More and more people are turning to home DNA kits for insight on their health and wellbeing. These tests let you skip the doctor’s office in favor of getting sending a simple swab kit in the mail and getting results straight to your inbox. Convenient? Definitely! Worth it? Eh… Keep reading.
First, let me clarify that this is a post about health insights. Not about the government collecting your DNA for criminal investigations. If you’re worried about your DNA being collected to be potentially used against you or your family someday, do not voluntarily give it away. Personally, I’m all for upping the amount of DNA in the system to pull from and catch criminals. So I sent mine in!! Okay, sorry for that side bar, but there will be a comment about that, so I wanted to address it and move on!
There are a variety of different tests such as 23andMe and Helix being among the biggest contenders in the space. They each promise different insights based on genetic variations found in your sample. Insights promised include clues to nutritional deficiencies, disease risk, training potential and emotional well-being. I admit, I was super intrigued to get a health profile based specifically on me. I opted for Helix, a less pricey starter test that allows the consumer to pick and choose tests based on what results their interested in. I have to say, the whole thing was a bit… elusive and vague about what you’d actually get back. I did it anyway. After getting my home kit, I spit, mailed it back and created my online profile. The results would take weeks to be posted. It felt like forever, but eventually, there they were!
It was like opening a birthday present and you were expecting a diamond bracelet and got a blender instead. I was instantly underwhelmed and disappointed. What did my DNA reveal? My grip strength, how likely I am to experience asparagus pee, hair color (can I not just look in a mirror?), if I’m a morning person (I’m 34, pretty sure I’ve got that one figured out by now), what size mosquito bite I’m likely to receive… Seriously. I felt pretty cheated and annoyed. After a chat with Helix (whose rep was very nice and honestly had an apologetic tone – as if he knew the test was junk), I learned the DNA passport is a ‘fun’ insight meant to just dip your toes into what insights DNA can provide. Okay, I get that the initial kit is a starter and that is why there are a plethora of specific insights you can add on, for an additional fee. I dove in further opting to add the Mayo Clinic Gene Guide and CTS Performance Insights.
Without boring you with the specifics, I found the Mayo test to be extremely limited, only testing for around 10 variants that were not in any medications or diseases specific to me. The CTS performance provide testing for things I would actually want to know about including fast twitch muscle proportion, endurance ability, iron levels, sodium levels, and injury risk. However, out of 20 tested items, only 3 came up as higher or lower and the rest were labeled ‘typical’. It is hard to take away any insight from a result showing ‘typical’. When I chatted with the CTS coach (performance coach, not a trained genetic counselor) he told me that well ‘most people are typical’. Thanks? Basically, if you’re hoping to gain any unique insights, well you’re not likely to get them from your DNA, at least not the way it is currently evaluated. The CTS coach went on to relate a few of the tested markers to environmental risks. For example, I tested higher for a risk of osteoarthritis so he told me to value injury prevention and recovery techniques. Solid advice sure, but any athlete should do this whether they test at high, low or normal risk as the lifestyle will be a much better predictor of how that plays out.
Beyond that I showed a positive variant for Lactose Intolerance. I include milk in my diet almost daily, but do not do well with much cheese and I’ll pay for ice cream. I have excluded dairy completely before but found my body craves it during periods of heavy training. I also experienced no GI, skin or mood difference when I was off dairy. Conversely, I tested normal for stress fracture risk and iron levels. Wrong-o. A tibial stress fracture took me from ultra-running to cycling and I’ve battled iron deficiency anemia for a decade. The results can be misleading and misunderstood easily. If you see that you test normal for something, it does not mean you are totally immune to it happening!
The best summary I can give for genetic testing is that it’s the best way to learn things about yourself that you already know.
Until genetic testing becomes much more advanced, I suggest skipping it. At this time, there are other tests that provide metrics with more useful and meaningful implications such as a bodpod test for accurate body fat % or full blood panel to look at current status of vitamins, minerals and hormone levels.
Read my article about useful tests HERE.
Read great related article from Bicycling Magazine.