One of the biggest health trends of the moment is the rise of individual DNA testing. There are now several companies offering DNA tests to determine your ancestry; work out what genetic disease risks you carry; or even tell you exactly what foods you should be doing and what kind of exercise suits you best. So are they worth the money?
Well the short answer is a definitive YES. I have used these tests enough now to know that they can transform lives. They can alert you to future possible health issues that you might not have considered. They can tell you how your body reacts to different medications so you know exactly which drugs will work for you, and which ones won’t. And on a day-to-day level, they can tell you how well you metabolise carbohydrates and fats, and whether you are genetically suited to be a marathon runner or a weight lifter.
To understand how DNA testing works, you need to know a bit of biology.
Most of the cells in the body contain an entire set of your body’s chromosomes. We inherit our genes from our parents – one set from the mother, and one set from the father.
So the whole point of DNA testing is to see exactly what individual variations your genes possess..the variations that make you unique, and give you your specific strengths and weaknesses.
The other important point that most people don’t realise is that our genes are constantly working throughout our lives. When we learn genetics at school, we’re taught about the physical consequences – we got out blue eyes because 2 of our grandparents had the recessive gene and they both arrived in us; we’re tall like our father; and who remembers doing the tongue test where you see who can roll up their tongue and who couldn’t?
So we accept that our physical characteristics come from our family. But what we don’t learn is that our genes are responsible for switching on every bodily process that goes on each and every day. Need to digest your lunch? The gene that makes the enzymes to digest food need to switch on. Need to repair a skin wound? Switch on the genes that code for skin cells to be made. Your genes are like a giant circuit board with billions of different switches, all turning on and off depending on what is going on in your life at the time.
The reason that DNA testing has suddenly hit the headlines is because we have reached the point where we have learned enough about the actions of genes to seriously make a difference to people’s lives and health. For instance, when your body encounters a foreign chemical, such as when you take a pharmaceutical drug, there should be a gene that immediately switches on to begin the process of detoxifying that drug from your body. The drug works until it has been detoxified, which is why you need to retake the drug a few hours later. Now imagine you have a genetic variation that means you detoxify that drug a lot slower, if at all. This means that the drug is staying in your system a lot longer than expected. So if you take the next prescribed dose 4 hours later, you start building up a potentially dangerous overdose in your system. It’s no wonder that accidental overdose is such a large cause of death in hospitals.
We can apply the same logic to coffee. We all know if we are the kind of person who can drink an espresso and go straight to sleep, or whether we can’t possibly drink coffee after 2pm without risking a good night’s rest! It’s all down to a specific variation in the CYP1A2 gene. But what’s important to know here is that if you are a good caffeine metaboliser, there’s a chance that having a certain number of cups of coffee a day could delay your chances of developing breast cancer by up to 7 years. Conversely, if you don’t metabolise coffee well, then over 4 cups of coffee a day could potentially dramatically increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
This is just scraping the surface. As far as lifestyle goes, we can tell you how well you metabolise carbohydrates and fats, and exactly what kind of exercise will be optimal for your body type. We can tell you whether you are genetically predisposed to store fat under the skin, or around the organs. Whether you can yo-yo diet, or whether you are genetically programmed to put all the weight back on the minute you return to normal eating.
And then of course there is the risk of diseases. Personally, I think it is a privilege to be able to learn what problems I might develop when I am older. From having my own DNA analysis, I learned that I am at a high risk of developing glaucoma and osteoporosis. Well I knew about the osteoporosis as my mother and grandmother both had it; but the glaucoma was something I’d never thought about. So as well as my regular programme of weight bearing exercise, vitamin D and other bone-building foods and supplements, I have started going to see the optician every couple of years just to keep track of my eye health.
So how do you make sense of all the tests that are available? Right now there are huge differences in price, analysis methods, safety and data protection. As with most things, you tend to get what you pay for. The best companies use next-generation gene sequencing, which is more expensive but offers an accuracy up to 99.97%, compared to gene mapping, which has only about 70% accuracy. Look for laboratory accreditation; make sure it has the important kite marks and quality control. The cheaper companies are often keeping their prices down because they sell the data on. So if anonymity is important to you, that’s something to ask about.
As an example, a full, top-of-the-range entire genome sequencing in January 2019 would cost about £ 6,000. So if you’re buying something for a few hundred, then you know it’s only a snapshot of a few genes, or they’re subsidising the price by selling your information on.
I will write more about the specific genes in the weeks ahead, and over in my Facebook Group.
Click on the image below to purchase a DNA Testing kit today!