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Monday, September 9, 2019

Atlas Biomed: DNA Test Review

Another post about genetics!

You are likely aware that direct-to-consumer DNA tests are all the rage right now. There are companies like 23andme, Ancestry.com, Ancestry,ca, etc. These ones focus primarily on ancestry (obviously!). A few years ago I did 23andme for that reason. I was pretty sure I wouldn't find any surprises in my ancestry but was curious anyways. The results were, well, unsurprising. It told me I was 99.6% Ashkenazi Jewish and 0.4 percent 'other' European. But through the database, I connected with cousins through my mom's side of the family that we weren't aware of, living in California and Wisconsin. That was fun! Also, discovered a cousin right here in Toronto and briefly made contact with her.

23andme also sends health info, but it's pretty top line. There was nothing at all alarming in it, basically telling me I am not a carrier of any diseases at all. Some of it was funny too, like it said I probably like cilantro (true!), and my pee smells like asparagus when I eat it (true!) and I am not very affected by caffeine (also true!).

But both my family doctor, and my best friend, who happens to be a genetic counsellor, were concerned when I told them the company had sent health information. Both told me to take it with a grain of salt and expressed frustration that these companies send this information directly to consumers who mostly do not have enough knowledge to interpret it. I wholeheartedly agree but do not regret doing the tests.

Recently a company called Atlas Biomed reached out and asked if I wanted to try their DNA and gut microbiome tests. The tests are more focused on health than ancestry, and though I had been warned by my doctor and friend about this, I thought it could not hurt to see what came out of it. Besides, I had never had my gut microbiome tested, and it is getting increasing attention as something that may influence many aspects of physical and mental health.

Atlas Biomed is a European company that has just entered the Canadian market. It works like all the other companies in that you spit into a vial and sending it back for DNA testing. For the gut microbiome one, you have to scoop some poop into a vial. Yes, that's right, scoop some poop. That one was not fun!

Before getting my results, I received a bunch of emails containing information about the information I was going to receive. Then, about 4 weeks after sending back the vials, I got my results. This is where things got a little strange.

The Microbiome test results arrived first.


Now, let me start by saying that the week I did the poop sample, I had been eating my purple power bowl for lunch and I had immediately wondered if what you just ate would affect the results. My purple power bowl is Greek yogurt, oats, a beet and berry compute made with the konjac I sell, hemp seeds, and a small scoop of spirulina powder. This is an unusual meal for me as it is pretty high carb and low protein compared to most meals I eat...which probably explains why it doesn't keep me that full for very long. I did some research and read that what you have recently eaten can definitely affect these tests. One thing I can tell you for sure is that there were beets in the sample I sent 💩.

Based on my results, I am defined as a "Grain Lover". What? Aside from having oats a few times a week at most and whole grain bread maybe a few times a week, I do not really eat grains at all! This result is definitely puzzling.

I have normal levels of beneficial bacteria (despite taking a probiotic daily!), normal capacity for fiber (that's not what everyone who knows me thinks!!), and 'good' diversity of microorganisms. The report says I am lactose intolerant (very common for Ashkenazi Jews), but, in fact, since my pregnancy with Little A, I have been able to eat all forms of dairy no problem.

What was especially funny is that my report was followed up by recommendations on what foods I should eat. I should stay away from all dairy, of course, but then it listed a whole bunch of high fibre foods I should eat more of, many of which I already eat tons of (like sweet potatoes, squash, etc.).

In your profile, you can track foods you start eating more of to see if your 'health' improves (I guess this means if you feel 'better' but don't say what you are suppose to do if you already feel good).

The actual report contains so much detailed information about all the little creatures in my gut, it is almost overwhelming. There were some pieces of data that were actually concerning like supposedly I am at a reasonably high risk of obesity. Huh? Given my fitness level and lifestyle, even the kids balked at this. In the end, I didn't find it all that interesting and really had to wonder about the validity and reliability of the test.

The DNA test results arrived a day later.


Certain things made a lot of sense. I am at high risk for hypothyroidism (been on meds for it for 14 years!), and Type II diabetes (runs in my mom's side of the family). But I am at HIGHER risk of Alzheimer's??? What??? Also HIGHER risk of osteoporosis, Paget's bone disease, Crohn's disease (also common among Ashkenazi Jews), and urolithiasis (kidney stones, etc.).

