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  • Writer's pictureAshley Besecker, RDN, CD

Unlocking Athletic Potential: The Role of Nutrigenomics in Performance Optimization



Nutrigenomics and Nutrigenetics DNA Testing
DNA Double Helix with Food

I drove a 1980 navy blue Ford Bronco in high school. It was an absolute tank. I’d have to pop it into neutral when I stopped on hills or it would die. It had these killer stitched bench seats, and this little steel button on the floor that I’d press with my left foot to click on the brights. Safe to say it’s quite a bit different than the Electric Fisker Ocean that I drive today; although my love for navy blue remains. They’re both cars, with 4 wheels, that transport me and my friends and family around, but they operate differently, and require different fuel and maintenance. 


Apply this thought to your body. Imagine your body like a high-performance car. You feed it fuel (food), it has different gears (muscle types), and you want it to perform at its best (peak athletic performance). 


My specialty in the field of nutrition is something called “nutrigenomics”. A big word that means I try to take a really specific look at the way you were built before I begin designing menus and training plans. The nutrigenomics definition is the study of all the genetic factors that influence the biological response to diet and the impact diet has on gene expression.


In the car analogy, nutrigenomics is like a mechanic looking under the hood, seeing how your specific car (genes) respond to different types of fuel, and tuning it up (personalized nutrition) for maximum performance.


Here's how it works:


Our genes act like blueprints. They tell your body how to process different nutrients, like some engines handle certain types of fuel better than others.


Nutrigenomics studies these blueprints. Nutrigenomics testing allows me to take a deeper look at how your unique genes might affect your response to carbs, protein, vitamins, minerals, or various recovery techniques.


Personalized performance nutrition uses this knowledge to create a more customized fuel plan based on your genetic needs, just like the mechanic tweaks your car for optimal performance.


For athletes, this can give insight to your workouts, recovery, injury prevention and pre and post fueling.


I studied genetics and genomics more in depth after getting my RDN, through Stanford University, and one of my professors, Stuart Kim, a geneticist studying sports performance, started a company called Axgen that focuses on genetic testing just for athletes. Another colleague of mine, Ahmed El-Sohemy, a nutrigenomics researcher at the University of Toronto, formed a company called Nutrigenomix, that focuses on DNA testing and reporting for general health, fertility, and athletic performance. It’s safe to say there is a growing interest in applying the science of DNA testing and analysis on sports performance. After all, for professional athletes, their body and performance is what puts food on the table for their families.


For Sue Bird, it was looking a bit deeper at micronutrients and tailoring her supplement protocol and food to target those she was more consistently struggling with, despite a stellar diet.


For a professional goalkeeper, it was switching from the popularized ketogenic diet, and moving to a very low saturated fat diet, as genetics indicated an increased risk of cardiovascular disease with increased saturated fat intake - the cornerstone of the keto diet.


Each athlete has unique needs based on their sport, and position, but when we go even more prescriptive to match the fuel and recovery techniques to include their genetics, it can give that “little extra” edge that so many pros are looking for.


An easy example of nutrigenomics in performance optimization is to look at utilizing caffeine as an ergogenic aid in athletic performance. Many players will use caffeine in the form of coffee, tea, or pre-workout supplements in order to capitalize on the ergogenic effects (decreasing perceived exertion and increasing time to exhaustion); but did you know that that ergogenic effect is only present in those who have inherited certain variants of the CYP1A2 gene that is responsible for caffeine clearance? For those without this genetic variant, using caffeine can actually inhibit performance. That’d be nice to know wouldn’t it?


There are also several markers associated with inflammation or muscle repair, and even injury risk, that once we know those variants are present, we can adjust recovery techniques or training schedules to give the athlete the best shot at preventing overuse injuries or leveling up their recovery plans.


Remember, everyone's car (genes) is different, so generic one-size-fits-all diets won't always work. Nutrigenomics can help personalize your fueling and unlock your unique athletic potential.


I began practicing nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics over a decade ago, but it's still very much an emerging field. It has exciting potential for athletes to understand their bodies better and unlock prime performance potential. It feels a bit like a cheat code :)


Another key consideration when working with nutrigenomics and DNA information is security and privacy. There are currently 2 laws that help protect your genetic information. One is HIPAA, which everyone is pretty familiar with. It protects any person’s health information from being shared without the specific consent, or release, from the client themselves. The other law that specifically prevents your genetic information is an act called GINA. It is the Genetic Information  Nondiscrimination Act. It says that if your genetic information does happen to get out, whether its a report left on a table, a conversation overheard, or a hacked email, no employer or organization (like your team) can use that information to discriminate against you in any way, including salary! Anyone working with your genetic information should be well versed in these laws and their own personal security measures such as using a HIPAA protected electronic health record and protecting their own work computers and files with softlocks (passcodes).


As AI continues to learn, and research continues to grow among those who have opened their DNA to research, especially a wide variety of ethnicities and races, the data will just get better and more accurate year to year! Nutrigenomics has the potential to revolutionize athlete performance.


Always be sure you are working with a specialized dietitian in sports and nutrigenomics! Key works like sports dietitian, sports nutritionist, certified sports nutritionist, sports RD or sports RDN are some to look for. You can learn more about the science of nutrigenomics and it’s application to sports performance from some of the following resources:


Websites:


The Nutrigenomics Society: https://www.nutritionandgenetics.org/


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: https://www.eatright.org/ (Search for "nutrigenomics")


Precision Nutrition: https://www.precisionnutrition.com/ (Articles and podcasts)


Articles:


Nutrigenomics in Sport: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6389634/ by Ronald J. Maughan and Muin G. El-Sayed


A Genetic Marker Associated with Shoulder Dislocation: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28521375/ by Stuart Kim


Two Genetic Loci associated with Medial Collateral Ligament Injury: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28482362/ by Andrew Roos


The Genetic Association with Athlete Status, Physical Performance, and Injury Risk in Soccer: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37253386/ by Conall Murtaugh


Podcasts:


The Human Potential Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-human-potential-podcast/id1590412881 (Episode: "Nutrigenomics: Unlock Your Genetic Code for Improved Performance")


The Peter Attia Show: https://www.youtube.com/@PeterAttiaMD (Episode: "Dr. Robert Lustig on Sugar, Insulin, and Obesity")


We Do Science Podcast episode “Nutrigenomics and Personalized Sports Nutrition” https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-64-nutrigenomics-personalised-sports-nutrition/id885246231?i=1000350165236


Additional Tips:


Look for the “RDN” credential when working with a sports nutrition or sports performance professional. That ensures they have extensive education in nutrition science and metabolism. 


Be critical of information online: Not all sources are reliable. Stick to reputable websites and organizations with scientific backing.


Remember, nutrigenomics is a complex field: Don't expect instant results or magic fixes. It's a tool to optimize your existing training and nutrition plan, not a replacement for hard work and dedication.



TLDR:


  • Nutrigenomics and Nutrigenetics is looking at one’s DNA to learn about how their genetic variants affect the metabolism of nutrients, and how food affects one’s DNA expression.

  • Personalizing nutrition and training prescriptions using nutritional genomics and nutrigenomics testing allows for a fully customized approach to athletic performance and recovery.

  • There are 2 laws, HIPAA and GINA that protect your genetic information

  • Nutrigenomics is still a new and emerging field, but as it grows it has the ability to revolutionize high performance nutrition.




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