Does DNA = destiny? Part 2

Some of you may recall a previous post related to my experience with genetic composition testing designed to “optimize your daily nutrition and exercise routine to help meet your fitness and health goals.” I learned some interesting things and honestly, I just find genetics a fascinating subject in general. So, it didn’t take much to convince me to dive in again when I received a discount for 23andme’s Ancestry and Health test kit. They were having a buy one, get one half off sale so my husband decided to do it as well. (He’s adopted and has little information about his birth family’s ethnicity or health history, so he thought this could provide some answers in that arena).

This decision once again brought up debate and discussion about how much one really wants to know about their genetic composition, and how it might influence one’s behaviors and actions. I am firmly in the “all in” camp as I believe the knowledge gained would positively influence my life. For example, one of the tests is for predisposition to late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. If I discovered I had the genetic variant that indicated I was at high risk, it would prompt me to get going on my “bucket list” and do things NOW that I might otherwise put off until retirement. My husband was not quite as sure how he would respond to such information, so he let me go first and made his decision after I got my results.

The process and test was easy (for this one you have to provide a spit sample in a tube), and I received my results in less time than the company indicated it would take. The results are provided online through your password-protected account. You also have the ability to connect with other relatives via the 23andme website. I discovered a few (known) cousins who’ve done the test and also other “genetic” relatives in the local area (people whom I don’t know but apparently we share some common DNA. Who knew?).

Here are some highlights from my results:

Ancestry

All my life, I have always stated that I am 50% Italian (as my father’s parents/grandparents emigrated from Italy), 25% German (through my maternal grandfather) and 25% Irish (through my maternal grandmother). Turns out, that’s close but not exact. Genetically, I am about 31% Italian, 22% British and Irish, 8% German and then a smattering of other parts of Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. I’m more of a melting pot than I thought! My parents are going to do the test as well, so I will be curious to see how their results compare to mine.

Health and Traits

I have to say that the health information is quite comprehensive, and the company does give you a choice upfront about which results you do and do not want to receive. I opted into it all. I should note that you also fill out a health history form and other optional survey questions when you register for the test, which I think ties into the “traits” section of the results. If I understand the algorithm correctly, I believe some of the traits are based both on genetics as well as people’s preferences as determined by the survey questions. For example, one of the questions you are asked is your preference for vanilla versus chocolate ice cream. I think they take the answer to that question across all participants and then compare it to the genetic info to determine that people with this gene tend to prefer chocolate (or vice versa).

Health Predisposition

The four major health conditions in this section that you have to opt in or out of include:

  • Breast Cancer (BRCA1/BRCA2 – selected variants)
  • MUTYH-Associated Polyposis (colorectal cancer)
  • Late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Parkinson’s Disease

There are some other interesting conditions such as Celiac Disease, Age-related Macular Degeneration and Type 2 Diabetes. My test indicated that “variant(s) not detected” for all of the tests except Hereditary Thrombophilia and Type 2 Diabetes. It indicated I have a “slightly increased risk” for developing blood clots as I have one of the two genetic variants they test for. I have “typical likelihood” of developing Type 2 Diabetes. Based on the 23andme database of participants, people of European descent with genetics like mine have about a 30% chance of developing diabetes between my current age and 80. Diabetes does run in my family on both sides and I have been acutely aware of how my eating habits, especially my sweet tooth, may impact my risk. I have done well in the last decade or so with reducing my sugar intake. I also try to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, so hopefully that will reduce my risk further.

I should note that there are disclaimers all over the website, both when you register and when you receive your results, emphasizing that these tests do not diagnose any health conditions. They also remind you about other factors, such as lifestyle, environment, and family history, that affect your chances of developing these conditions. I appreciated the fact that they provide suggestions about what to do with the data, such as share it with your personal physician to discuss the risks. They also discuss the potential need for genetic counseling if the results indicate you have the genetic variant(s) tested.

Carrier Status

This section indicates whether you have genetic variants that could affect your children’s health. The list of conditions included Cystic Fibrosis as well as Sickle Cell Anemia along with a host of others I have never heard of. My results indicated “variant not detected” for all of them, which is good news for my daughter (my husband had the same results, so she seems to be in the clear).

Wellness and Traits

The other two sections focused on how your DNA might affect your body’s response to diet, exercise, and sleep, as well as the genetics behind your appearance and senses. The Wellness section was similar to the testing I had done two years ago, and I found similar results regarding weight (predisposed to weigh above average) and muscle composition (I have one genetic variant commonly found in elite power athletes such as sprinters.) I still laugh at that latter result as I hate sprinting.