From the DNA test I apparently have an AVERAGE risk of obesity and Parkinson's disease. Okay. But also of macular degeneration (apparently my risk is higher than average since my dad has it), and migraines (which I get!). After reading over the report once and feeling like it was telling me I am a ticking time bomb, I decided to get professional feed back. I sent it to my genetic counsellor friend.

A few days later she called me, and boy did she have a lot to say!

Her area of expertise is Alzheimer's disease, so she focused on that analysis to illustrate her concerns. My HIGHER risk of getting the disease is a 10.45% chance in my lifetime compared to the average of 7.7% for European women. She pointed out that it is still relatively low and not really something to be overly worried about. The report lists my variants on a long list of genes and what they contribute to my risk. My friend was utterly baffled by all this. She said first, the gene most strongly associated with Alzheimer's risk (apolipoprotein E or APOE) is not even listed. She also said that grouping a whole bunch of genes together to asses disease risk is something not well understood and therefore not yet really utilized until scientists understand it all better.

My friend was fortunately able to completely put my mind at ease about the entire report. Not that I was all that freaked out as I had assumed context is important. Also, I already live the healthiest life I can, so what more can I do anyways?

Some of the results of the sports/personal trait sections were way off. Apparently I am at high risk of hernias and degenerative disk disease. I have never had any back problems or hernias. Also, I am predisposed to getting grey hair prematurely. Hmm, at 44, I don't have a single one.

What was particularly interesting to me were the ancestry results. I am much less pure bred according to Atlas Biomed, in comparison to 23andme. Here are my results:

Ashkenazi Jews • 69.23%
South Europe • 23.08%
Greeks • 11.54%
Spanish • 7.69%
Albanians • 3.85%
West Europe • 3.85%
French • 3.85%
Asia 3.85%
West Asia • 3.85%
Azerbaijanis • 3.85%

Whoa, okay! But once again, my friend explained how there could be such a discrepancy in the results. Ultimately, all these companies have unique databases (they either compile them themselves or buy them). The more samples in the database that are similar to yours, the more detailed and accurate your results will be. For example, if you are Korean and there are very few Koreans in the particular database, your results will be very vague. So I asked her if the results were maybe more specific in the Atlas Biomed database because the company is European, and possibly has a higher proportion of similar samples to mine. She said this is likely the case.

So, what do I make of all this? Not much. It's fun and interesting but for me, its not going to change anything.

Do I recommend Atlas Biomed testing for you? Sure, if this stuff interests you! But several caveats. Do your research first, about the strengths and weaknesses of these direct-to-consumer DNA tests. Second, do not draw any conclusions about your health testing results on your own. If you don't have a best friend who is a genetic counsellor, at the very least, take your report to your family physician so it can be explained to you properly.

Similarly, if your ancestry results reveal some surprises, do your research about the limitations of these analyses before you go accusing one of your mother of having an affair with the mailman.

Disclosure: Atlas Biomed provided me with the testing kits for review but all opinions on this blog are my own.








Monday, September 2, 2019

You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: Book Review


I have another book review for you today and I am really excited about this one! You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics & the Origins of Chronic Disease is written by author, and fellow Toronto resident, Judith Finlayson and it is absolutely fascinating.

Finlayson has previously written many cookbooks and has a long standing interest in nutrition, but she is not a scientist or researcher, nevertheless, she does a great job of using published data to back up her claims. Perhaps because she is not a scientist, she is able to present the information in a very accessible way to readers. Finlayson provides definitions to many of the scientific terms within chapters and also in a comprehensive glossary at the back.

The topic of this book is of great interest to me, not just because I too have a long standing interest in health and nutrition, but because genetics and epigenetics are things that are critical in my professional work as a fertility/infertility counsellor.

I am assuming most of you know what genes are, but you may not be familiar with epigenetics. Essentially, epigentics refers to changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. In other words, how certain environmental or experiential factors can turn off or on particular genes.

Finlayson is skilled at telling a story so her background on the history of epigenetics will draw you in even if you do not think you are a 'sciency' person. One issue she covers is how your grandparents exposure to particular risk factors (malnutrition, toxins, etc.) can affect your health. The long and short of it is, prenatal nutrition and the prenatal environment is very important. For many of my clients this is a concern either because they are trying to become pregnant or they are using a surrogate or egg donor so they are wondering how the third party's lifestyle may affect their child's future health.

