Overplaying the Genetics Card as a Cause of Chronic Disease
Published November 12, 2017 | Opinion
The doctor said that these health conditions were often genetic and that, thus, there was likely not much I could do about it other than take the recommended drugs, and that I should not be too disappointed if my nutritional efforts failed.
During the following six weeks, my wife researched how I needed to change my eating habits to reduce my cholesterol. She developed a repertoire of new food recipes and proceeded to prepare healthier meals aimed at lowering cholesterol. At the end of the six weeks, I had my cholesterol checked again and, lo and behold, my level had dropped by 100 points. My doctor was astonished.
Not too long after that experience, my wife undertook a project to collect my mother’s favorite food recipes—most of which had been passed on to her from her mother and perhaps even her grandmother. As she was typing up the ingredients and amounts one day, she turned to me and said, “You know, I think I know why there may be a history of high cholesterol and high blood pressure in your family. Nearly every one of your mother’s recipes begins with at least one stick of butter!”
So, was my high cholesterol genetic or was it owed to environmental factors—eating and drinking habits that may have been shared by my progenitors, handed down in my family from generation to generation? Could it have been some combination of both? My ability (with the help of my wife) to so rapidly decrease my cholesterol by so much left me inclined to believe in environmental factors as the cause.
If you suffer from the same health conditions known to have afflicted family members, both past and present, and those relatives also share the same diet, exposure to environmental toxins (including vaccination), and other lifestyle habits, why wouldn’t that be the most logical place to start to investigate the cause of those conditions? Why does it seem that the medical profession is too often too quick to settle on genetics as the cause of major chronic health conditions it does not fully understand and prescribe drugs to alleviate or mask the symptoms of those conditions?
Take autism, for example. It has not been determined for sure what causes autism, which appears to have both an immunological and neurological component but, most of the time, all we hear is that autism is genetic. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), “A great deal of evidence supports the idea that genes are one of the main causes of or a major contributor to ASD (autism spectrum disorder). More than 100 genes on different chromosomes may be involved in causing ASD, to different degrees.”1
Some physicians like pediatrician Paul Offit, MD are convinced autism is a matter of genetics. In an interview broadcast on the PBS documentary series Frontline two years ago, he stated:
There’re a number of studies looking at the genetics of autism, and it clearly is at least genetic. It’s not going to be a simple genetics. It’s not going to be like sickle cell disease or cystic fibrosis, where one gene makes one protein that’s aberrant. Here it’s obviously many genes that make many proteins that have a complex interplay, so it’s not going to be easy. But it’s at least genetic.2Other physicians disagree with Dr. Offit. According to Joseph Mercola, DO:
Autism was a very uncommon condition when I was in medical school; it impacted maybe one in 10,000 children. Now we are seeing an explosion of cases numbering somewhere between 1 in 50 and 1 in 110 children, depending on what source of statistics you use.British clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD agrees with Dr. Mercola. Dr. Baron-Cohen is professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge in England and director of the university’s Autism Research Centre.4 Baron-Cohen states:
Clearly something is going on, but it is most likely not a problem with genetics in the majority of cases, as conventional medicine has often suggested. Research is now clearly showing that environmental factors play an equal, if not more important, role in the epidemic of autism spectrum diseases.3
We know that autism is not 100% genetic in origin, since in the case of identical twins (who share 100% of their genes), there are instances of one twin having autism and the other not having it. In fact, the likelihood of the co-twin also having autism where one of them has it (in monozygotic (MZ) pairs) is about 60%. This means that there must be some non-genetic (i.e., environmental) factors that are part of the cause of autism.5There are many other chronic diseases and disorders on the rise in the United States for which the causes are not known, but doctors quite often speculate that they could be simply genetic in nature. These include brain and immune system disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), Crohn’s disease, fibromayalgia, lupus, some cancers, and others.
“It’s probably genetic” seems to be the preferred go-to explanation whenever a doctor or scientist does not know the cause of a chronic disease or condition.6 7 8
Why? Perhaps because it’s the easiest response and removes much of the responsibility from the doctor or scientist to figure out what’s going on and places blame on the patient, who cannot do anything about their “genetics.” In an article titled “If people realized how little doctors knew, they’d be very scared” published in Quartz last year,9 Katherine Ellen Foley wrote:
One of the hardest things you learn in training as a doctor is that most of the stuff you learn in medical school is kind of useful background noise, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the patient in the bed.9Furthermore, how are doctors expected to figure out the root causes of chronic ailments experienced by their patients when, in many cases, they are not even able to correctly diagnose the ailments themselves?
In a CNN article published in 2014, health writer Amanda MacMillan listed “15 diseases doctors often get wrong.”10 These include: irritable bowel syndrome, Celiac disease, fibromayalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), Lyme disease, lupus, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), appendicitis, endometriosis, migraines, cluster headaches, hypothyroidism, diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).10
It is simply easier to throw down the genetics card. That’s not to say that genetics or genetic predisposition is never a factor or co-factor in increased individual susceptibility to autoimmune disorders or neurological diseases.11
In fact, a study published last year in PLoS One found that “genetic factors are not the major causes of chronic diseases.”12 The study argues that too much weight is being given to genetics in determining causes of chronic diseases—a view of chronic disease that is too “genome-centric.” It stresses that environmental factors or “exposures” are too often “relegated” to “secondary rolls.”12