How to (probably) live a healthier life by unlocking your genetic data
We’re all unique.
Each of us is different because we’ve all faced a set of distinct experiences. Our choices, our family dynamics, and our trauma have all shaped us.
The above methodology contributes to the ‘nurture’ component of the human condition. These concepts dictate our perceptions, bias, and our attitudes towards ourselves and others.
But before you developed a consciousness, you were already special. An unique individual. ‘Nature’ also makes you, you. Nature was responsible for many of the things you just simply can’t change about yourself.
Eye colour. General body shape. Genetic deficiencies. Maximum height. Even your general stress levels are defined, to some extent, by your genetics.
It’s our DNA. It’s what’s passed on to us from our parents, from previous generations, and what’s also left to chance.
And it’s in this dice-roll region where we’ve often found ourselves a little uncertain. Some might even say powerless.
With enough discipline, we can change habits we consider to be negative. We can learn how to become more compassionate. We can overcome our fears. We can build muscle in the gym and increase our physical endurance. We can improve our ability to retain memory and process data more efficiently.
But we can’t change our biological traits. They’re hard-coded into us. They’re a part of us. Gifts, curses — whatever you call them, they’re all ours.
As an aside from this article, I think it’s deeply important for us to understand who we are and be comfortable with the skin we’re living in. And not only that, but our mental state and our neurosis, as well.
Sometimes it hard to accept there are some things we can’t change. Much of our lives we struggle to come to terms with this very fact. Some of us never truly do.
But just because we can’t (yet) change our traits on a genetic level doesn’t mean that we can’t make educated guesses and experiment, working our way towards healthier lives. It doesn’t mean we don’t have the tools to make more responsible lifestyle decisions and even influence genes to express in certain ways.
Understanding our single nucleotide polymorphisms hold the key to part of the puzzle.
What the heck are Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms?
As a part of our DNA, in each and every cell in our bodies, we have single nucleotide polymorphisms. Also known as SNPs, they’re one of the smallest components that make up human genetics.
In order of magnitude, we have our DNA, followed by our chromosomes, then our genes, and finally our SNPs.
We can thank SNPs for our uniqueness (which are grouped together to form genes, which will sound more familiar in writings on genetics), since no two people share the same combinations of SNPs. Despite every human share over 99% of the same genes, it’s our SNPs that make us so drastically different.
Think of each SNP as a colour of Lego block. Every single person in the world, all 7 billion of us, is assembled by a different combination of these Lego blocks.
Eye colour, body type, blood type, and much more are defined by these building blocks, which are responsible for the make up of genes (of which we associate various seen and unseen traits). Green eyes have a different set of Lego blocks than brown eyes.
But the types of building blocks, and the way they’re put together, goes beyond our physical appearance and traits. These SNPs also contribute to our health; to our disease susceptibility and how certain proteins and processes work in our bodies.
Because of their location between our nucleotides in our DNA, SNPs can help us identify various DNA snippets. In short, they act as ‘bio-markers’. And because every gene is made up of a combination of SNPs, often interrupted as a specific ‘pattern’, we can locate and define the purpose of these genes.
This is how we find genes responsible for disease or disease susceptibility. We can home-in on these patterns and find what we might see as troublesome variants. Some ‘genotypes’ (the variant of a certain SNP or gene, of which there are other possible variants) are often associated today with certain diseases and health risks.
It’s important to note that we have no idea what most SNPs do. We don’t know how they (if at all) affect our health. We don’t know how they affect growth or development.
And despite having mapped the genome, we still know so little about what does what.
However, what we do know is that, in general, SNPs create complexity in humans. Of the SNPs we’re interested in today are thought to impact our health in a myriad of ways. From what diseases we are susceptible to, to what vitamins and nutrients we are naturally deficient in, researching SNPs associated with particular processes, deficiencies, and traits may provide you with insight on how you might be able to live a life less influenced by disease and other health concerns.
Note: I’d also like to be clear that SNPs do not work necessarily through cause and effect. Just because you have a certain gene does not mean you will get a certain type of cancer. But through various studies, participants share certain SNPs or genes in common when diagnosed with a certain deficiency or disease.
The guideline to discovering your SNPs
This below is merely a guideline. By using the below steps as a general guide, you will obtain your genetic information, make sense of your SNPs, and learn what changes you might be able to make to live a better, more informed life.
