Does Your DNA = Your Health?

Do your genes (DNA) influence your health? Yes….but.

Can your lifestyle choices influence your health and DNA? Clearly….yes.

Does your psychology affect your health and DNA? Intriguingly….yes.

So naturally the question arises….should you have your DNA tested?

Read on to find out…

What Does Science Say?

A recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that:

People who lived a healthy lifestyle lowered their risk by nearly 50 percent compared to those with an unhealthy lifestyle[2].

Even with a little effort, people can cut their high genetic risk of disease by more than half, said senior researcher Dr. Sekar Kathiresan, director of the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

But the opposite also is true. People born with a genetic advantage protecting them against disease can ruin their good luck through unhealthy lifestyle choices, according to Kathiresan.

“DNA is not destiny,” Dr. Kathiresan said. “You have control over your risk for heart attack, even if you’ve been dealt a bad hand.”
“Our findings would likely prove relevant for cutting risk for diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases as well.”

Nature Versus Nurture (Genes Versus Epigenetics)

Not long ago, the concept of “gene” implied that our lives are determined by our heredity.

The science gene expression or epigenetics changes that understanding. It recognizes that genes do not “control” our biology. New insights reveal that our environment, and our psychological perception of our environment interact with and influence our genetic activity.

Bruce Lipton, a developmental biologist at Stanford University’s School of Medicine contends that about 1% of human diseases are determined by genes. The rest reflect an interaction between our thoughts, emotions, perceptions and our genes.

Do genes have an influence? The answer is “yes-but.”

The “but” depends on both epigenetics and heritability (see below).

Heritability Versus Your Risks

It can get a little tricky assessing personal genetic analysis for the following reasons:

  1. Genetic probabilities are for populations not for you individually.
  2. A high relative probability may be quite low in the absolute sense:
  • Your genotype may have 100% relative risk of ‘X’ versus the absolute population ‘X’ risk of 0.01%
  • i.e. your group genotype risk is 0.02%
  1. Genes are potential probabilities, not guaranteed outcomes:
  • Genes are strongly influenced by epigenetics (see above)

Heritability is the amount of variation in a population due to a genetic trait.

For instance, the heritability of type 2 diabetes is estimated to be 26%. This means that environmental factors contribute more to differences in risk for this condition than genetic factors.

It’s important understand that genetic trait heritability is for a population, it is not your specific probability. Most genetic reports compare the population heritability with a trait against a population without the trait.

For instance, using one of my genetic reports as an example:

  • An average 25.7 out of 100 men of European ethnicity will develop Type 2 Diabetes.
  • 36.7 out of 100 men of European ethnicity who share AJ Popoff ‘s genotype will develop Type 2 Diabetes.

Interpretation:

  • 63.3% to 100% of my diabetes trait risk is under my lifestyle control.
  • My genotype population risk is 43% higher than the non-trait population.
  • This helps me to be more conscious of my higher risk probability and motivates me to maintain healthy and preventative lifestyle habits (nutrition, exercise. psychology).

Is Personal Genetic Testing Useful?

Human genetics is a relatively new field that continues to grow rapidly every day. There are still a lot of things scientists have yet to figure out.

Genes rarely work in isolation, they interact with each other as well as our environment and our psychology. Stated in different terms, your body is complex and dynamic system with checks and balances. Viewing your body as “machine” made of “parts” that are subject to simple cause-and-effect is mostly incorrect.

The newness and complexity of genetic interactions has resulted in a “go slow” policy where the diagnoses of disease is highly regulated by the medical community (FDA, AMA, etc). As a result, the trend in consumer genetic analysis has been towards health and wellness, as well as ancestry.

Below I give you some of the Pros and Cons and my guidelines whether personal genetic testing is or is not useful. I also provide you samples of my genetic reports so you can judge for yourself.

Personal Genetics Testing PROs

  • The ability to obtain personal genetic information quickly and privately without a doctor’s prescription or your employer seeing your results.
  • Personal genetic testing is relatively affordable, costing less than a few hundred dollars.
  • The information can include disease predisposition and carrier status.
  • Access to interesting information about ancestry.
  • Some companies offer testing services that will determine the presence and percentage of ethnic, geographic and even Neanderthal DNA.

