Genetic Testing for Wellness: Worth It?

Direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies such as 23andMe have been around for years already.  But do they provide any useful insight into one’s health?  Or are they best considered a recreational pursuit, taken with the same grain of salt with which, for example, a girlfriend and I recently attempted (unsuccessfully) to find a fortune teller in Chinatown last to tell us about ourselves.

How it is possible Not to find a fortune teller in Bangkok’s Chinatown is perhaps the real question.  On the other hand, we did find Chinatown’s Soi Nana (no relationship to Sukhumvit’s Soi Nana) and its slew of super-hip bars, art galleries and cafes.  And it was raining pretty hard that afternoon and evening, so maybe all the fortune tellers were hiding indoors somewhere, keeping dry…

Anyways, increasingly curious about the role genetics plays in my own and my family’s health, I recently decided to dive in and get my results from 23andMe, one of the first and most well known companies to provide such a service.

FIRST, SOME VERY BASIC INFORMATION ABOUT GENETICS AND EPIGENETICS

Dr Ben Lynch is an outspoken genetics testing expert who has impressed me with his approach to communicating with the public about developments in this exciting field.  He pays particular attention to the genetic links to autism, depression and other serious health issues, but his advice and educational focus is useful generally for anyone who wants to learn.  In interviews, webinars, videos and his book, he emphasises a number of such key points directed at genetics testing newbs like myself as:

  • Our genes provide a look at what our predisposition is, they does not predict the future.  Dr Lynch likens genetics to a light switch, and our choice of lifestyle – diet, movement, stress, environment and sleep – often is what will turn on or turn off the light.
  • Epigenetics is the (art and) science of turning genes on or off.  Discovering your genetic variations (known as SNPs – short for single-nucleotide polymorphisms – and pronounced “snips”) gives you potentially life changing information, but are not by themselves prescriptive. That’s way too simplistic and undermines the power of lifestyle, personal choice and even mindset over any possibilities revealed by these tests.

Given that physiology and biochemistry is extremely complex and multidimensional, one has to realize that it is not possible to target one isolated gene without impacting many others at the same time.This is the reason for the StrateGene team recommending that each person undertakes improvement of their basic/foundational lifestyle factors first before self-hacking one’s biochemistry with targeted compounds.The body will find a better homeostasis when you remove harmful habits (or infections) and add in beneficial practices. It is a journey, not a race.  — FAQ on StrateGene Report

  • SNP’s that we are born with create what Dr Lynch calls “dirty genes.”  Also, the lifestyle factors mentioned above can create a “dirty gene” effect in otherwise healthy genes.
  • 10.2 million SNPs have been identified in the human genome, and each of us has at least a million SNPs in our personal blueprint.  Most of these SNPs don’t so far seem to affect us much, though with the plethora of data out there it is entirely possible to overwhelm people with loads of irrelevant information on SNP data with no known effects, or minimal impact.  Dr Lynch has whittled all this information down to what he calls the “Super 7” genes and their common SNPs that are currwntly known to have a significant impact on our health.
  • Methylation is the process of creating and breaking down various nutrients in the body.  It is the key bodily process that determines whether genes and their SNPs will get turned on or off. So our body’s ability to “methylate” matters and needs to be supported.  One gene in particular, the MTHFR gene, receives a lot of attention due to its role as “methylation master” of the body.  It is also estimated that 50% of Americans have , as I discovered I do, SNPs of this gene to one degree or another, which may be associated with a wide variety of medical issues.

Despite the fact that 23andMe has, since Aug 2017, scaled back the genes on which it reports, there is still something to be gained by obtaining your 23andMe results and feeding them into a health analysis tool. if you have never done this before  I did this myself, and, as I have been so impressed with Dr Lynch’s interviews and videos, I chose to feed my basic 23andMe data into his own StrateGene program to obtain results. At the moment StrateGene only works with 23andMe.  In the near future though it seems that Dr Lynch will have his own full-service product on the market.  A good full-service option (at double the price) may be Nutrition Genome.  And, there are many others out there, some of which have sticker prices in the thousands of dollars.

Katy of the Wellness Mama blog has, as usual, a thorough and well-documented post or two on genetic testing, and in particular on the MTHFR SNPs.

23ANDME + STRATEGENE:  COST – WHAT YOU GET – LOGISTICS

The basic data and ancestry info from 23andMe take around 6 weeks to land in your inbox after receipt of your test-tube of spit, which you send off in the pre-paid packet.  Price is $99. (I ordered my kit in advance of a US trip and spit into the test-tube there, but if that doesn’t work for you, the kits can also be shipped internationally.) For an additional $49, 23andMe will add on their own health analysis, but you can also choose to download your raw genetic data from the basic $99 (ancestry) version and deliver it to another company for a health analysis.  I took for the second option with Dr Lynch’s program, StrateGene ($49), for a total cost of about $150.  StrateGene delivered my 16 pages of results indicating the status of several “Core” SNPs with a explanation of what having those SNPs may mean, followed by 5 biochemestry maps, “Pathway Planners,” which shows how your core genes and SNPs contribute to your:

  1. folate cycle:
  2. methionine cycle:
  3. transsulfuration pathway;
  4. biopepterin pathway;  and
  5. histamine pathway.

A page of “Bonus” SNPs with a description and references, but without pathway mapping, is also included.

I received all this within a minute of sending StrateGene my raw 23andMe data.  There is also a fb page available to StrateGene purchasers, and a feature of it which I really like is a series of 10 educational video lectures by Dr Lynch focusing on specific genes and their SNPs.  It’s an easy way to learn more about some of the key genes that are known to impact our health, especially interesting when you have your genetic analysis for those very genes in hand.

I learned among other things that I am indeed among the 50% of Americans who has one of the two most common mutations of the MTHFR genes.  As far as the APOE gene (the one associated with Alzheimer’s disease) SNPs go, I seem to have protective SNPs – these are provided in the “Bonus SNP” section of the StrateGene report.  Also in the Bonus section I see that I am homozygous (meaning I received the same mutation both of my parents) for a PEMT variation.

The only disappointing thing is that there are a number of SNPs that the SttrateGene people think are relevant but the 23andMe people don’t.  So I received an “n/a” for 9 “Core” SNPs, including all of the SNPs StrateGene would have analyzed associated with the MAO gene.

CONCLUSION

Is it worth it?  Yes, definitely.

Genetics testing will play an increasingly important role in optimising our health (and that of our future generations) as time goes by, and it is likely that changes will happen fast.  If you are at all interested in understanding the basics, I can recommend the approach I have taken. For me, a very beginner, this information and service have high value, and I recommend it to anyone curious enough to stick a toe into this ocean.  It is also no small thing that the services are so affordable.  And while I may not have an immediate application of the information it provides – basically the usual advise of eat healthy, sleep well, exercise and avoid stress still apply, even more than ever to keep your genes in optimal working order – I consider even this basic genetic analysis to be a valuable resource for the future as I continue my wellness journey.

And that’s more than I can say for the advice of a random fortune-teller in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

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