Again, it is important to reinforce that many SNPs are thought to have a correlation with a deficiency, disease, or condition. The writing is not set in stone. Correlation does not mean causation, and many SNPs are not very well researched.
The outline will consist of three main parts, including:
- Obtaining your genetic information: how to obtain a digital version of your genetic information.
- Making sense of your data (secondary processing): how to make sense of your unique SNPs (and potentially how to tweak your lifestyle choices).
- Interpretation, research, and supplementation: understanding how your SNPs contribute to your health profile, and usually more in-depth ways on supplementing in a way that compliments them.
The workflow basically goes: getting your genetic data in a form you can use elswhere > plugging it into a platform that can highlight more important/relevant SNPs > conduct research into how you can work with your SNPs.
None of this, obviously, is or should be considered medical advice. Talk to your doctor before you make any significant changes to your lifestyle, and if you’re supplementing anything new, let them know about it.
Also, for the sake of good practice and privacy, I’ve fudged a few of my genotypes for this particular article.
Finally, there are a lot of ‘Notes’ throughout the following article. I want to be sure you understand the risks along the way, including privacy concerns, if you choose to supplement something or change your diet.
So, still interested after all the warnings? Let’s start.
Obtaining your genetic information
First, you’ll need to have a digital copy of your genetic information.
During a promotion, I swiped up a 23andme health and ancestry kit for around $100. If you go this route, make sure it’s ancestry and health, since there are two versions (ancestry comes standard, health costs extra). It requires you to submit a saliva sample and send it through carrier to one of 23andme’s testing facilities.
Note 1: As of 2018, 23andme has begun a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, who has purchased a $300 million stake in the company. Although cancer research is the supposed reason behind this, I would say be very skeptical. If you’d like to increase your level of privacy, submit a fake name, use a VPN when accessing the site, etc. I would look at some of the other platforms below and see their current approaches on privacy.
There, they process your saliva sample. After a few weeks (although some have had the misfortune of waiting months during busy seasons), you’ll be notified that your data is ready to review online.
Although I find them convenient and rather user friendly, 23andme is not the only DNA testing and processing company. In fact, there are many more options today than several years ago.
As I’ve said before, you might want to consider another platform if you are concerned with privacy, as 23andme shared genetic data (supposedly all anonymous) with GlaxoSmithKline.
Some of the most popular options with high adoption include:
- New Life Genetics
- Living DNA
- Pathway Geonomics
Note 2: Be aware that not all DNA services play well together. DNA services can connect through their APIs to the more reliable secondary genetic data processors (the next step), but not all of them play nice together.
I used 23andme primarily because they’re the premier genetics testing company at the moment. This means an overwhelming number of secondary processors support their API or allow you to upload your DNA data without much hassle.
Be sure that the services you wish to use are all compatible.
Note 3: Be sure to stay updated on company policies regarding your data and how it is shared or used. One fear is that your data may, some day, be given to insurance companies to weigh your health risk, deny you certain types of coverage, etc. Although this sounds like a work of fiction, it isn’t all too far-fetched. Even after this article is published, stay on top of changes to ensure your data is used and stored in a way in which you are comfortable.
Making sense out of your genetic information (secondary processing)
Most of these genetic testing companies provide insights as part of their product offering. 23andme provides insights on ancestry, risk of developing certain diseases or medical conditions, and interesting/quirky insights on how likely you’re afraid of heights, if you’re likely to have a certain eye colour, thick hair, wet earwax, and more.
I do find some value (even beyond just entertainment wise) in these insights. They’re displayed in a fun, interactive format and do have significant scientific backing.
If you take a 23andme test, you can actually opt-in and learn if you have a known susceptibility for Alzheimer’s or others diseases and conditions.
But even if some of these platforms test for more troublesome disease susceptibilities, most of the data is a little superficial. This is due to a number of factors such as the amount of SNP research or if they’re legally allowed to display/advise information to their customers.
If we want (potentially) actionable data, we have to go deeper.
In 2018, we now have a ton of secondary processing platforms for your raw genetic data. Most of them highlight more significant SNPs/ones more relevant to you, as opposed to a massive list you can’t even begin to weed through.
I’ve listed some of my favourites below.
- GodeGen: Free. Often touted as the free version of Promethease. One of my favourites, and is generally accepted as being anonymous.
- Promethease: $5 for data processing. Highly trusted, both due to accuracy and privacy.
