It’s getting late in the year now, and with 2019 looming, it’s time to wrap up the results of my DNA diet experiment. For the last twelve months I’ve been on Arivale’s scientific wellness program. You can read about my earlier experiences here.
To learn more about this experiment, check out my earlier entries. For month one click here, for month three click here, for month five click here, for month six click here, for month seven click here, for month ten click here.
But to recap, it’s a health and diet program that pairs blood markers, saliva, DNA and my microbiome with a nutritionist who’s also a lifestyle coach. Every few weeks we’d have a call and discuss my successes and failures in my food and lifestyle choices, work out a new plan and stay on track together. Basically, a nutritionist with an extra dosing of science, if you know what I mean.
From the beginning, I was clear to point out that this is my first time using a nutritionist, and that some of the DNA and health stuff is inevitably conflated. Yes, I know I should drink more water and eat less saturated fat, but so does everybody. Now at least I know the other thing is still true but the saturated fat — while not great for me, health wise, — according to my DNA tests, at least won’t make me gain weight any faster than eating protein.
While Arivale, the company I did this experiment with, is still nascent, the idea has bigger implications to the healthcare world at large. Personalized medicine and personalized wellness are buzzwords but at heart they’re about tailoring different things to different people, there’s no one size fits all approach when it comes to each individual’s body. With doctors trained to start prescribing medicine A, move to medicine B and so on if it something doesnt work, this is a way — at least, conceptually, for you to start straight on medicine E that will have the best effect on your health.
“Under personalized genomic medicine, the aim was to individualize treatment and empower patients to take more responsibility for their own health,” write Eric T. Juengst and Michelle L. McGowan in the AMA Journal of Ethics. They explain that “the promises of personalization also came with caveats for clinicians suddenly faced with patients wielding uncertain and limited information about their genomic profiles.”
Data can get us to this, but too much data can also overload — both the patient and the doctor. With doctors having an average of thirteen to twenty four minutes per patient, turning up with a 23andme chart isn’t super helpful, and the alternative is fancy private doctors which makes it a service for the 1%.
Arivale sits somewhere in the middle, certainly not cheap, at around $ 99 to $ 297 a month (as of November 2018), but also relatively reasonably priced for what you get.
Over the last year I’ve learnt a lot about myself, my body and my behavior, and this has led to me getting to some great health changes.
There have been a lot of struggles — difficulty staying on track with food when I travel, and so on, but I’ve learnt to accept that’s inevitable. I can’t base life around having the perfect routine when that concept doesn’t exist really, for me, or anyone else for that matter, so it’s all about rolling with the punches and setting certain health standards in my life, no matter where I am.
In the last two months I struggled in particular with a couple of things; having my wisdom teeth extracted and having lingual braces put on. This threw my whole healthy lifestyle and good food choices program out of whack, with soft sugary foods becoming number one on my shopping list and healthy items like nuts and popcorn sadly canned for the time being.
But that’s my perspective. I want to know what the numbers say, and that means another blood test so I can analyze my progress over the year.
Let’s dig into the data.
First off – it’s not all good. My cholesterol has stayed relatively the same, and my LDL particle number is up. I was told to share this with my doctor ( I have, he isn’t very concerned). “You’ve been dealt a bad genetic hand,” coach Erica said. “But you’re at a better spot than a year ago.” Triglycerides are related, in part, to the volume of sweet foods I consume, something I’ve struggled with working on, and still need to pay more attention too. I’m disappointed to see this number, but not completely surprised.
Coach Erica however, pointed out that my LDL small particle number “is the smallest ever been, and this is the one tied with risk,” she said. “You’re at a better spot than a year ago.”
“Going forwards you should focus on cholesterol,” Erica said. “You have a higher genetic risk, so focus on increasing fiber and eating more than one vegetable a day.” She said that my wisdom teeth operation and braces likely affected this — I made poorer diet choices and I can see them reflected here. “A high LDL is concerning, but the good news is that the small particle is green and you don’t have the smaller denser particles that increases risk,” she said.
“This is closely tied to heart disease risk and inflammation can increase risk, “ coach Erica said.
My insulin levels remained low, which she attributed to exercise — over the last year, I’ve gone from twice a week to four to five times a week on average, mixing up pilates with weight training, hula hooping, and ice skating.
“Your Omega-3 in the green, and we can see its high and how consistent it’s been,” she said. Some results were surprising — my Vitamin D level dropped, which I attributed to stopping a supplement, but Erica said was more likely to be not getting enough ‘sunscreen free’ sun time. “Do 20 minutes without sunscreen for your daily Vitamin D,” she said.