What Can You DO With Your Genetic Information?

Every new industry grows through a number of predictable phases. The current phase of personal genetics testing is a “Box of Parts”. It’s like ordering spare parts from Radio Shack to assemble your smartphone.

If you are a Stanford molecular scientist you can analyze your blood 20 times over 14 months and stop diabetes in its tracks like Michael Snyder did.

Most genetics testing companies are working hard to provide a better “turnkey” product (i.e. a fully assembled iPhone). But you can judge the state of the art for yourself by looking at samples of my reports (see below).

But until the industry matures further you need to take these cons into account:

Personal Genetic Testing CONs

  • The majority of the drawbacks associated with personal genetic testing stem from the absence of a medical professional that can help an individual understand the results.
  • Many companies have genetic counselors on staff. However, email and phone exchanges are poor substitutes for a face-to-face discussion. Common misunderstandings regarding genetic testing results include:
  • An overestimation of the role genetics plays in disease. The amount that genetics contributes to a trait varies, but very few traits and/or disease are controlled strictly be genes. Most traits are also affected by environmental factors and lifestyle choices.
  • Difficulty in interpreting a disease risk. Participants must rely on emails and information on a website to understand their disease risk versus the average population risk. Also, the disease risk presented by personal companies does not include a timeframe. For some diseases, the risk remains low until later in life and then goes up incrementally with age.
  • Confusion over the methodology. Not all genetic testing is “created equal”. Genetic tests for diseases that are caused by a known single gene defect can predict with more certainty (sometimes 100%) whether or not an individual will be affected by a disease or is a carrier.
  • Often association studies (GWAS) are employed for diseases in which multiple genes contribute, or no specific gene has been identified. The results from GWAS do not have the same degree of certainty as traditional genetic tests.
  • A lack of monitoring of the psychological and emotional status of the participant. Some personal genetic testing companies offer genetic tests for life-altering, and even terminal, conditions. Participants may feel a wide range of emotions including anger, depression and guilt after receiving difficult news.
  • A lack of oversight of the companies. Because personal genetics companies are relatively new, the government has not yet determined how to best regulate them. Many companies are reputable and offer quality services with reliable results. Other companies make false claims and use faulty practices. It is up to the consumer to distinguish the good from the bad.

Is Genetic Testing Worth It?

I’ve had my genes analyzed multiple times since 2013 (see guidelines, caveats, and my sample reports below).

The good news is that most companies can use your original DNA sample and update your analysis based on the latest genetic research findings. Still, I notice that most of my personal genetic reports contain annotations such as:

  • “This analysis is incomplete, as in future more genetic variants may be identified.”
  • “This analysis may differ from other interpretations offered by other companies, which may consider different SNPs for their interpretation.”

Different genotypes can also contraindicate each other. For instance, IBS is one of the most common digestive problems, with around 10% of the world’s population suffering from it. Here are my results:

  • Gene CNR1: genotype CT = This variation is linked to irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Gene CRHR1: genotype CT = This variation is not linked to irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Gene CDC42: genotype AG =This variation is linked to an intermediate risk of irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Gene NXPH1: genotype CT = This variation is not linked to irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Gene TNFSF15: genotype AG & CT = This variation is linked to a medium risk of irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Gene TNFA: genotype GG = This variation is not linked to irritable bowel syndrome.

When people ask me if personal genetic testing is worth it, I suggest the following guidelines and caveats:

General Guidelines

  • For disease: genetic testing IS worth it.
  • For wellness: genetic testing is NOT worth it.

Caveats

  1. I would consider genetic testing if you are planning to have a family, especially if there is any history or suspicion of hereditary “carrier” status in your family tree.
  2. If family ancestry is your ‘thing’ then DNA testing can be informational and educational. However, I would note that these tests are much more informative when you also have both your parents tested.
  3. Genetic testing can be incredibly useful in diagnosing and pinpointing diseases that are 100% heritable, rare, or fatal. When I first received my 23andme report, there was a special section for untreatable fatal diseases[3]. To unlock and view this special report, I practically had to have one of their grief counselors on the phone. Fortunately and for the record, I came up negative on all these gene traits.
  4. If you are looking to optimize your performance as an executive or athlete:
  • Find out how your body reacts to different forms of exercise so that you can optimize your training, and reach your goals faster.
  • Use your genetic insights to find the optimal nutrition and diet for you.
  • Understand the link between your day-to-day habits and your genes, so that you can make better choices and live a healthier lifestyle.
  • Example: I am predisposed to use fat as nutritional fuel better than carbohydrates.
  • Example: As a former ultra-distance runner and weightlifter, I was surprised to learn I have 2(!) copies of the “sprinters gene”.