- StrateGene: $45 for a report. Well reviewed and focuses on reducing the amount of noise of irrelevant SNPs.
- FoundMyFitness: A newer platform that focuses on a narrow, yet well researched, set of SNPs.
- LiveWello: One of the oldest, more popular platforms.
Most of these platforms are paid services (except for CodeGen). You can expect to pay anywhere from $5 to $99 for them to process your genetic data.
Most primary genetic data testing platforms (23andme, etc.) let you search through your genes for specific variants. However, the appeal of these secondary platforms, however, is that they narrow down SNPs you should be concerned about (usually labeled ‘bad’), making supplementation and diet side of things more approachable.
If you would like to get straight answers immediately, try a platform like FoundMyFitness that is affordable and offers a solid report, focusing more on well-researched genes and quality over quantity. StrateGene is also a great platform to generate reports to help you understand how the genes work and what you can do to optimize your lifestyle accordingly.
If you would prefer to take the cheaper and more adventurous route, keep reading. My recommendation is to choose CodeGen as your secondary report processor. You’ll still gain some free insights into what SNPs and genotypes you have, but you have to do some of the research yourself (basically Googling).
Note 1: The same spiel goes along with secondary processors. Please read their privacy policies and see how your data may be used in the future, if at all. There are a TON out there, but very few I’ve come to trust.
How to perform interpretation, research, and supplementation with secondary processing
Depending on what testing website you used, you’ll get insights that begin to tell your genetic story. As long as you’ve used one of the mainstream websites to process your data, your raw genetic data export will let you dive deeper into your genetic info.
1. Go to Codegen.eu and click ‘Start Exploring’. You’ll need to upload your genetic information into the platform (options include 23andme, Ancestry, MyHeritageDNA, Vitagene, WeGene, and Family Tree DNA).
2. Once your data has been uploaded, you’ll need to wait a few minutes. CodeGen needs to convert your bulk genetic information into a more digestible format, connecting the dots and identifying your SNPs/genotypes.
3. Once your information has been uploaded, you can now review your SNPs. During this session, you can click on ‘Main Report’ to review all your SNPs sorted by different variables. Note: Actions like turning off your computer, closing your browser or wiping your cache may end your session. There are no user accounts on CodeGen, so you’ll just need to upload the data again if you lose your session.
4. Instead of diving straight into specific searches for, let’s say, cancer susceptibility, start by reviewing the ‘Risks’ variable dropdown. Under this menu option on the top right, we can review SNPs that have been tagged as ‘Good’, ‘Bad’, and under ‘Warning’.
‘Good’ are SNPs that are associated with positive traits, such as increased lifespan or reduced disease risk. ‘Bad’ refers to SNPs that are associated with a susceptibility to diseases or deficiencies. ‘Warning’ refers to SNPs that are generally considered negative, however they are, to some degree, irrelevant or insignificant. This is due to the fact that ‘Warning’ SNPs are under an impact value of 3.0, meaning they aren’t very actionable. Consider them as merely ‘interesting’.
5. Start with reviewing your ‘Good’ SNPs, your ‘Bad’, then your ‘Warnings’, if you’re interested. Next, check out the ‘Frequency’ dropdown for insight into your statistically common, uncommon, rare, and very rare traits. It’s really interesting to see what percentage of the sampeld population shares some of your specific genotypes.
6. Head over to the ‘Dashboard’ on the main menu. Here you’ll have access to the easy hanging fruit: the genotypes and information most relevant/impactful to you. Under ‘Your Top Genotypes’, you can see your top 10 SNPs that likely have the most bearing on your current or future health. These are traits with the highest ‘Impact Scores’ (as mentioned previously; for example, a genotype might be in a green box and say ‘good 4.2’, meaning it is a positive genotype and it’s impact score is 4.2, meaning significant).
Impact scores above 4.0 mean that these genes may have a bigger impact than your gender does on a particular set of traits, but may still not be extremely significant. It’s a strange way of thinking about it, but it serves as a decent way of indicating the significance of a particular genotype and if it’s worth digging deeper into.
7. On the Dashboard page, you can also view your ‘Top Established Negative Associations’. These are negative traits listed from most significant to least significant. This is an easy way to see if there are particular flags or indicators for a certain deficiency or susceptibility.
Also of note is the ‘Vitamin and Nutrient’ section, which highlights various vitamins and nutrients you may be deficient in due to your genetics. You can even develop a custom formulation through CodeGen’s partner, Vitamin Lab (no referral or commercial component exists in this partnership, to note).
