Are you Hufflepuff or Gryffindor? Erudite or Dauntless? Or maybe you know your Myers-Briggs Type to be ESTP? Or how about plain old astrology? Are you a Capricorn?
Belonging to a discreet category can be reassuring to many people. We’re told we have these traits but not those traits, and we get a cool label we can use to recognize other members of our in-group. It provides clarity and security. But while I have seen genes that cause cancer, I had never seen Cancer in genes… until I read Ben Lynch’s book, Dirty Genes.
Lynch is a naturopath whose thesis is that seven genes have been shown to “have the most far-reaching effects on your body.” If their function is impaired, you get disease. He doesn’t even need to get you lab-tested to know which of these seven genes is dirty; based on your symptoms, he just knows. He will give you a label (like “slow COMT”) and will recommend lifestyle changes and supplements to “clean” that gene. As with so much modern pseudoscience, there’s a seed of truth that gets oversimplified. Let’s walk through his soap-based plan, from making a laundry list of what’s dirty, to scrubbing the bad stuff away, to spot cleaning the leftover dirt.
Are my genes cheating on me?
There are quizzes you can take in his book that are not miles away from “Is my boyfriend secretly cheating on me?”, i.e. superficial tests engineered to give everyone the same answer. For example, let’s look at the quiz Lynch provides to determine if your MTHFR gene is “dirty”:
- I suffer from headaches (that’s virtually everyone for the occasional headache)
- I sweat easily and profusely when exercising (most people can identify with this, I’m sure)
- I take supplements of folic acid and/or eat foods enriched with folic acid (that’s most Canadians who consume carbs, as folic acid is added to white flour, enriched pasta, and cornmeal products)
- I struggle with depression (that’s almost one in eight Canadians in their lifetime)
- I have cold hands and feet (common enough)
If you answered “yes” to at least one of these statements, your MTHFR gene requires some attention, according to Lynch. And that’s just one of seven genes he quizzes you on. For GST/GPX, if you merely breathe air and drink water, you will find yourself in need of a “soak and scrub”, so you’re not getting out of these quizzes without being directed to invest in his therapeutic philosophy.
This is a hallmark of pseudoscience: the creation of a simple boogeyman. For acupuncturists, it’s the impaired flow of so-called rivers of energy within the body. For vitalistic chiropractors, it’s a type of misalignment in your spine that radiologists can’t even see. For Lynch, it’s the impaired function of these seven genes. Surprisingly enough, the genes he highlights in his book—MTHFR, COMT, DAO, MAOA, GST/GPX, NOS3, and PEMT—are all real. Believe me: when it comes to alternative medicine, this is rather unusual.
But do genes get dirty? Lynch uses the term as a simplistic analogy. What he means is that genes can malfunction. Genes are active stretches of DNA that contain the instructions to make proteins, which are tiny effectors in our body. If genes contain mistakes (referred to as “disease-causing variants”), the proteins they will produce will be too short, or missing a bit, or unable to adopt the right shape to perform their function like a wrench painted by Dalí. This much is true.
It is also true, as Lynch explains in his book, that epigenetic modifications can also negatively impact our genes. “Epigenetic” means “on top of the gene”: you can imagine a series of orange roadwork cones being laid on top of a gene to tell the crew not to bother with this gene for the time being. These epigenetic marks come and go because of diet, stress, exercise… basically, they’re a product of living
The real problem is that Lynch stops at this kernel of truth and believes he’s figured it all out. Long lists appearing throughout his book inform us that “dirt” on or within these seven all-important genes he’s chosen are associated with everything from Alzheimer’s disease to vascular dementia. In truth, we have over 20,000 genes, and while some are more central in their function than others, trying to explain every bit of anxiety, every lack of motivation, and every headache with a short list of seven likely culprits is simply misguided.
Still, Lynch provides you with profiles for each of his genetic Zodiac signs, descriptions that wouldn’t be out of place in the astrology section of a newspaper: “Some days you’re blue and depressed, while other days you’re anxious. On good days, your focus is great and you get stuff done. On bad days, you have performance anxiety.” If we buy into these vague, all-encompassing statements which are true for everyone, we can read on to learn what our personalized intervention is going to be.
