Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020
Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020

DAY 3: Understanding Your Genes To Take Control Of Your Health – Dalkey Book Fest

Dr Sharad Paul is a very special man.

Not only is he a skin cancer surgeon and specialist, he’s an author, an evolutionary biologist and a professor. He’s the only person who has written fiction, non-fiction, poetry and medical text books.

Out of the 150,000 skin cancer patients he has treated, 100,000 of them were pro bono. He is a man that does what he does out of a place of passion and care. 

As the mercury rises, a crowd gathers at the Seafront Marquee to listen to Sharad demonstrate his medical expertise.

His most recent book, The Genetics of Health, informs people how to manipulate their genes to maximise their health. A bold thesis given that one might ask what, if anything there is, you can do about genetic predispositions.

He begins by saying “Firstly, I like to differentiate health from medicine. Health is something we have to take personal responsibility for. There’s a glaring similarity between law and medicine… Law often won’t translate into justice and similarly medicine won’t translate into health.”

As the audience listens to Dr Sharad, it becomes clear that there are a myriad of things that affects ones health and there are even more ways that this manifests itself in your body.

“From your skin, you can tell what’s going on underneath. I’ve patients for years and you know something else is going on [when you see them having skin problems]… when you see someone’s skin has changed and you ask what else is going on, there will always be something behind it.”

eating/drinking affects it? why is it in medicine, why do we check gene type in medicine?

So what about our genes, what role do they play in health?

“Genes are our blueprint, but they’re not our destiny” Sharad says firmly. He admits that “Sometimes it’s a bit scary” when you discover the implications your genes can have for other things. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do.  

He then brings a fascinated audience through a variety of things genes can tells us – from how Sharad predicted Trump would become the next US President based off of a genetics study to how female politicians will only be successful in elections if they are conservative. 

Other things we learn include:

  • Starfish have Vitamin D receptors, even the starfish that mainly live underwater. The reason for this is because Vitamin D is actually a hormone because we produce it in the body. The reason starfish have these receptors is in order to deal with high levels of calcium in sea water.
  • Hair acts as protection against bug bites. Where you don’t have hair, the insect bite rate is 20 times higher than where you do have hair.
  • The skin of humans from Africa biologically involved in order to protect itself from the harsh sun, which as a result created a deeper skin tone
  • Slave owners used to determine which slaves to buy by licking them. The ones who were the saltiest were the ones who had survived the long sea journeys and as a result, were more likely to be able to endure hard labour

Sharad tells us such random and fascinating facts to illustrate the many ways genetics determine things in daily life. In his latest book, he shows how you can eat and exercise for your specific gene type.

When he began his research to discover which types of exercise were the most effective, “I thought I would be writing about yoga or trendy things” he says.

Instead, “The most effective method of all exercise forms is the tango.”

Sharad was at a book festival when he shared this discovery. What he didn’t realise was “the man who taught Al Pacino how to dance the tango in Scent of a Woman” was in the audience. The man found Sharad afterwards, told him and then gave him a tango lesson.

Our own dancing in Ireland it turns out is pretty beneficial to out health. “There is a reason we can finally forgive you guys for river dance!” Sharad quips. It turns out any exercise that includes you holding onto something, moving your legs a bit and a bit of endurance is very good for you. In fact, if it’s done often, it can reduce the risk of dementia. 

Yoga, unsurprisingly, reduces stress and blood pressure. `Ideally, you should begin practicing these exercises 40 and under, ideally. 

It’s clear that Sharad has an insatiable curiosity about his pursuits. He swabbed his dog just to discover how he differed genetically from a wolf. Genetics is a never ending curiosity for him. 

So much so, that he did a genetics test on David McWilliams and Sian Smyth!

As he reveals on stage in front of the audience, David doesn’t have the laziness gene (is anybody surprised by that?). Him and Sian are also both fairly natural athletes. David does need to avoid saturated fat or else “he’ll get a big butt” and he needs to consume more omega 3 and vitamin D. So if anyone wants to send David a care package of cod and salmon, his body will thank you for it.

We also discover that he has an achilles tendon injury risk so he should strap his ankles when he does sport.

It’s a fascinating display of the wealth of things we can learn from our genes. There are ways to overcome our genetic blueprint – for example, if you’re not a natural athlete but you commit yourself to regular exercise, you will overcome your genetic deficit.

But as they say, knowledge is power. In order to overcome or less than desirable genes, we need to know how to spot them. You can find how by reading Dr Sharad’s book, “The Genetics Of Health”. It’s guaranteed to be a fascinating read.