As a health editor, I thought I understood how to take care of myself.
Then I got my DNA test results — and learned more than I ever could from a nutritionist or personal trainer.
Syda Productions/ShutterstockLike millions of people, I was surprised by my DNA test results. But it wasn’t some errant traces of Native American in my gene pool that threw me for a loop. In fact, my ethnic breakdown was almost exactly as expected: mostly European. It was the report’s seemingly clairvoyant ability to unlock my genetic code and present the information in an actionable way that impressed me—and helped me change my life for the better.
Truth be told, I was afraid to take the Vitagene DNA test at first. Do I really want to know whether I’m inheriting breast cancer from my mother? I thought. I’ve avoided the BRCA mutation test (and opted for proactive vigilance) because I don’t think I do want to know. But representatives for the company assured me my results wouldn’t be quite so morbid. The test would predict which ailments I’m predisposed to, but it wouldn’t focus on things like gene mutations. The company’s objective is to offer a general overview and customized lifestyle solutions. Vitagene promised to deliver a tailor-made exercise and diet plan and a list of very specific supplements just for me, based off of my results. All I had to do was swab my cheek a few times, mail the sample to their lab, and complete an online questionnaire about my family medical history, lifestyle habits, and health goals. All of this—not just my DNA—would factor into my results.
About a month later, I received a link to my (password-protected) results on Vitagene’s website. In some ways, I was astonished (and slightly alarmed) at the information that could be gleaned from just a saliva sample. Vitagene was able to figure out that I’m prone to specific conditions, like joint pain, gut issues, and even skin irritation. (They got that right—I’m notorious for my extremely sensitive and rash-prone skin). But it also knew that I am a reluctant exerciser and I love to snack. It knew that I could train like a bodybuilder and still barely get a six-pack, because my “muscles may be less responsive to strength training.” All of this is written in my genetic code, which was astonishing to me.
When I read about my caffeine sensitivity, though, I was dubious. How could I—a person who can down a mug of coffee before bed and have no problem getting to sleep—be sensitive to caffeine? So I posed my question to Julie Chen, MD, an integrative medicine physician on Vitagene’s advisory board. “Overall disease risk is a combination of genetic and lifestyle risk,” Dr. Chen said. “So even if your genetic risk is high, managing your lifestyle risks can help keep your overall risk down.” In other words, because I drink a lot of coffee, I’m not actively sensitive to caffeine. By the same logic, I can manipulate other unsavory aspects of my DNA by adjusting my lifestyle habits.
So I decided to implement some changes according to my Vitagene health plan. Here are four things I’ve learned so far:
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I’m indeed addicted to caffeine. For a week, I stopped drinking coffee, and not just in the morning. I went cold turkey—no java whatsoever. The first couple of days were fine; I missed coffee but didn’t need it. By about the third day, while sitting at my computer, my eyes started to roll back and my lids became heavy. I had a tension headache. All I really wanted to do was crawl back into bed. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, these were normal reactions to caffeine withdrawal. This reminder that caffeine is actually a drug was a bit disconcerting, after all, most people I know drink coffee every day. I knew these reactions would pass once my body got used to not having coffee, but did I really want to give it up for good? Ultimately, I couldn’t find enough compelling evidence that caffeine was all that bad for me, and there’s plenty of evidence that it’s good.
Vitamin D is a lifesaver (for me). My test results happened to coincide with a visit to my endocrinologist’s office. She told me she’d be testing my vitamin D levels while I was there, which reminded me that my Vitagene health report recommended vitamin D as one of my necessary supplements. “About 3/4 of the U.S. adult population is thought to be deficient in vitamin D,” my report said, and apparently my DNA put me in the 75 percent. It turned out my levels were so low, I required a prescription-strength supplement, which I’ve been taking for a month. The benefits are impossible to ignore—my mood is more stable, I have more energy, and I sleep more soundly than usual. I’m glad I showed my Vitagene health report to a doctor before just picking up my own supplements, though — it can be dangerous to take the wrong amount of vitamin D (or any supplement, for that matter). Be sure to read this first before taking vitamin D supplements.
My body does better without carbs. Pasta may be one of my goto dinner options, but my metabolism begs to differ. According to my Vitagene health plan, I “may metabolize carbohydrates slower compared to others.” Simple carbohydrates get a bad rap because the body converts them into glucose, which can lead to conditions like obesity and diabetes — neither of which I suffer from… yet. So, for a week, I did the unthinkable: I stopped eating pasta, white bread, and baked goods—the biggest simple-carb culprits out there. And this one was worth it for one exciting reason: my stomach appeared to get flatter! Apparently, it wasn’t my imagination. The bad microbes are the ones that cause your gut to bloat, and when you starve them of sugar, the good microbes take over. Color me convinced.
I’m built for intensity, not endurance… apparently. For a few weeks, I decided to follow my Vitagene report’s recommendations for high-intensity exercise. “You may perform power activities better than endurance activities,” is how my health plan put it, and told me to skip long jogs on the treadmill and focus on things like squats, lunges, and push-ups—exercises that require shorter, more intense bursts of activity. And, though I can rock a deep lunge, I can’t do a push-up to save my life. The truth is I find most types exercise challenging — aerobics included—even when I’m very fit. I’ll stick it out, though, as consistency is the name of the game here—and apparently, I’m more likely to see results from this type of workout style and it may even help me look younger. Here’s how HIIT keeps your metabolism going.
If you want to test your DNA and learn how to live a healthier life, you can buy a Vitagene kit for about $100—or you can send the company your DNA test results from another company, like Ancestry, and they’ll provide you with a health plan for just $49. But remember: though the report is illuminating, it shouldn’t be a substitute for medical, fitness, and nutrition professionals. I think of my health plan as more as a navigational tool—one that can help my doctors do their job even better.
Read on to find out 12 things your mother’s health can reveal about you.