What is even more interesting is how adverse experiences affect our health. Adverse childhood experiences significantly increase a person's risk of physical and mental health issues. Stress during pregnancy from traumatic events can also have a massive impact on the future health of the child. But findings such as this need to be presented carefully. Women tend to already be highly anxious about doing what they can to get pregnant and have a healthy pregnancy. A huge proportion of my infertility clients are convinced (thanks to misinformation) that the cause of their infertility is their anxiety over the infertility, or because of their life stress. It is important to note that typical life stress is not the same as going through a massive trauma (like war, natural disaster, etc.).

Finlayson also points out that the chronic stress of poverty is a major determinent of health. Again, homelessness, living with food insecurity, etc. is different than the life stress that many of worry is toxic (i.e. parenting, jobs, finances, etc.) but really a normal part of life.

One thing that is exceptionally clear, in case you had any doubts, is smoking is terrible for your health, the health of your current and future children, and pretty much everyone around you. There is almost nothing worse for health in absolutely every way. I always tell my clients it is the one lifestyle factor we know, without a doubt, can compromise fertility for both men and women.

One thing that irks me is that most people don't realize that men play a part in fertility. Traditionally, people think the woman is responsible for absolutely everything about offspring's health and wellbeing. Just another mansifestation of misogyny my friends. Men are just as likely to be a heterosexual couple's cause of infertility as are women. I see it ALL THE TIME. So I was thrilled that Finlayson includes a section about the role of sperm in epigenetics.

One thing that I've noticed in my clinical experience is that clients seem to lose more male fetuses and babies than females. Finlayson explains why this is the case. (HINT: boys are more demanding!). Low birth weight is a significant predictor for both gender of future health problems.

The first 2 years of a person's life is critical in terms of nutrition and how this affects future health. This gives me comfort as those are about the only years of my 2 children's life where I had any control over what they ate. Now they eat a typically crappy diet like most North Americans and I can only hope that the example Adam and I set will eventually have an impact on their choices.

My friends always laugh when I tell them my theory when it comes to the obesity epidemic: It will never end. They think its funny that I am so cynical, but here is why I believe this. First, we are designed to exist in an environment of food scarcity that requires an active lifestyle. We live in an environment of food abundance that requires little to no physical activity. Most human brains are incapable of not adapting to this new environment. The environment has to change, meaning governments and industry have to force populations to change the way we live, but this is not realistic especially since too many people are profiting from keeping things the way they are. Also, when obese people have children, their children are already predisposed to obesity. This latter point is discussed by Finlayson.

Readers will like that Finlayson outlines nutrition requirements for pregnancy and for prevention of chronic illnesses. I like that she includes information about how critical exercise is to health.

The book is chock full of interesting information and I am very happy I got the chance to read it. Already, I have mentioned it a bunch of times in various client sessions when we have been discussing fertility and health, etc.

So do I recommend this book? Absolutely!!

Disclosure: I was sent this book to review but all opinions on this blog are my own.


Monday, August 26, 2019

The 15 Minute Rule for Forgiveness: Book Review


There is probably not a human being on earth who has not felt angered, let down, betrayed, etc. by someone in your life. If we have been hurt, it is not always easy to forgive, yet holding a grudge can do just as much or more harm to ourselves as it does to the other person. Anger, as they say, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to drop dead.

Forgiving ourselves for mistakes can be just as challenging. Many of my clients struggle to forgive themselves for past decisions or actions. Unfortunately, it can significantly impair our ability to move forward in life unless we can let go.

So I was definitely intrigued when I was sent The 15 Minute Rule for Forgiveness by UK author and counsellor, Caroline Buchanan.

The title is a bit misleading. I initially thought it was claiming forgiveness can happen in 15 minutes. Which like a 6-week 6 pack, seems like an unrealistic goal, but it really just refers to a series of 15 minute writing and mental exercises that she asserts can help you work towards forgiveness.

Though the book is only just over 100 pages, it is broken into 16 chapters, almost all containing a 15 minute task to complete related to the subject of that particular chapter. It is pretty easy to read and succinct and covers both the process of forgiving others and forgiving oneself.

There is some sound wisdom in this book, such as examining all the benefits of forgiveness as well as addressing your perceived drawbacks and fears around forgiveness in terms of what it will mean for you or others. Buchanan also looks into the role of guilt and shame in forgiveness and encourages readers to acknowledge and let go of these barriers. Buchanan includes lots of case studies to illustrate her points.

Buchanan spends a lot of time on self-awareness and self-acceptance which is definitely critical, not just in the realm of forgiveness, but of overall emotional health as well.

One thing that I don't love about the book is Buchanan's assertion that even if we are not religious, we need to believe in a higher power. I get the value in spirituality but this is inevitably going to turn some people off.