Spoiler Alert: Regardless of your genetic makeup, all the analysis reports will tell you the same thing over and over about two key environmental factors:

The foundation of good health is exercise and good nutrition.

So before majoring in the minors (supplements, genotypes, cryogenics, essential oils, etc etc) consider these facts:

Exercise is the most effective drug known to humankind, works for everyone who takes it, has no negative side effects, and is free.
The more fat you carry, the less you benefit from being fit.

For each 5-unit increase in body mass index (BMI) above 25, your increases in risk are:

  • 49% for cardiovascular mortality
  • 38% for respiratory disease mortality
  • 19% for cancer mortality.

Examples: My Genetic Results

Below samples from my DNA analysis by different companies. I’ve listed these in order of my preference

Athgene

  • Recent entrant with genetic analysis focused on nutrition, fitness, and lifestyle.
  • They provide some of the best summary reporting I’ve seen to date.

23andMe

  • The original genetic testing service, its disease, drug, and diagnostic reports were excellent until the U.S. FDA curtailed them.
  • Their focus has since shifted to ancestry analysis and “dry lab” crowdsourced research.

SelfDecode

  • Analyzes your data from 23andMe, Ancestry, Courtagen or FamilyTree.
  • Gene and SNP reporting is detailed and comprehensive, but summary and recommendation reporting is weak.

Promethease

  • Basically a database of raw genetic research reports indexed by ClinVar, an NIH.gov database and SNPedia (a wiki on human genetics).
  • No health or diagnostic interpretation, intended for educational and research purposes only. Reports cost $5.
  • Analyzes your data from 23andMe, Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA, Genos, DNA.land, Genes for Good, MyHeritage, (g)VCF files from exome and WGS. and many other formats

Interpretome

  • Free DNA analysis tool created by genetic experts from Stanford University.
  • No health or diagnostic interpretation, intended for educational and research purposes only.
  • It supports data files from Lumigenix and 23andme.

Here are actual a selection of report samples of my genetic analysis from the aforementioned providers (click to enlarge).

Athgene Report

23andme Report

SelfDecode Report

Promethease Report

Interpretome

How Does It Work?

The process for personal genetic testing is pretty simple — order your kit online, submit your DNA sample by mail, wait for your results (generally 4–6 weeks).

Most testing companies take safe guards to make sure your privacy is protected by using third party labs and anonymizing your sample ID.

However, you can optionally and voluntarily elect to pool your genetic information in “association studies” that look for so-called “dry lab” correlations between genes and disease in large populations.

You Are In Control

Ultimately you a lot have more control (perhaps ~80%) over your genes that they have over you (generally ~20% or less).

Just 3–5 simple nutrition and exercise habits can enormously improve your energy, productivity, and immunity.

I repeat these principles many times because they work:

  • Psychology: “Health begins in your head.”
  • Nutrition: “Don’t dig your grave with a fork.”
  • Fitness: “You can’t outrun a donut.”

Methods are secondary to principles of course, but you can see samples of my work here:

Are you motivated?

Do you have a program to build muscle?

Is your nutrition under control?

But please don’t take my word for it. See for yourself exactly how my clients get results.


Footnotes:

  1. Do You Read Fast Enough To Be Successful?, Forbes
  2. Study researchers looked at DNA from 55,685 healthy individuals from four studies to determine who had the highest genetic risk for developing heart disease. There are at least 50 genetic variants across the entire genome that can play such a role.
  • Next, they rated how healthy these people were based on four lifestyle factors:
  • no smoking, no obesity, regular exercise and a healthy diet.
  • Then they calculated each group’s 10-year risk of having a heart attack, needing a procedure such as coronary artery bypass or dying from a heart-related cause.

3. Since discontinued under U.S FDA Consent Decree.


Originally published at The Healthy Executive.