What can 23 and Me tell me about my health?

Wondering what you can learn from your 23 and Me data?  Quite a lot, actually! From disease risk factors to ways to personalize your diet — it is all in your genes.

After you’ve had your genes sequenced, 23andMe allows you to download your raw data file. They also have a great feature for searching your raw data file on their website.  Either way, you can explore your genes and learn more about what is going on inside your cells.

Let’s get into the details and answer some frequent questions about 23andMe genetics kits:

Which 23andMe kit should I buy? Do I need to buy the ancestry option ($99) or the health option ($199)?

You actually get access to the same data whether you buy the 23 and Me ancestry or health report option.

The health reports on 23andMe cover some traits (restless sleep, hair, ear wax, etc), several genetic diseases, and they now also give you a prediction on diabetes susceptibility. They are coming out with new reports every few months, but they are limited by the FDA on what they can say.

A lot of what is now covered on the 23andMe reports is also available for free on this website (and had been for years!). The exception is that I don’t cover a lot of the traits. I figure that you know if you have hair or are likely to get itchy from mosquito bites. One difference is that the 23andMe reports are pretty and quick to read. The articles on this website go into a lot more detail and are probably not quick to read.

How can I protect my privacy with 23andMe? Are they giving my genes to the government?

Yes, these are actual questions that a lot of people ask me about when I talk about what I do!  And the question of protecting your privacy and your genetic data is a good one.

First, all the headlines that you read about the authorities using genetic data to crack old cold-cases don’t involve the 23andMe database. The police are using GEDMatch, which is a huge online community for genealogy buffs. Everyone on GEDmatch has freely uploaded and shared their genomes and their family tree info.

23andMe does use your data for research studies — but only if you opt into the research studies. All of the ‘surveys’ on 23andMe are for research. If you don’t want your data used for research, be sure to read through the agreements and check the appropriate boxes for your data not to be used. 23andMe also gives you the option of deleting your data from their site. You can download your raw data file and then have your account and data deleted if you so choose.

One of the bigger issues with keeping your data private is all of the other places online that you can upload your genetic data file to buy different types of reports.  Always read the privacy policy!  Some places that offer free reports are using your data for research purposes. And some places that offer paid reports will use your data to market specific supplements to you.

How can I figure out my exact best diet from 23andMe data?

This website is all about optimizing diet and health, based on your genetic data. You can learn about specific genetic variants that impact the way that you digest or use different foods.  But…  it may surprise you to learn that I don’t think there is an exact, best diet based on your genes. Instead, there are a few specific foods that you may want to avoid and other nutrients that you may want to include more of. But we humans are very resilient and can survive and thrive on a number of different ‘diets’.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

  • Your genes control whether you produce lactase as an adult. Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down the milk sugar, lactose. If you don’t produce lactase, you are relying on your gut microbiome to break down the lactose – so limiting the amount of dairy you consume at one time can help. (Read the article and check your genes.)
  • Some people carry genetic variants that impact how well they convert the omega-3’s found in plants into DHA and EPA, which are important for brain health. If you carry these genetic variants, you should make sure you are eating fish or taking a DHA/EPA supplement periodically.

What diseases does 23 and Me test for?

This is also a commonly asked question. The 23andMe health reports cover some rare genetic diseases as well as giving a report on genes that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. But you can also find out your risk for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and a whole lot more from your raw data file for free from this website.

Most chronic diseases (e.g. diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease) have multiple genetic variants that add a little to your risk. These genetic variants make you more susceptible and combine with environmental factors such as what you eat or toxins you are exposed to.  So it isn’t as simple as you have a certain genetic mutation and thus will absolutely get diabetes, Crohn’s, blood clots, etc.

Instead, you can use your genetic data to know that you are at a higher risk for certain diseases.  And you can use your data to find out how you are susceptible since most chronic diseases have multiple causes. Then you can tailor your diet and lifestyle to avoid getting those diseases.

Here’s an example:
Say that your dad and grandma both have type 2 diabetes and you want to avoid getting it. Cutting out the donuts and soda is the obvious first step. But then you can look at all of the different genes that influence the risk of diabetes and find out where your susceptibility lies.  For example, some people carry genetic mutations in the melatonin receptor gene that significantly increases their risk of diabetes — but only if they eat dinner late in the evening. That genetic variant controls overnight insulin levels, and simply eating dinner earlier eliminates the increase in diabetes risk.

Can my genetic data show exactly which diseases I will get?

For the most part, no.  While most chronic conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, etc have a genetic component, they aren’t completely caused by any single genetic mutation. Instead, your diet and lifestyle combine with many different genetic variants for most diseases.

If I can’t learn absolutely everything from my 23andMe data, is it even worth it?

Ok, that is not a frequently asked question, per se. But it is one that I would like to answer.

No, you won’t learn everything you want to know from your genetic data – whether from 23andMe or another source.  But you will learn a lot.  It is a good starting point! New science is coming out all the time on genetics! And learning about your genes is a great motivation for making healthy choices.