Two months ago, I ordered a DNA test through 23andMe, the personal genomics service.
Mostly, I was curious. My daughter had DNA testing done through the same company at the suggestion of her doctor, and when she showed me her results, I kept wondering which genes came from me and which came from her father, or both. My interest was piqued not only by the ancestry chart that came with the results but also by the listing of gene variants, since these can be linked to certain health conditions and traits.
As a holistic health coach, I was also intrigued by the relatively new field of nutrigenomics, which is the study of how people's genetic makeup interacts with their diet.
In my daughter’s case, she gained critical information on how her body reacts to certain foods and what nutrients she should consider supplementing with, according to her genetic predisposition. (She has a somewhat common variant, MTHFR, which affects the processing of amino acids, the building blocks of protein.)
So I eventually broke down and ordered the $199 test for both my husband and myself.
What I Discovered From My DNA
As I anxiously awaited my kit, which includes a test tube that needs to be filled with saliva, I read as much as I could about genetics. When I received the email with my results, I was so excited that I spent the entire day doing research.
I first focused on my homozygous gene variations, which means I have it from both parents and might be more likely to be affected by it. Then I looked at my heterozygous gene variations, those that only came from one parent.
My results listed DNA matches: 899 matches, to be exact, from first to fifth cousins. Sullivan was the top surname (funny, because nowhere in my family tree did I notice a Sullivan). While I wasn’t surprised when the test showed that I was 68 percent of Irish/U.K. descent (I was raised Irish Catholic), I didn’t expect other findings: It turns out I am also 7 percent Ashkenazi Jew. Surprises like these certainly provide great conversation and speculation at family gatherings as we now try to ascertain which parent is part Ashkenazi!
I was thrilled and overwhelmed by the amount of information at my fingertips.
But I wanted to find out even more. So I ran the DNA test results through a website, Genetic Genie, which is a free website that uses your DNA raw data to provide further information. (23AndMe now only provides very limited health information, but there are a number of online services that offer more analysis.)
Within this report, I noticed some clusters in the methylation category, which is related to the gene mutation that also affects my daughter. I then continued to run my results through an additional website, Promethease, for a fee of $5. This company builds a personal DNA report for you by relating your data to scientific findings associated with DNA genotypes.
Through this report, I showed up as having a gene that sprinters might have (questioning that one!), as it causes fast muscle twitch. I also found out I have a gene that is suggestive of an increased ability to accurately read emotions through facial expressions, I am more stimulated by caffeine, and I am likely able to digest milk as an adult. Not life-changing really — but interesting!
It's pretty amazing how my DNA results also confirmed what I had already suspected. For example, I have gone without gluten for three years now, not because it's the latest fad but because it works better for my body and brain. One of my daughters is also gluten-free due to autoimmune conditions, which have been in remission since she adopted the diet.
Sure enough, we both carry the gene variation that is closely related to celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Even though having the gene does not mean someone will necessarily be gluten intolerant or have celiac disease, it is a piece of the puzzle to consider.
Further, my DNA profile matched with that of my first cousin, who lives out of state and is relatively unknown to me. She had used the same testing company, so I sent her a message through Facebook. She was enthusiastic upon connecting, and I found that she is also gluten intolerant and showed the same gene variation.
As we shared more DNA information, we also found family trends (for example, our children have similar physical characteristics), and compared family heritage stories regarding our Irish immigrant ancestors. At this point I was so happy, I started pushing other family members to also do the test.
Still, not all of the "fun facts" I found out through Promethease were positive. For example, I have the APOE e4 variant, which is associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's. Instead of being discouraged, though, I put this information in the "good to know" category and consider it just another reason to make sure I get adequate sleep, exercise, and nutrition (with lots of omega-3s!).
I haven't discussed my results with my physician yet, but I am curious about the reaction I will get.
Overall, though, no matter what the DNA says, I know the best thing I can do is continue to live a healthy life. Based on my experience and education as a holistic health coach, I believe that having a clean lifestyle, minimizing toxic exposure (food and environmental), and consuming nutrient-dense food can have a positive effect on gene expression.
Some people argue that they don’t want to know about their genetic predisposition, and I understand that. But to me, it was something that I approached in an optimistic and opportunistic way. I'm using the information about my genes to motivate myself to live a healthier life.
If you have concerns about your own DNA results, please consult a geneticist or a doctor.
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