You’ve probably heard a lot about genetic self-testing kits lately. These are NOT the genetic tests your doctor administers, but rather tests you can do yourself and send away to be analyzed for an insider track to what makes you, well, YOU. In the past few years, tons of companies globally have been popping up offering to analyze your DNA for fitness, disease-risk, ancestry, or other purposes. Genetic testing is appealing because you can find out so much about yourself that was previously unavailable. Your individual and unique DNA is analyzed, so the results you receive are unique to you. BUT there are some VERY important things to remember before you spit into a tube. So, here is the breakdown of what genetic testing is and different types of tests out there, how they work, and the pitfalls and limitations of these tests, so that you can decide if it’s right for you!
What is genetic testing?
Genetic self-testing analyzes our DNA, which is a unique fingerprint containing millions of genes that determine different traits about us. This includes everything from eye color and physical appearance to the way we metabolize foods or respond to stress. Mutations (changes), also called poly-morphisms (CSNIPS in the code if you want to get technical!) in those genes have been shown to be associated with an increased risk of acquiring some conditions and illnesses. Our DNA is made up of genes received from our parents, and ancestors, so some test kits look at the location, race, nationality and kinship aspects of your make-up. Remember genetic self-testing doesn’t isn’t showing you HOW your habits are affecting you, it shows you the blueprint you are working with. Your habits can, however, affect HOW that blueprint is expressed. Think of it like hiring an interior designer for your house; different styles and patterns could create completely different spaces in the same house!
What are the limits?
The human genome- aka a map of all the genes that we have, is still a process of discovery. Research and testing are still ongoing to discover which genes, or variations of genes, are associated with different traits or disease states. Much of the testing that is done now will test for specific genes that have been thoroughly studied. Some companies that provide these self-tests will also keep your information on file in case new discoveries are made in that area. They might, however, also sell your data to marketing, advertising or other industries. This is happening now with some companies. You must read the very very fine print before you swab! Another limit is that your lifestyle habits, emotional health and relationships will all change and impact the expression of that blueprint, so while it can give you a clue, it can definitely NOT predict the future! (a.k.a. Being at risk for a disease does NOT mean you will get it).
Side note: The genetic self-test kit that We at Vibrant Nutrition run in our clinic, Nutrigenomix, certainly does not keep, store or sell your data (it’s double encrypted and destroyed, so they don’t even know it’s you!), is accurate and perfect for questions about metabolism, nutrition related deficiencies and advantages and fitness!!!
Types of Testing
In the last few years DNA testing has blown up to include much more than traditional fingerprint or disease risk tests that we associate it with. Here are the main categories of currently available genetic tests.
These kits test for your genetic risk of developing common diseases such as Macular Degeneration, Celiac’s Disease or Alzheimer’s. Often conditions such as these are associated with a specific gene mutation that is present in those who have already developed the illness. Risk is an important term here though- not everyone who has the gene will go on to develop these diseases. It can, however, be helpful to know so that you can make lifestyle changes appropriately to reduce your risk. (Ex- if you’re at risk of Macular Degeneration, quitting smoking so you don’t go blind!).
This has become immensely popular recently by the brand Ancestry and Me. These tests compare your DNA to older DNA samples to find clues about your ancestry in terms of geographical origin, race, and connections between families (royalty is a popular one). Interestingly, when some tests were compared to each other in a small study in the US, the same DNA used for all kits showed different ancestral roots for the same genetic material. That is suspect and needs to be investigated! Also, the data you are handing over in these self-tests, especially in the U.S. are being mined by marketing companies, advertisers and the government to track health, and lifestyle patterns, migration around the world. If that’s a problem for you, be careful with which companies you’re using.
These are similar to ancestry but apply specifically to another person. Two DNA samples are compared to determine similarities. The most well-known of these types of tests are paternity tests, but they can determine a number of associated family relationships. These tests are what you may remember watching on the classic daytime trash-talk show Maury Povich “he’s not the father” tests you have watched for the past 20 years on T.V!
General Health & Lifestyle
The newest wave of genetic testing is much more applicable to everyday life. Genetic markers can reveal a ton of information about the way we sleep, eat, exercise, and more. This information is individual to you and so it can help you make health choices that will work better with your body. This includes sleeping more, choosing a skincare regimen, exercising more optimally to burn calories or build muscle. This is a rapidly growing industry as more information becomes available.
There is definitely a market here for athletes and pseudo-athletes who want to get an advantage and learn if they have any “Achilles Heels” that are affecting their training and ability to perform better. And literally it could be their Achilles Heels! Genetic information can show if you have an increased risk of tearing this tendon, which can be a completely debilitating injury. These tests can also show if you have an advantage for strength or endurance training, what your motivation for exercise is like (low or high) and how your body’s metabolism is affected by the exercise itself compared to other genetic patterns.
Genetic nutrition self-tests can tell you how well you process certain food groups or ingredients- such as protein or vitamins, or how your body manages weight. These tests are so fun to reveal the best ways to nourish and compliment your genetic blueprint! They can also tell you about certain food sensitivities, such as caffeine, lactose, or gluten. They give you a heads up about which vitamins and minerals you have a harder time processing, such as B12, Vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium and iron. One of the main tests in this category is Nutrigenomix, which was launched at the University of Toronto in 2012. We run this test all the time at Vibrant Nutrition, because we know it works. This kit tests 44 genetic markers for metabolism and fitness, and results are explained by a health professional such a dietitian so that they can be implemented into your life.
Overall, genetic testing is a new and exciting field in health, which continues to grow as new genes and variations are discovered. It can be very useful if you have struggled with health problems or patterns that have not been explained. If you have felt frustrated by changes and tricks you are trying that just are NOT working, or are constantly depleted in terms of nutrients, these tests may be helpful. Remember, you are NOT looking into a crystal ball of your future life when you self-test with a genetic kit, because lifestyle actions and patterns you have daily, including your emotional health and mindset, affect the expression of your blueprint. But its a great heads-up.
If you’re interested in nutrition-related genetic testing such as Nutrigenomix, check out our info page here or get in touch!