Ever wonder whether your body would respond better to long cardio sessions, as opposed to high-intensity workouts? Or if the key to improving your health might be a low-sodium diet as opposed to a sugar-free plan?
It turns out the answers could be in your genes.
Delving Into Your DNA
Genetic testing is a booming industry, with the global market for DNA decoding kits set to hit $230 million by 2018. But as genetic testing grows in popularity, researchers are becoming increasingly aware that a person’s genetic fate isn’t set in stone. Epigenetics is the study of how certain genes can be “turned on” or “turned off” depending on lifestyle choices. And the field is gaining increasing attention in the health world.
“It’s clear exercise leads to epigenetic changes that seem favorable for things like metabolism and glucose sensitivity. But we don’t know the exact mechanisms behind these changes yet,” says Dr. Joel Dudley, a director of biomedical informatics at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
He adds, “There are compounds in food that will cause epigenetic changes but it’s not clear again exactly what, or how these changes are going to influence your health.”
“It’s clear exercise leads to epigenetic changes that seem favorable for things like metabolism and glucose sensitivity.”
As more information becomes available on epigenetics, an increasing number of companies are leaping at the chance to interpret your genes and offer corresponding health advice — for a price.
One of the most well-known personal genetics services, 23andMe, launched its business by providing people with ancestry, data and personalized health reports based on their genes. Yet, in 2013, the FDA demanded the company halt its individualized health analyses. They claimed 23andMe had failed to prove the reliability of its DNA kits. Now undergoing FDA review, the company currently offers consumers only raw, interpreted genetic data, and information about ancestry.
Genetic Health, 2.0
In the meantime, other companies are cropping up to stake a claim in the gene analysis marketplace. But rather than relying on DNA samples, one company called ph360 is using facial and body analysis to give people clues about their health.
For $19, users can log onto the company’s web site, ph360.me, and fill out a personal profile. Taking about 20 to 30 minutes to complete, the assessment requires data on everything from thigh circumference and foot length, to finger length and earlobe shape. Family health history and lifestyle are also taken into account.
Relying on algorithms that the company says took more than a decade to develop, the site compiles and analyzes this information to come up with predictions about a person’s health. Certain clues can indicate whether or not users may be predisposed to various diseases or health issues.
Rather than relying on DNA samples, one company called ph360 is using facial and body analysis to give people clues about their health.
According to some findings, “someone who is shorter has a higher risk of coronary heart disease; someone that has more fat around their trunk or upper legs [is at a higher] risk of cardio-metabolic issues,” says founder and CEO of ph360 Matt Riemann. “In the health risks and ancestry section, if that person has a family history indicating heart disease, [or] if the environment they’ve spent the last few months in has pollutants in the air and waterways, that all increases risk of heart disease.”
Once a user completes his or her profile, they will then receive a list of health recommendations, encompassing diet, fitness, mental health, and more. Some of the suggestions include exercise routines tailored to a person’s body type, or tips on how to cut back on dietary ingredients like sodium or alcohol.
Research has demonstrated the undeniable influence that lifestyle factors, such as obesity, stress, or a sedentary lifestyle, can have on a person’s risk of experiencing conditions like heart disease, according to Dr. Lena Cheng, a member of Ph360’s advisory board. “By substantially changing your lifestyle, such as diet and exercise, you are able to influence the way your genes are expressed and, therefore, influence your chance of developing conditions such as heart disease,” says Cheng.
A Cautious Approach
Dudley warns that the science on epigenetics is still in the exploratory phase — and that it’s too soon for sites to claim that certain changes will definitely lead to positive health results.
“Because we are so early in the science of wellness there are not, in my opinion, many companies out there that are reputable in terms of having a firm basis in good science,” Dudley says. “However, I think if you ask me that same question in one year I will be able to name off a number of companies.”
He advises consumers to make sure that any wellness companies clearly reference scientific research to back up their claims.
Do you want to know what your genes say about your health? Tell us how you feel about this new technology in the comments.