perspective, because it promises to give parents more control of their children’s destinies. And in a stressed-out, high-demand, toxin and junk-food-infested world which renders those with quirky genes increasingly vulnerable to harmful outcomes, predictive genomics is an idea whose time has come.

Review this site if you would like to learn more about Functional Medicine: Academy of Functional Medicine

See this page if you would like to have an assessment by phone: Wellness Assessment



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