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%
West Asia • 3.85%
Azerbaijanis • 3.85%
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.