In my opinion, the Traits section has more lighthearted, “nice to know” vs. “need to know” characteristics such as the ability to detect the odor in your urine after you eat asparagus (I am “likely to smell”) and earlobe type (“likely detached earlobes” which is correct). I disagreed with some of the results in this section. For example, it indicated that I was more likely to prefer salty vs. sweet – nope, I tend to reach for sugary snacks when I have a choice. It also indicated I was likely to not have dimples. Wrong again – some people say they are one of my best facial features.

So, what’s the verdict?

Bottom line, I am glad that I did the test. The ancestry part is fascinating and has sparked an interest in exploring genealogy further. The health predisposition results were reassuring, although I absolutely acknowledge that these results do not mean I won’t develop any of those diseases. I do plan to talk to my physician about the blood clot predisposition as there is some family history with this problem and I want to determine if there is anything I can do to minimize my risk. Overall, I believe there is value in this information and that it could help many people change their behaviors to optimize their health and well-being.  

Does DNA = destiny?

Just before the holidays, I received an email from my insurance company promoting discounts on various wellness products. One in particular caught my eye – genetic composition testing designed to “optimize your daily nutrition and exercise routine to help meet your fitness and health goals.” I had heard about this type of genetic testing and was interested in learning more. The timing was perfect as I had been wanting to shake up my exercise regimen, having fallen into a comfortable rut over the last year or so. I decided to take the plunge not only to learn more about my own disposition, but to be able to share my experience here in case any of you have been thinking about exploring this type of genetic testing.

I want to preface this all with a note about genetic testing – I know there is still quite a bit of controversy about direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Many people have concerns about privacy and what these companies do with the data they compile. I’m not here to debate the ethics of genetic testing, but I do recommend that anyone thinking about getting tested do their due diligence and read through the privacy information provided by the vendor. Call me naïve, but I choose to trust that my data won’t be misused by the vendor that I selected. I may be wrong, but I will cross that bridge if/when I come to it.

That being said, I ordered the test kit online and received it in the mail within a week or so. The test consisted of a few simple swabs of my cheeks. The company provided a pre-paid envelope to return the swabs. I sent them off and eagerly awaited the results. Within two weeks I received an email with a link to access the report online in a downloadable PDF format. About two weeks later, I received the printed report via snail mail, which is really nice as I did not want to print out the 40-page document myself (it is nicely done with full color graphics, but they would totally suck up my printer ink).

The letter in the front of the report reminded me that several factors impact health and fitness, including genes, environmental influences and lifestyle choices. Most studies have shown that genetics contribute between 30-40% to the body’s response to food and exercise. There was also a pretty standard disclaimer that the information in the report should not be used as a diagnostic tool and should not replace proper medical care from your healthcare provider. Instead, the vendor recommended using the report as a “guide to identify and implement actions to assist in taking control of my health and fitness.” And honestly, that is what I plan to do. I have taken some time to digest the information and I am working on a plan to determine how to use this information to inform my eating and exercise habits. I thought I would share some of what I learned and how I intend to incorporate the information into my wellness plan.

I have to admit that I was impressed with the amount of information included in the report and I thought it was presented in a simple, easy to read format. There is a Summary of Results page in the front followed by more detailed sections for each category tested. There are color charts, tables and graphics for those who are more visual learners. The nutrition information was presented first, followed by the exercise recommendations. For each category, the report includes information about what genes were tested and how they impact your body. Below are some highlights from my report and my thoughts on how I’ll use the information:

Body Weight and Weight Regain

Two of the most interesting pieces of information for me were related to body weight and weight regain and unfortunately for me, the news was not so good. I am apparently at high risk for both obesity and regaining weight after dieting. This news was not a total surprise as I have struggled since adolescence to maintain a healthy weight. I have definitely experienced the common yo-yo dieting phenomenon, going through phases of losing and regaining weight since high school. I definitely feel like my predisposition is to be on the heavier side. When I look at family photos, there are several obese relatives throughout the generations (think stereotypical fat, Italian grandmothers).