8. One of my favourite sections is the ‘Fitness’ section on the Dashboard. Clicking on any of the categories gives you a distribution graph of where your collective known SNPs place you on this graph against CodeGen’s population (users who have uploaded their information).
Generally, if any of your scores are above 0, they are positive associations (0.6 might mean increased strength compared to the average, for example), and if your score is below 0, it would be considered below the average. Again, these aren’t 100% accurate; indicators like predicted strength are influenced far more by your actual level of achieved fitness and not a certain genotype.
And that’s it! Basically, the general idea here is to review the SNPs as highlighted in CodeGen’s Dashboard and Frequency and Risk sections, since these have been found to be statistically significant (to varying degrees) than the vast number of your other SNPs. Using machine learning, CodeGen has found that some genotypes are more impactful than others across populations.
Note 1: Don’t stress about your genotypes. As negative as some SNP variants might seem, these are just genotypes associated with the susceptibility of certain diseases. They aren’t saying you will get any disease. We’ve simply found correlations between them, to varying degrees.
But because you know you may be more susceptible than the general population, you can take small steps where possible to even out your chances.
So how do I make beneficial changes to my lifestyle?
Now that you know you may have certain disease susceptibilities, or may react negatively to a certain compound (I, for example, might not want to have too much saturated fat), you can research those specific genotypes more deeply.
One of my favourite sites to conduct research is SNPedia. It’s considered the gold standard when it comes to aggregated SNP data, citing various studies around the world from various time periods.
I also use Google, but refer to a number of genetic databases or sites like Genetic Lifehacks, who has done a fasntic job consolidating insights on how to live with certain genotypes.
I’d like to provide example DNA results and how I might go about supplementing certain vitamins and nutrients, what diet I might be better for me, or what forms of exercise might be most effective.
I have rs7041(T;T), a genotype of the vitamin D binding protein gene. This gene affects the precursor to the vitamin D hormone, as well as activated vitamin D, changing how it is utilized and cleared from my body. People with this genotype have a two-fold chance of having a vitamin D deficiency.
What would I do in this case, especially since it’s more significant than the majority of my other ‘negative’ traits? I know vitamin D is important for wakefulness, immune support and mood, so I want to ensure I’m getting enough.
Bringing in my physician is my first thought. A blood test with vitamin D level indicators would be a good first step, letting me know for sure if I have a deficiency in the first place.
Why make a big deal about having the genotype if I don’t actually have a deficiency. After all, correlation does not mean causation.
If I choose to get a blood test and find that I do have lower levels, I’d do a little bit of homework to see if there are forms of vitamin D that are more easily absorbed or have a higher bio-availability, supplementing it regularly. I know some amount is absorbed through the skin via sun exposure, but it’s nice to be able to reliably supplement if I can. Plus, vitamin D pills are very cost effective.
I have rs9939609(A;T), which is a genotype for the FTO gene. This genotype deals with the fat mass and obesity-associated protein, which is a known risk marker for obesity and type-2 diabetes. This is due to higher levels of ghrelin, which can rise as a result of overeating (due to a lack of satiation).
After a bit of research, I’ve learnt that I don’t even need to supplement anything to reduce my ghrelin levels. Controlling those levels comes as a result of increased fiber and protein intake while reducing an intake of high saturated fat foods (replacing them with polysaturated fats instead). Also, ensuring that I get enough sleep will help stabilize ghrelin levels.
In short, lifestyle choices that are generally accepted as good ‘commonsense’ (getting enough sleep, not overeating, eating lower levels of saturated fats, etc.) may help me curb my chances of type-2 diabetes and obesity.
I hope this article helped to equip you with a few tools on your self-exploration journey. Everyday, we’re getting better at understanding the role of our genetic traits in our overall health, and I’m excited to see what tomorrow will bring.
I’ve said this quite a few times, but would like to continue to stress that despite our growing understanding, we still don’t know very much regarding our DNA. I wouldn’t want you to take your DNA and think you’re likely to suddenly develop intestinal cancer tomorrow.
Consult with your physician if you have any concerns. It’s important to get an outside perspective.
We still can’t point at many genotypes and say with 100% certainty that they’re responsible for certain diseases. We must use caution when evaluating this information, since there’s lots of room for error and bias. We must take this information with a grain of salt and approach it responsibly.