A mixed bag of laundry
Once you have been assigned your very own genetic Zodiac sign (maybe you’re a fast COMT or maybe Saturn is in your DAO), you are invited to move on to the “soak and scrub” phase, where broad lifestyle changes are supposed to “clean up” your “dirty” gene(s). On the positive side, he advises against feeling guilty for occasionally overeating, a welcome break from the usual victim blaming we typically see in the diet sphere; he recommends planning and tracking meals, which can be helpful for weight management; he admits that fruit juice is really no better for your health than soda; and he has some good advice regarding stress reduction and sleep. None of these recommendations, it bears mentioning, requires any knowledge of your genetics. Getting high-quality sleep, eating better, and managing our stress levels are universal instructions for a healthy life.
On the evidence-free side, however, Lynch recommends eating organic (even though there is no good evidence that organic food is healthier for human health); taking supplements like adaptogens and electrolytes; avoiding pesticides and even scented products (because apparently “if it smells, it makes your genes dirty”). And there are questionable recommendations as well. He writes that “there’s no ‘mostly’ gluten-free”, that “you’re either 100 percent gluten-free or you aren’t”… which is true, but it’s unclear if he is suggesting we should all eat gluten-free food. He also advocates for a daily 12-16-hour fast, though the evidence on fasting is still emerging.
If you manage to turn your life around and make all of these changes but your symptoms persist, Lynch will ask you to “spot-clean” your genes. Get your credit card ready.
A leopard can’t change its spots
If Lynch told you you had a dirty DAO gene and his initial regimen didn’t work, you will be told you have C. difficile, or the bacterium that causes stomach ulcers, or some gut-related diagnosis that is not real, like leaky gut syndrome. Lynch will recommend yeast supplements, and probiotics, and L-glutamine powder, and ox bile, and PQQ. If these “prescriptions” don’t cut it, he suggests copper, histamine blockers, vitamin C, fish oil, “cell membrane supporters”, and buffering agents like sodium bicarbonate. Of course, each genetic Zodiac sign gets its own long list of pricey supplements, many of which are sold by the author’s own company, Seeking Health.
Ben Lynch refers to himself as “an expert in environmental medicine”. His book cover boldly displays the letters “Dr.” before his name. He is not a medical doctor. He does not have a Ph.D. in a legitimate field. He is a man who visited India and who claims to have been cured of vomiting and diarrhea by traditional Indian practices, which led him to get a degree in naturopathy. He is anti-statin, anti-folic acid for pregnant women, and his website reveals him to be a soft antivaxxer. He calls himself a “naturopathic physician, a science-based practitioner”, but naturopathy is not based in science. At the core of naturopathy lie the complementary yin and yang of toxicophobia and supplementophilia, in perfect harmony, one feeding the other like a snake eating its own tail. The world around us is a toxic wasteland and the key to our survival is to gorge ourselves on “natural” pills. Every naturopath with a book to sell believes in this core essence and builds their own incarnation around it.
Lynch believes in this essence, but his own avatar, his own version of this belief system, is genetics. It’s certainly closer to science, but it is a gross oversimplification of a fascinating field.
Human biology is complex. If anyone sells you their take on it and it sounds like Mars is in Scorpio, I would advise you to go talk to a real doctor instead.
- Ben Lynch is a naturopath who wrote a book, Dirty Genes, in which he claims that seven genes can either be born dirty or get dirty, and that these dirty genes cause all sorts of illnesses
- Lynch takes basic concepts in genetics but oversimplifies them in an attempt to get you to buy a wide range of supplements
Lynch uses the expression “dirty gene” in his book to mean a gene that contains a problematic mutation within its sequence or a bad epigenetic modification on top of it. While I understand his shorthand, that word, “dirty”, and its opposite, “clean”, in the context of health and nutrition are themselves problematic. They hark back to the religious concept of purity, which is bothersome for at least two reasons. First, it divides the world up into good and evil, black and white, clean fifteens and dirty dozens. Angel cake and deviled eggs. The reality is that the dose makes the poison. Second, it puts the onus on health fully on the individual, who must cleanse themselves of temptation and achieve some sort of culinary apotheosis. It fails to take into account that eating the occasional “bad” food that makes us feel good is OK; that poorer people often cannot afford to buy healthier food; that parents working two jobs to make ends meet often don’t have the time to replace takeout food by home cooking. Lynch’s very framework of “dirty versus clean” is not only an oversimplification of the science, but it’s also a subconscious cudgel readers of his book can use to punish themselves.
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