Satiety and Impulsive Eating

I also learned that I am predisposed to impaired satiety, meaning I tend to overeat because I may not sense fullness until I have already eaten more than enough. Again, not surprising to me as I have always been a fast eater. My dad is a very fast eater whereas my mom could compete for slowest eater on earth. I’m guessing I got my dad’s genes here. The good news is I am less likely to eat impulsively as I do not have lower dopamine sensitivity, i.e., I receive enough “reward” from eating tasty foods that I don’t have to overindulge to be satisfied.

The above results pertaining to obesity, weight regain and impaired satiety could cause some people to throw up their hands and give up trying to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. For me, it just heightens my awareness that I may have to work a little harder than others to do so. I learned a long time ago that I was never going to look like a super model – and I’m cool with that. I also abandoned traditional dieting several years ago, after realizing that it was not a sustainable approach to weight management. These days, I am much more focused on a mindful eating approach and listening to my body when it comes to food and eating habits. I believe this will help tremendously with the impaired satiety issue – I have learned that I need to slow down when I eat, so that I can tune into the signals from my body as I begin to feel full. For years, the speed at which I ate led to a consistent pattern of overeating and feeling uncomfortably full after most meals. I have been working on that for the past few years and these test results have increased my resolve to continue doing so.

Inflammation

The news was also not great when it comes to my body’s inflammatory response. I am apparently at high risk for chronic inflammation, which has been linked to several preventable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. It indicated that I was also more prone to the inflammatory effects of a diet high in sugar, refined carbs and vegetable oils. As someone who grew up on pasta and has battled a major sweet tooth her whole life, I can see some validity in this result. The good news is that there are foods I can eat that have an anti-inflammatory effect, as I discussed in a previous blog post about an anti-inflammatory diet. My family and I had already started making some changes to our diet after I attended that seminar, but I know that there is more work to be done – and I am willing to do it.

Exercise and Fitness

As I mentioned earlier, I was more interested in the results related to exercise and fitness and what I learned was pretty fascinating. Apparently, I have the capability to excel in both power and endurance activities, i.e., a mix of sprinting and distance events. My whole life I have always struggled with activities requiring short bursts of energy. For example, I have always disliked sports like tennis and basketball because I was too lazy to run back and forth. I also tried sprinting when I was on the track team in high school but fared much better as a middle-distance runner. I just thought I didn’t have it in me, but I am rethinking that mindset with this new knowledge. Perhaps I just never had the proper training to build up the capacity for power activities. I may give it a try and still find out that I don’t like those activities, but at least I won’t count myself out without first giving them a chance.

Two other results that kind of go hand in hand relate to the best type of exercise for fat loss and the tendency for muscle soreness. Not too surprisingly, the results indicated that I need a combination of strength/resistance and cardio exercise for the most effective fat loss. Many fitness experts promote this combined approach for anyone looking to lose weight and/or improve their fitness level. However, I apparently have the tendency to deposit fat under the skin rather than in the muscle and to lose weight, I would benefit from an approach such as high intensity interval training (HIIT). Interval training generally consists of a warm up period, then several repetitions of high-intensity exercise separated by medium intensity exercise for recovery, then a cool down period. The recommendations in my report advised against training only on pure cardio or endurance activities only…which is something I admit I’ve been doing for the last few years. Oops. Guess it is time to mix things up a bit.

Perhaps the reason I tend to avoid strength training or resistance activities (such as lifting weights, doing push-ups, etc.) is the association with DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness. You know – that achy feeling you get a day or two after engaging in muscle-building activities. My genes leave me more likely to experience this soreness according to my report. I’ll admit I have kind of a love-hate relationship with muscle soreness. On one hand, it usually makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something in my workout, but it can make me wimp out and not want to continue training. The good news is there are several strategies to help minimize the soreness, including rest days, stretching, and the occasional over the counter pain relievers if needed. Being aware that I may experience muscle soreness more than the average person will help me prepare for it and adopt ways to minimize the aches.

So what’s the verdict?

Bottom line, I am glad that I did the test. I think the information is one tool of many that can help inform my approach to health and fitness. I know that it is not the end all, be all and I don’t believe that my DNA is my destiny. But in my case, I learned some things that are making me rethink some preconceived notions I have had, especially about my physical abilities. I realize that I may give another go at tennis and still not like it or be good at it, but at least I am willing to try.

Note: I purposely am not sharing the name of the vendor I used for the genetic testing as I don’t want it to be seen as an endorsement of one company over another (especially since I only tried one vendor). If you would like this information, you can email me at Janice@everbetterihc.com and I will gladly share the information offline.