23 and Me Isn’t Just Ancestry. It Can Clue You in on Your Health

23 and Me Isn’t Just Ancestry. It Can Clue You in on Your Health
Photo: Courtesy of 23 and Me

I’m a light sleeper and am sensitive to dairy. I love running — just not marathons — and start my days with a cup (or two…) of coffee. This is sounding like a dating profile, but it’s actually a genetic test. It turns out these idiosyncrasies about my health are all part of my DNA make-up. And more importantly, they could be clues to my individual health risks.

You’ve probably heard of 23 and Me, a health and ancestry test that includes reports on your genetic health risks (like late-onset Alzheimer’s), wellness, carrier status and physical traits. 23 and Me is named after the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make up your deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). And while it’s fascinating to use that science to determine exactly where my family originates from, I was more curious what all of it meant for my health.

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23 and Me Isn’t Just Ancestry. It Can Clue You in on Your Health
Photo: Courtesy of 23 and Me

23 and Me: Understanding Our DNA

Unlike other genetic tests that often require blood work, 23 and Me draws up these reports from a small saliva sample that you send back to their lab. After six to eight weeks of processing and analyzing your saliva, you’ll receive results via email.

Jhulianna Cintron, a product specialist at 23 and Me, says, “We believe people should have the opportunity to access, understand and benefit from the human genome. That could be learning about their genetic ancestry, what health risks they may have or finding that their propensity for an extra cup of coffee may actually be their chromosomes.”

But before diving into what makes me “me,” first a refresher on what exactly is DNA. Your DNA is found in almost every cell in your body and is comprised of sequences of small units that are represented by the letters A, T, C and G. These DNA sequences are packaged into 23 pairs of chromosomes with instructions on how our bodies absorb food and build muscle fibers. For every pair of chromosomes, you inherit one from your mother and one from your father. Humans basically have the same DNA sequences, but the differences between us are variants that we inherit from our parents. These variants include health conditions, physical traits and ancestries.

“With ancestry, it’s less about how we differ and more about our similarities,” Cintron says. “We compare customers’ DNA to 31 reference populations from regions around the world and look for similarities.”

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The Reports: Carrier Status and Health Risks

I was amazed by the details of the results. There are four reports on genetic health risks, four ancestry reports, five wellness reports, 40+ carrier status reports and 15+ traits reports. The carrier status reports show whether you’re a carrier for rare diseases, like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia or Tay-Sachs. Fortunately, my carrier status reports didn’t detect any variants for rare diseases.

Dr. Jeffrey Pollard, director of medical affairs at 23 and Me, says, “The 23 and Me carrier status reports tell individuals about variants that likely don’t affect their health, but could affect the health of their future family. Being a ‘carrier’ means that the individual carries one genetic variant for a condition, which they could pass down to their children.”

On the other hand, the genetic health risk reports tell you about genetic variants that may increase your risk for developing certain health conditions, such as late-onset Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

“Knowing one’s family history of a condition can provide insights into their own risk. However, for many conditions, genetics amounts to just one part of a person’s total risk. Not everyone with a genetic risk variant or family history will develop the associated health condition,” Dr. Pollard explains.

Family History vs. Diet and Lifestyle

My maternal grandfather suffered from Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, but my tests didn’t reveal any variants. While the reports show that I don’t have genetic variants for these conditions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t develop them. Diet, lifestyle and environmental factors also play a role in my health risks, Dr. Pollard says. My chances of developing heart disease, diabetes and dementia increase, if I don’t exercise, eat healthy and am in a constant state of stress, for example.

“Other factors, such as things that have happened to an individual over their lifetime, often contribute to an individual’s overall risk. In some cases, individuals may be able to reduce risk by managing these non-genetic factors,” Dr. Pollard says.

Dr. Pollard stresses that while 23 and Me and other genetic tests provide carrier information, they don’t diagnose health conditions. If your results show that you have variants for a disease, don’t freak out. It just means you have some health risks, but they can all be reduced through lifestyle changes and with the guidance of medical professionals.

