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Page Up Date 09/23/2019

DNA and why it matters in autoimmune diseases 

By Dr. Ashraf Girgis ND.

These days, we can’t escape hearing about DNA this or DNA that. We are not only blaming our diseases on our ancestral DNA, but some of us talk about DNA in a manner which almost implies that our health is written in our DNA and there is nothing we can do. But is this really true?Let’s understand what DNA is first.

What is DNA?

 Though it is difficult to imagine, the word term DNA has only entered our daily vocabulary in the last 150 years. In 1868, Swiss medical student and scientist Johann Friedrich Miescher was working on isolating protein from white blood cells when he found that some of the cells contained more phosphorus than protein. He called this “Nuclein.” Later on, Albrecht Kossel, a German professor who taught Miescher, decided to look at Miescher’s findings more closely.

Kossel, upon looking closely at “Nuclien,” discovered the chemical compositions and properties of nucleic acids. Kossel discovered five nitrogen bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine, and uracil. He coined the term DNA (DeoxyRiboNucleic Acid) and won the Noble Prize for his research. 

In the 1950s, James Watson of Cambridge university continued to work on DNA. His research led to the identification of the structure of DNA  published in 1953 by Watson and Francis Crick. Watson and Crick working on DNA structure announced  to their colleagues one day at lunchtime that they had discovered the “Code of Life.” They won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their enormous contribution to science by cracking the DNA .

-In the 1990s, twenty universities from the U.S., the U.K., France, Japan, and China all partnered with NIH and a private company called Celera to complete a genome project two years earlier than their predicted timeline. determining the sequence of the entire human genome. Craig Venter, CEO of Celera, and Francis Collins, head of NIH, announced the completion of the Human Genome Project on April 14, 2003. Since then, scientists have made amazing progress toward mapping the DNA of animals and other species.

 History aside, we know that DNA is our genetic blue print. DNA contains the genetic codes which make us look like our mom or our dad, or someone else from our ancestral heritage. 

 DNA  is written in chemicals codes such as Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Cytosine (C), and Guanine (G). DNA is shaped like a twisted spiral. This is also called a double helix; it looks a bit like a staircase or ladder. The staircase is made of different combinations and pairings of these 4 letters (A-T and C-G). DNA is located inside the nucleus within each cell in our body. Within the nucleus, the DNA strands are composed of tightly packed chromosomes. We inherit 23 chromosomes from each of our parents.

  Over-expression or mis-regulation of genes can result in many diseases, including cell over productions (proliferation) which lead to cancer cells as well as other auto immune diseases. Our DNA can tolerate enormous numbers of attacks to its structure: DNA can protect itself against anywhere from 800-1000 attacks in one hour. Throughout the millennia, our DNA has created mechanisms to protect and repair damage caused by various factors such as sun rays and toxins. 


In order for DNA to function properly, it needs to have the molecules of Adenine paired with Thymine and Cytosine paired with Guanine. Damage to DNA can prevent its replications (this is called transcription, when a segment of DNA gets copied in order to make RNA). This then results in DNA mutation (changes in DNA), which causes overproduction and replications. In order to help the DNA maintain its integrity, cells have evolved mechanisms to repair damaged DNA. There is a protein called P53, for example, which is responsible for monitoring and sensing DNA function and damage.  Once DNA damage is detected, DNA repair mechanisms are activated in one of two ways. Most of the DNA damage is repaired by directly eliminating and removing the damaged bases at the molecular level and replacing them with normal, intact molecular matches. If the DNA damage is irreparable, the cells die (this is called apoptosis). This is called the DNA Damage Response (DDR). The process of sensing the Damaged DNA is called (DD). If these actions fail, other steps will be taken.

Another way to prevent or repair damage is through the science of epigenetics. 

Up until recently, scientists believed we didn’t have much control over how our DNA behaved. However, the science of epigenetics (“epi-” means “above” or “outside” or “added on”). has proven that outside factors can affect the behavior of our genes. In fact, most of the time, how our DNA behaves is affected by factors such as how we feel, how we behave, food and nutrients, sun ray damage, heavy metals and toxins in the air we breathe, diesel exhaust,  cleaning agents we use at home, our stress hormones, or bacteria and viruses.

Other known drivers behind epigenetic factors include pesticides, tobacco smoke, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, hormones, radioactivity, viruses, bacteria, and basic nutrients.

The science of nutrigenomics (looking at the impact of food on our genes) has shown that fruits and vegetables can help repair and protect our genes is done in two forms.

The first is methylation, which involves adding a methyl group(CH3) and therefore modifying the gene behavior and function (16). The second is Histone Modification. Histones are a protein structure in DNA which the genes are wrapped around. Modifications made to histones impact the gene expression (16). These modifications can occur in nine different ways. The most known and well understood so far among these epigenetic factors modifying our DNA are acetylation, methylation, phosphorylation, and ubiquitylation.

The purpose of talking about these various factors affecting our DNA is to realize that we are not slaves, helpless being at the mercy of our inherited genes. In fact, what we do in our lives, how we behave, the environment in which we live, and the food we eat can all effect how our genes are expressed.

Here, I would like to bring your attention to a few foods which can positively impact DNA expression and repair.


