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Nature Meets Nurture

by Liz Robins

An innovative week-long wellness program, built around nutrigenomics, teaches guests how to make the most of their genes

A truly personalized approach to health is an exciting trend that is adding a new dimension to wellness retreat offerings. One factor fueling the movement is the growing field of nutrigenomics, which studies the interaction between genes, diet and lifestyle. Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat’s new Genes for Health program is a leading-edge example of how this emerging science, combined with individual genetic profiles, can help guests enhance their well-being and stave off chronic health issues.

The DNA Test

Late last year, I attended the inaugural Genes for Health program at Gwinganna, an eco-certified, award-winning Australian getaway in Queensland’s scenic Tallebudgera Valley. Prior to the retreat, I completed an in-depth health questionnaire and submitted a DNA saliva sample to the Fitgenes lab handling the analysis. The test focused on 58 genes that can be affected by diet and lifestyle, since we can exert some control over these. (There are an estimated 20,000-plus genes in the human genome.)

As I sealed the envelope containing my sample, I wondered what secrets those microscopic DNA segments held and what the findings could mean for my health.

A Healthy Start

The day after 60 enthusiastic guests arrived for the sold-out program, we kicked off the morning with sunrise Qigong, followed by an invigorating hike and a hearty organic breakfast. (I did miss my morning coffee though; Gwinganna’s seven-day programs are free from caffeine, dairy, refined sugar, gluten and alcohol.) After a stretching class and yin-yang exercise options, we regrouped for our first education session of the week.

Leading it was Dr. Karen Coates, a medical advisor to Aussie celebrities and elite athletes, as well as an expert in integrative medicine, herbalism and women’s health. Dr. Coates (who is also a Fitgenes Accredited Practitioner) explained that although each person’s DNA code is fixed for life, it’s possible to encourage genes to work more efficiently in our favor. “Your genes aren’t your destiny,” she assured us. “They’re your tendency.”

Throughout the week we’d learn about specific gene clusters that the 58 genes fit into: inflammation; cell defense; vitamin D receptors; methylation and homocysteine metabolism, cardiovascular health; and fat metabolism and cholesterol. Based on our individual test results, Dr. Coates would reveal how to use diet, exercise and lifestyle to help turn specific genes up (in the case of advantageous ones) or down (for those that were less beneficial).

Each guest would receive a personalized DNA report; an intervention report with specific recommendations for diet, fitness and lifestyle modification was optional (at an additional cost). The suspense was killing me, but a soothing afternoon massage and steam at Gwinganna’s gorgeous spa helped quiet my mind.

The Big Reveal

A couple of days into the program, we each received a printout of our confidential genetic profile reports. Each gene was tagged as one of three possible variants: the beneficial (denoted by a green dot), less beneficial (orange dot) or least beneficial (red dot) variation of that gene. Having multiple orange or red dots in a particular gene cluster indicated vulnerability that could lead to chronic disease, but Dr. Coates reminded us that we could influence the expression of these genes to our advantage with the right diet and lifestyle modifications.

My report showed an increased vulnerability to chronic inflammation, which contributes to a whole host of diseases, so increasing my intake of omega-3 foods and oils, walnuts, broccoli and zinc-rich foods was among the recommendations. In another cluster, genes that allow vitamin D to move into cells were marked orange, suggesting that I should have my vitamin D levels tested and take broccoli sprout extract (sulforaphane) to ensure that enough of this vital nutrient was being absorbed.

Some genes in other clusters suggested vulnerability too, but I felt more empowered than worried due to the achievable, targeted recommendations provided for each—from diet and supplements to mindfulness and fitness. Initially, I was disappointed to see detoxification-pathway genes flagged; reducing or eliminating caffeine was recommended to avoid boosting anxiety-driving hormones. I loved my morning coffee, but I’d already survived four days without it and decided to give it up for good.

Well-Rounded Wellness

Dr. Coates and Gwinganna experts shared a wealth of knowledge about nutrigenomics and other health topics throughout the week. The fascinating daily seminars were complemented by everything else on offer at this low-tech, hilltop haven: healthy organic meals, morning exercise, time to rest and relax in nature, community with fellow guests, spa pampering and an emphasis on mindfulness. Heading home healthier with actionable strategies tailored to my genes was the icing on the (naturally sweetened, gluten-free) cake.

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