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23 and Me: Understanding Our DNA
Graphics: Courtesy of Tiffany Ayuda

My Ancestry: The Far East

One of the most interesting parts of my tests is the unique story of my ancestry. My results showed that I’m 99.2 percent East Asian and Native American, 0.7 percent South Asian and 0.1 percent Sub-Saharan African. Both of my parents are Filipino and were born in the Philippines. But my results show that I had a third, fourth, fifth or sixth great-grandparent who was 100 percent Chinese and was born between 1750 and 1840. East Asia includes Japan, Korea, China, Mongolia and the Yakut people of eastern Russia. My results not only revealed that I have some Chinese ancestry, but that I also have some broadly East Asian blood. So much for being a true Flip.

But understanding my bloodlines isn’t just for trivia and fun guessing games. “By knowing your ethnicity, you are able to determine which conditions and variants you are at a higher risk of having,” Cintron says.

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23 and Me Isn’t Just Ancestry. It Can Clue You in on Your Health

Wellness: I’m a Sprinter and Most Likely Lactose Intolerant

If you’ve ever wondered why you turn beet red after a cocktail or are a light sleeper, the wellness reports reveal the unique health quirks that shape who you are. The good news is that I don’t have the “Asian glow,” like some of my other East Asian family and friends. The bad news is that I probably won’t be able to keep mac and cheese as my favorite cheat meal for very long.

It’s not too surprising that my results showed that I’m most likely lactose intolerant. Many East Asians are deficient in lactase, the enzyme necessary to break down lactose — the sugar found in milk. I love my ice cream and pizza, but I do notice that I don’t digest dairy as well, especially if I have too much of it. Not too long ago, I started using unsweetened almond milk, instead of cow’s milk.

The wellness reports also revealed that my weight is likely to remain steady whether I’m on a diet that’s high or low in saturated fat (with the same number of calories). This means that if I went all in on a cheeseburger and fries, it wouldn’t affect my weight very much. But it’s obviously still important to limit such indulgences to prevent heart disease.

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23 and Me Isn’t Just Ancestry. It Can Clue You in on Your Health

No Sleep for the Sprinter

In terms of sleep, I’m likely to keep stirring to a minimum (with fewer than 10 limb movements per hour of sleep), but the reports also show that I’m less likely to be a deep sleeper. This helps explain why I find myself waking up in the middle of the night, whether it’s from a car alarm outside or hearing someone getting up in the room next door.

And, as a distance runner, I was surprised to find out that my muscle composition is actually that of a sprinter. Research shows that endurance athletes tend to have more slow-twitch muscle, while sprinters have more fast-twitch muscles. Fast-twitch muscle fibers produce more force than slow-twitch fibers. Every person has a different proportion. So all those 5Ks and half-marathons I’ve done? Maybe my big moment is meant to happen at the sprinter’s blocks instead.

Dr. Pollard explains, “Most sprinters and endurance athletes differ in the composition and the capabilities of their muscles. These differences may be influenced by both training decisions and genetic factors.”

Studies have found that most elite power athletes, including sprinters and throwers, have a specific genetic variant in a gene related to muscle composition, Dr. Pollard adds. The muscle composition report compares you to elite athletes based on this variant. So again, taken with a grain of salt.

As for my morning routine? Interestingly enough, the tests indicated that I’m more likely to consume nine milligrams more caffeine per day than the average person. This explains my love of coffee and why I’m very alert and not a deep sleeper.

RELATED: Should You Drink Coffee Before Your Workout?

So Should You Try 23 and Me?

At $179, the 23 and Me health and ancestry test isn’t cheap (the ancestry-only test costs $79). And you might not gain life-altering insights that will transform the way you eat, sleep and think. But for me, 23 and Me helped solve mysteries about my food sensitivities and how they can be traced to my Chinese bloodline. Plus, it gave me a better picture of whether I’m a carrier for rare diseases that can be passed down.

At the end of the day, information is power. Cintron says, “Individuals can choose to use that information to take a more active role in their health. They can engage in more meaningful discussions with their healthcare provider or simply become more motivated to take steps toward a healthier life.”

You can purchase a 23 and Me health and ancestry test for $179 or an ancestry-only test for $79 here, on Amazon or CVS and Target stores nationwide.

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