The first annual Seeking Health Educational Institute (SHEI) conference was held October 15-18 at the Westin in Westminster, CO. The SHEI conferences are the brainchild of Benjamin Lynch, ND, who lectures worldwide on the topics of methylation, epigenetics, and nutrigenomics. His educational institute offers webinars, podcasts, forums, and other clinical tools to its members. He explains why he conceived of SHEI and what motivated him to plan this first conference:
When I started teaching about single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), I was under the impression that doctors were already trained in the basics. I found out they were not. An entire industry exploded around SNPs—it caught on with physicians, it caught on with patients, and it missed the point. The message we want to share through SHEI is that when we go back to the fundamentals of health, many SNPs take care of themselves. Our vision is to integrate nutrigenomics research with the foundational principles of naturopathic medicine.
The 2015 SHEI conference was the first time that Lynch brought together a panel of experts with a group of more than 250 attendees for a 4-day boot camp on the clinical applications of epigenetics. The specific focus for this year’s conference was mitochondrial and cell membrane function.
On the first day of the conference, Lynch presented a series of 3 lectures introducing the Pathway Planner, a conglomerate of flowcharts to guide clinical decision-making related to methylation; transsulfuration; and the metabolism of folate, methionine, biopterin, arginine, and histamine. He reviewed each of these biochemical pathways in detail, emphasizing the promoters, inhibitors, and cofactors for each. For example, the conversion of homocysteine to methionine is inhibited by the presence of heavy metals, hydrogen peroxide, acetaldehyde, nitrous oxide, or TNF-a and requires adequate zinc, methylcobalamin, and 5-methyl tetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF). The takeaway message was that it is possible to influence gene expression and enzyme function regardless of SNP status.
For those who had taken already Lynch’s courses, the Pathway Planner sessions were a review, but most attendees seemed to soak up and appreciate the information. Karen Lamb, ND, from Scottsdale, AZ, was thrilled with the information. “The pathway planner is basic biochemistry,” she said. “But when Dr Lynch adds the genetics, the promoters, and the inhibitors, it completely transforms it and makes it come alive clinically. This is the cohesive resource that I have been looking for.” All attendees received a poster-size copy of the Pathway Planner.
After covering the Pathway Planner, Lynch gave presentations on practice management and positioning for clinical success. He shared an extensive list of questions that can be used as a “gene function screening questionnaire,” advocated for the use of timelines as a way to understand patterns in a patient, and recommended that clinicians use online intake forms (such as those at CareIntake) to increase efficiency. He talked about the need to be both a hedgehog and a fox—to find a niche that will draw patients while maintaining the space to treat every patient generally and as a whole person.
“Dr Lynch shared enough cutting edge ideas that even established clinicians could benefit from his tips on practice management and marketing,” said Nikki Burnett, MNT, a practicing nutrition therapist. “It was a nice diversion from the intensity of the presentations on biochemical pathways.”
Day 2 focused on the foundations of health: air, water, food, and shelter. Lynch took the opportunity to talk not only about elementary subjects like hydration, diet, exercise, and detoxification, but also about more complex topics. He delved into the importance of the NADH:NAD ratio, for example, as well as the ways that arginine metabolism can be shunted away from nitric oxide production. Lynch referred to a TED talk on “The Pleasure Trap” in discussing the role of dopamine in food addiction and detailed ways to support this pathway in patients needing to overcome destructive behaviors. “Dr. Lynch shared some excellent pearls of information that were new to me,” reflected Denise DeRosier, MNT, a nutrition therapist in Highlands Ranch, CO, “but his lectures on the foundations of health were a good reminder that what I am doing every day with my clients is absolutely on the right track to optimize their gene function.”
Day 2 concluded with a lecture on medication-induced SNPs, presented by Suzy Cohen, RPh, a licensed pharmacist. Through tears, Cohen shared her personal story of how she came to realize the dangers of pharmaceutical medications and the importance of drug-metabolism interactions. Much like the Pathway Planner lectures, her presentation consisted primarily of biochemical flowcharts—this time with medications listed as inhibitors. Even in patients who do not show particular SNPs on genetic testing, certain drugs create SNPs by depleting key nutrients and blocking metabolic pathways, she asserted. Her presentation included long lists of medications that deplete vitamins and minerals, from B vitamins to calcium, selenium, and zinc.
Day 3 built upon the foundational information presented during the first 2 days. The focus shifted to mitochondrial function, dysfunction, and restoration—with an emphasis on the cell danger response. The cell danger response is a protective cellular reaction to anything that presents a threat: microbes, chemicals, physical trauma, or psychological stress. It leads to stiffened cell membranes, increased reactive oxygen species, mitochondrial dysfunction, and shifts in metabolism—including slowing of methylation. Lynch reiterated the point that when we eliminate toxins and meet the body’s foundational needs, we inherently halt the cell danger response, correct mitochondrial function, and restore health.
Day 4 brought the conference to a close with a full day of case studies. Presenters included Eric Balcavage, DC; Jess Armine, DC; Bernarda Zenker, MD; and Paul Anderson, ND. Most cases began with a story of failure of allopathic medicine to help a very sick patient. Consistent with the overriding message of the conference, presenters were careful to explain all of the lifestyle changes they recommended before doing genetic testing. In the end, the message of this conference was clear: When we treat the whole person and clear metabolic blockages, patients improve and health returns.
Lynch initially made a name for himself that is summed up by the name of one of his websites: MTHFR.net. Practitioners gravitated to him to learn the latest about polymorphisms and methylation. At the first annual SHEI conference, he took a step back from genetics to focus on the basics, and attendees did not seem at all disappointed. The hall was packed for every session with medical doctors, naturopathic doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, nutritionists, and other health professionals. Participants could earn a total of 25.5 continuing education credits, but they were clearly in attendance for more than that. A passion for learning, a fascination with functional medicine, and a desire to really help patients was palpable at this conference. “This is like the Super Bowl of epigenetics,” said Nasha Winters, ND, from Durango, CO. “Nowhere else in the world are people coming together to talk about the research in this area and its practical applications on a clinical level.”
Plans are underway for the 2016 SHEI Conference. For more information about this and other resources available through SHEI, visit SeekingHealth.org.