1. Salmon

There are many health benefits of eating fish, especially salmon, due to its content of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon is known to be beneficial in fighting atherosclerosis and lowering cholesterol.  Salmon also contain astaxanthin, a vibrant pigment in the carotenoid family that has been shown to repair the damage on DNA by ultraviolet rays from the sun. Astaxanthin is also an antioxidant contributing to the prevention of neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, immune, and inflammatory diseases.

Salmon also contains vitamin B3. There are two forms of vitamin B3, Niacin and Nicotinamide. Nicotinamide plays a very important role in DNA repair. Other food sources containing Nicotinamide are eggs, mushrooms, nuts and legumes, and meat. Nicotinamide has many other benefits, including playing a very important role in helping neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers and Parkinson’s (7). The sources of astaxanthin are algae, yeast, salmon, trout, krill, shrimp and crayfish (8). 154 grams, or 5 ounces, of salmon provide 78% of your daily niacin requirement.


2. Kiwi

One study published in May 2011 in the Journal of Nutrition demonstrated that kiwi can protect and repair and prevent DNA damage due to its high antioxidant and phytochemical content. Scientists concluded: “Golden kiwifruit consumption strengthens resistance towards endogenous oxidative damage.” The number of kiwi eaten did not seemed to make a significant difference in this study (10).

 In another study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Cancer in 2001, kiwi increased the resistance of DNA to oxidative damage. Scientists found that kiwi has a protective effect on DNA (9). In a third study, scientists considered kiwi a modulator and protector of DNA. In this study, eating kiwi brought protective effects for a few weeks, but they decreased thereafter (11).

3. Onion

 Onion has many health benefits and merits its own section. Onion contains a chemical flavone called quercetin.

A study by Yue Guo and El published in August of 2015 in the Journal of  Curr Pharmacol Rep, scientists said: “Quercetin suppressed the growth of colon cancer cells and pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma cells, reduced COX-2 expression in breast cancer cells, induced apoptosis in human leukemia HL-60 cells, induced senescence in glioma cells.” This is done through the complex mechanism of methylation, a process changing of DNA’s activities without changing its sequences. According to Yue and El, quercetin suppressed the growth of cancer cells in colon cancer, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma cells, and breast cancer cells. It induced apoptosis in human leukemia HL-60 cells and glioma cells. (13) Yue Guo and El concluded: “…In summary, aberrant epigenetic modifications, such as DNA methylation, histone modifications, and miRNA, add another layer of complexity to the development of human cancer. The identification of dietary phytochemicals that modulate epigenetic modifications offers promising benefits in the management of human cancer.” Quercetin can also be found in parsley, berries, and citrus fruits.  (13)



4. Broccoli

Broccoli belongs to the brassica family. Other members of the family are kale, cauliflower, turnips, mustard greens, and bok choy. The active ingredient that seems to effect and repair DNA damage is called sulforaphane (SFN). The phytochemical sulforaphane has been shown to reduce the number of cancer cells in breast and bladder cancer. The mechanism of this action seems to be a suppressed process of methylation, which results in DNA changes.

Another important chemical component in the brassica family is Indole-3-carbino (13C). I3C has also been shown to change DNA by mechanism of regulating micro RNA (short, non-coding RNAs) and through histone deacetylation (another process of changing DNA).

5. Green Tea

Green tea is one of the best drinks one can add for better and overall health and well-being. I have written several articles about green tea. Most of its health benefits have been attributed to the phytochemical Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EFCG). According to scientists, intake of green tea prevents skin cancer through its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative, DNA repair, and other mechanisms (15). Green tea contains polyphenols which have the ability to protect the skin from UV radiation and its adverse effects (15). Scientists at the University of Alabama in the Journal of Carcinogenesis from April 2011, scientists concluded: “…These findings are of importance for understanding the anticancer mechanisms and clinical applications of green tea polyphenols. In vivo animal experiments are underway in our laboratory to assess the skin cancer chemopreventive mechanism of green tea polyphenols through epigenetic events, including DNA methylation, posttranslational histone modifications and reactivation of tumor suppressor genes.” 

EGCG is mostly found in green tea, oolong tea, and black tea. However, epigallocatechin is a powerful antioxidant which can be found in fruits such as cranberries, cherries, kiwis, peaches and apples. It is also present in avocados, pistachios, hazelnuts, guava, and sweet and purple potatoes. The amount in these foods may not be as much as in green tea, but if you include several of these foods in your diet, it can add up. 

Other foods which protect our DNA are foods containing resveratrol, such as grapes and blueberries. Resveratrol has been shown to suppress prostate cancer growth. Herbs such as rosemary and thyme, fruits such as apples, and many others can impact our health and well-being by modifying the expression of our gene in positive ways which prevent cancer and autoimmune diseases.

As always, food is medicine. Now, scientists are gaining a much better understanding of why the amazing phytochemicals, flavonoids, vitamins, and minerals contained in food can impact our bodies. By adding the above foods, one can modify their DNA in a way which prevents cancer and autoimmune diseases.

After all, you may look like your parents, but if you are living mindfully you do not have to act like them unless you have the desire to do so. Likewise, if you are eating healthy, you are not guaranteed to inherit their diseases. 

Thanks for visiting www. To schedule a talk by Dr. Girgis on this topic, please call 1(616)777-0608. Dr. Girgis schedules six months in advance for any talks. If interested in buying books for your organization or have any other issues, feel free to leave a message for Dr. Girgis at 616-777-0608 or email her directly at



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