Overall, the book may be useful for some people but it's hard to know for sure. It is not based on research, but, I think, a theory and program Buchanan has developed herself. There is no data to back its efficacy. Nevertheless, forgiveness and how to achieve it is definitely an area that deserves more attention.

Disclosure: I was sent this book to review but all opinions on this blog are my own.




Monday, August 12, 2019

Summer 2019 Favorites

I hate summer. If you like summer and love hot weather than I hate you too. Ha, just kidding. But I truly don't understand you. It feels like pure torture to me. I am dreaming of fresh autumn air.

Anyways, here are a few things currently making this summer more bearable for me.

To up the intensity of my workouts, I often put extra weight on my body. I don't mean eating lots of donuts. I mean using ankle or wrist weights, a weighted vest, etc. But for cardio, none of those options is always appropriate. One day I realized what would be ideal is a weighted belt. But is there such a thing? Oh yes, you can get them on Amazon.
I have been thrilled with this one. I like that it stays in place when you are doing things like burpees (unlike weighted vests that tend to shift around). It's loaded with 10lbs but you can remove some of the weights to make it lighter. I find it pretty comfortable and you can even lie on your back to do abs without it getting in the way (again, something I can't do with my weighted vest).

Of course, harder workouts mean more sweat. Usually we use all natural, biodegradable, (etc., etc.) laundry detergent, but I decided extreme heat calls for extreme measures and picked up this Persil Odor Fighter detergent. It definitely does the trick.


It smells good but doesn't leave your garments with an overpowering perfume smell.

Another 'joy' of summer is having to slather one's entire body in sunblock. I found this Neutragena zinc cream for face and I love it. It's not greasy and allows you to put your make up on over top without is sliding off your face.

Even in summer I try never to go over my 2 drinks per week limit. Besides, no matter how good it tastes going down, alcohol does not actually hydrate you, but actually does the opposite. So I always make sure to guzzle lots of liquid afterwards to counter act that.  One of my recent discoveries is this cider. The store that sells it, The Wine Store, just happens to have a location in my building where my office is located. Kind of tempting.


Though it's sweet from the pineapple flavour, I love it because of the tropical feel which seems appropriate in this weather which is basically tropical (apparently tropical fish can now be found swimming in the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of Canada due to climate change for goodness sakes!).

So there you are, that's how I am getting through this freakin' awful summer, which is apparently the new normal thanks to global warming, which means I will eventually have to move to the arctic...

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Crunchy Top Blueberry Muffins


Today its back to work after a Canadian long weekend. For some, its an opportunity to get outside in summer, go to a cottage or take part in the many festivals and activities around Toronto. But I hate that shit. Cottages are full of bugs, and summer is too hot and Toronto is too crowded and difficult to get around to make going to any festivals or attractions worth it (or remotely enjoyable). And no, my name is not the Grinch.

So on the day off yesterday, I went to the office in the morning and stayed at home, inside, in the air conditioning all afternoon. But I was sort of productive. I convinced Big A to do the Tracy Anderson fitness video I have with me. We had a lot of fun making fun of it (her boobs don't move even though it doesn't even look like she is wearing a bra...silicone perhaps?). I also agreed to bake with Little A. She had been pestering me to make "Crunchy Top Blueberry Muffins", which are essentially cake-like blueberry muffins with sugar on top to make it crunchy. Of course I found a way to make them much healthier than the muffins you would find at the bakery or coffee shop, but you kind of have to use sugar for the top. I did happen to have some organic cane sugar in the house that I use for making DIY beauty products. It isn't course, which would work even better but it did the trick.

Both kids love these muffins, in fact, Little A said they are so good, I must share them on the blog. So here is the recipe.

Crunchy Top Blueberry Muffins

2 flax eggs (2 tbsp ground flax + 6 tbsp hot water)
2 cups milk or non-dairy milk
1/2 cup baking stevia or granulated xylitol or erythritol
1 tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 cups whole grain flour
2 scoops vanilla protein powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

1/4 cup or so course sugar for sprinkling on top

Stir together milk and vinegar and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together flax eggs, stevia, milk mixture and vanilla.

Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl and whisk until combined. Add dry ingredients to wet and fold until completely mixed. Stir in blueberries. Pour batter into greased muffin cups. Sprinkle the top of each one evenly with sugar. Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes. Let cool and remove from pan. Makes 16 muffins.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Yolked: Product Review


Even if you are not trying to be a competitive body builder or athlete, muscle is something most of us need more of. It's not just a matter of aesthetics. Sedentary lifestyles lead to tight, weak muscles and atrophy. This leads to lowered metabolisms, chronic pain, increased risks of falls, and injuries.