One thing my nutritionist was adamant I work on was my low Omega 3 levels. As a vegetarian, I’m not going to get these from fish, so a good alternative was fish oil pills. I’ve been taking Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega and saw my levels rise dramatically over the first six months. Then I was contacted by Omega 3 Innovations, who invited me to try their brand. Their Omega 3 is liquid, and needs to be refrigerated, then shaken and swallowed like a shot. The idea here is that ‘freshness equas potency’ and that by downing it as oil you’re getting more health effects. It’s a little slimy to swallow, but my numbers have risen significantly since I started using it which is a great sign. They now offer an Omega 3 cookie as well, which I haven’t tried but am intrigued about.. Because, cookie? $ 19.00 for seven days of Omega 3 Innovations refrigerated shots
Dealing With Stressors
Travel and emotional eating at stress times (deadlines/periods) is something that will continue, but Erica said important to recognize this and work towards small changes. “Focus on bringing healthy snacks with you when you travel,” she said. Take everything one step at a time — she suggested a workout video for my hotel room — even 15 minutes, a day, when traveling can help. It might not alway be possible but carving out time for health will benefit everyone in the long run. “It’s all baby steps and having things put in place consistently that helps you to be consistent,” she said.
Changes with Sleep:
Sleep has been a big issue with me from the start — I struggle to get to sleep, stay asleep and when I wake I often feel groggy and out of sorts. Exercise has helped with that, ut one of the biggest surprises was the benefit of goat from a weighted blanket. For a different story, I tried out a number of models, and found that having weight on my feet was extremely comforting. There’s literature out there about how this is used to calm nervous dogs and autistic children, and for me, it stopped ny turning so much and helped me feel rested. My favorite blanket was the Somnos Sleep — the design was sleek and simple and I loved how you could zip it in two, so as not to bother anyone you’re sleeping with.
“Your genes may be associated with needing an ‘average’ amount of sleep, around eight hours,” my coach said. “You are currently getting around seven hours a night (but I) see benefits to increasing your average to eight hours a night to see if this could increase how well rested you feel.” The combination of physical product and coaching was instrumental in helping me get more rest — moving my bedtime earlier at increments of 15 minutes really helped me feel settle in, and no brainer (but difficult things, like no electronics before bed) added to this. “Getting adequate sleep is critical for brain health. We discussed how the brain uses sleep to ‘clean’ itself out although research isn’t certain the mechanism behind how it does this yet,” she said.
As for the other stats; one year on and my weight is exactly two pounds lower. But my energy is higher, my skin is clearer and my sleep is better. I polled my friends to see if they’d notice any differences in me. “You don’t get headaches anymore,” one said. They’re mostly right.. I still get pain occasionally but it used to be a few times a week thing, and that has gone, probably due to being more hydrated.
“You’ve gone from saying you would never cook and got bored with exercise to making it consistent in your life,” said Coach Erica, and I winced a little at that. That sounded so… childish? Hard to think a year ago that was my normal. “In last year you dramatically set yourself up for better health, not just for last year but longer term as well,” she added.
Fair point. I’ve taken time to work on my eating, challenging myself with everything from lactose free to sugar free to mindful eating and different workout experiments. Some worked, some didn’t, but the commitment I made to my health isn’t going away. Sometimes you need to try a couple of things to figure out what works, and having someone to answer to did help with this. Today, as long as we are healthy — like, not obviously sick, people don’t think a lot about what’s going on with their body. By the time something happens — a diagnosis, etc., they start, and while that’s OK, they might have been able to avert it, or lessened it if they’d addressed things earlier. Having someone help me with this is a luxury, I fully admit that, but it’s a luxury of the mind every bit as much as it is of the wallet. Rethinking how we value our health is important, and needs to become more of a focus as we continue to live and age longer.
Arivale isn’t the perfect solution, but it’s a start. They do some things really well, and some things could use improvement (their app is terrible, and crashes all the time) but it’s also a sign of how people are waking up to the idea that self care comes in all forms and investment in your health now can be far cheaper than twenty years down the road.
But this comes with a caveat, according to Eric T. Juengst and Michelle L. McGowan in the AMA Journal of Ethics. “As goals for health applications of genomic research have turned to “wellness,” living “longer lives,” and “thriving,” the domain of applied genomics expands again, this time beyond the range of traditional health care,” they wrote. “As bona fide precision health research provides more reliable genomic predictors of exceptional capacities, the philosophical gray zone between prevention and enhancement that they will accentuate in current policy thinking about the limits of gene editing will be increasingly important to understand and address.”
If you’re curious about more of my results or have specific questions, feel free to reach out.