Exercise, particularly strength training, is critical for the maintenance and building of muscle mass. In terms of nutrition, protein is a critical building block for muscle particularly when trying to increase muscle size and/or density.

According to MYOS RENS Technology Inc., there is another key to enhancing the body's ability to build muscle: Fortetropin, made from fertilized egg yolk. Obviously this is not a product for vegans!

Yolked is a powder supplement combined with dextrose (sugar) and vanilla. It is supposed to be particularly helpful for adults over age 60 to combat sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss). We talk a lot about osteoporosis but sarcopenia is also something can can lead to injury and disability as we age.

It comes in single serving packets that are 47 calories, 3.5 grams of fat and 2.2 grams of protein.

The company sent me summaries of research conducted and though the sample size is small, the results are definitely impressive.

Since I don't consume smoothies, I planned to bake with it, but right before I did so, the kids noticed on the packet it says not to heat it up. So I gave it to Adam since he makes smoothies regularly. His only comment was it needed a stronger vanilla flavour. I suspect it would have been best to use it along with his usual vanilla protein powder, instead of, especially since it is not high in protein.

So what do I think? I think it's a good idea, especially for older adults that may be at particular risk for sarcopenia and those who may have limited nutrition due to a decreased appetite. But like most supplements, it's pricey - $90USD for 30 servings. So unfortunately, the older adults who need it most (the poor) are not going to be able to afford it. But isn't this the case for most things?

Disclosure: We were sent the product to review but all opinions on this blog are our own.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Expecting Sunshine: Book Review


Though most of my counselling clients are dealing with the inability to conceive, many of them have been pregnant and experienced losses, everything from first trimester miscarriages to stillbirths, to their babies dying days or weeks after birth. There is no doubt that losing a child is one of the most painful experiences a person can go through.

Expecting Sunshine, written by Alexis Marie Chute, chronicles the author's experience losing her second child immediately after birth due to tuberous sclerosis, a condition that causes tumors to develop within organs such as the heart, brain, kidneys, etc. Alexis and her husband, Aaron, discovered this during a routine ultrasound when they were 25 weeks pregnant, and were told that their son's condition was incompatible with life.

I cannot imagine the devastation they experienced. Personally, however, like many of my clients who have found themselves in similar situations, I would have opted for termination. For me, carrying to term and delivering a child destined to die soon afterward is just additional trauma. But I understand that everyone is different in terms of the choices they make around these awful scenarios.

The book chronicles Alexis and Aaron's struggles after the loss of their son to grieve in their own unique ways and to support each other. Once Alexis conceives again, the book is divided into chapters summarizing how she copes with the anxiety each week of this subsequent pregnancy.

What people who have not experienced a perinatal loss before don't realize, is just how stressful pregnancy is after that for many women. I have written before about how anxious I was through the pregnancies with Big A and Little A because of my first pregnancy miscarrying. I really was never able to fully relax. I rented a dopplar for both so that when I panicked, I could check for the heartbeat. The distress is usually worse for any woman who has experienced a late-term loss.

Unfortunately, most loved ones of a woman experiencing pregnancy anxiety following a loss, fail to understand just how overwhelming it can be and do not know how to support someone going through it. Telling her, "Don't worry, everything will be fine," is one of the least effective things you can say. The reality is, there are no guarantees and this is what women in this situation fixate on. While the risk of another loss may be miniscule, it is not zero, ever, for anyone. Even a tiny degree of uncertainty is intolerable for many woman in this situation. Whether this is rational or not is not the point. Anxiety, is not rational. But it can be debilitating and difficult to get under control.

Alexis, an artist, writer and filmmaker, does a lovely job sharing her pain and anguish in a way that is not overwhelming to the reader and is accessible even to those who have no personal connection to this type of experience.

I read the book through a lens of whether it would be useful to my clients who have had similar experiences. I definitely do, however, there is one caveat. Alexis already had a healthy child when this event occurred and I know that many women who have lost a child and still are childless will immediately feel this sets them apart from Alexis. I try to tell clients not to compare pain, but the reality is, this is often difficult to do. In any case, I applaud her courage in sharing her story in all it's rawness, and showing others that while you do not necessarily ever get over a loss like this, you can get through it.

Disclosure: I was sent the book to review, but all the opinions on this blog are my own.