Will nutrigenetics change how we think about health?

tldr: Yes. We believe that nutrigenetics, and other fields of study that are directly related to the biological uniqueness of every person, will play a key role in the progression of the health industry and is an essential data point to consider for a person to achieve optimal health.

THE BACKGROUND:

Health research is designed to prove (or falsify) a hypothesis. In other words, “does X do Y, in population Z.” And while studies are designed to reduce variables and structured to provide a clear result, that is often not the case. This is especially true in legacy nutritional research. 

Nutrigenetics is a rapidly growing field of study that investigates the relationship between the genes of an individual and how they process and utilize nutrients. 

 

THE PRE-NUTRIGENETICS PROBLEM:

Every person is different. From where they live, the foods they eat, the way they think, the amount they move, their current health status, and their genetic makeup, each impact how a person will respond to a given input (or intervention or variable, depending on your preference). That input could be a drug, a vitamin, an exotic herbal supplement, or a simple lifestyle change (sleep protocol or exercise regimen). There are countless internal and external variables exerting influence on each person; which is amplified exponentially in studies with 100 or 1000 different participants. 

Next, study design must be considered. The gold-standard method to answer a hypothesis is via RCT (randomized control trial) that is double-blinded, placebo controlled, completed in a metabolic ward, etc., etc., the list goes on. This study design is found commonly in pharmaceutical drug trials because it seeks to eliminate every variable possible to ensure the clearest possible signal for if a drug works, how well it works, and if there are side-effects. Unfortunately, these studies are expensive and time-consuming, thus it is uncommon to find these studies outside of the pharmaceutical realm.

Cell stain

Research in nutrition and other lifestyle sciences often relies on population studies with data obtained through food surveys and other imprecise means. These studies often come with many uncontrollable variables and aggregated results that can provide directional evidence to a population’s needs, but fail to address any individual needs.

 

THE NEGATIVE IMPACT:

By now, it should be clear that any intervention (drinking a cup of orange juice, sprinting 100 yards, or taking a painkiller) will produce variabile results within a study group because each person in the group is biologically different. 

Enter the bell-shaped curve. This distribution pattern shows how largely different responses can be aggregated to represent a mean result and how they lie within standard deviations of that mean value. Without devolving into a statistics lesson with the introduction of confidence intervals - the point remains: 

For every study result, variability exists within the response which is largely determined by the individual. For every study reporting a positive impact of a given input, there are (albeit a smaller number) participants in the study that received no benefit or a negative impact.

- Tye Jensen

Biologically unique

Much of nutrition is built on population studies, which look at effects across a population, not the individual. Yet, you can likely name dozens of examples of extreme variability of nutritional response in your own life. Do you know two people, one who can:

  • eat wheat (gluten) and one who cannot?
  • drink milk (lactose) and one who cannot?
  • eat seemingly at-will with no portion control and never gain weight and one who struggles daily with their diet and weight management?

These are simple examples (the first two nutrigenetic impacts of certain inherited gene variants and the last of a nutrigenomic influence of likely many genes). Thus, your nutritional and greater health needs are dramatically different than those around you, even your own family members. 

 

THE FUTURE:

In 2021 and beyond, the gold-standard for health care will revolve around personalization. “n=1” (“n” equals one) is a new vernacular in the biohacking circles, used as a way to talk about health experimentation on yourself. “n” is equal to the number of participants in the study. In this case, it’s just you (=1). While self health experimentation can carry health consequences without medical supervision, we believe that the sentiment of a personalized plan revolving around your unique needs is the future of healthcare. This will include everything from the practice of medicine to self-guided wellness.

When considering your health you are the only thing that matters; and how your body responds to a given treatment is the only data point that matters. Who cares if a clinical trial shows that ashwagandha improves joint function - if it doesn’t work for you? Who cares if low-dose folate is sufficient to improve methylation patterns for your neighbor - if it doesn't work for you? Who cares if the RDA for vitamin D is 20mcg - if that is only 50% of what you need to maintain optimal levels?

 

THE SCIENCE OF NUTRIGENETICS:

Nutrigenetics is one of the sciences driving the emerging market of healthcare personalization. Specifically, it is the science of how your inherited genetics influences how your body absorbs, distributes, metabolizes, and excretes certain nutrients. We all carry minor variations throughout our genome; and when those variations land on genes related to nutrient usage they can impact how much of a nutrient you need, and which nutrients can even be harmful to you.

The following publication title “Nutrigenetics and Nutrigenomics: Viewpoints on the Current Status and Applications in Nutrition Research and Practice” by Fenech et. al. provides a succinct summary of the important applications of nutrigenetics: 

Dietary reference values, e.g. recommended dietary allowance (RDA) or safe upper limits, which are designed for the general population and based on different metabolic outcomes, are not optimised for genetic subgroups which may differ critically in the activity of transport proteins for a micronutrient and/or enzymes that require that micronutrient as a cofactor. (1)

Unique fingerprint

This field of study is exploding. The number of publications is rapidly expanding, the testing is becoming easy for consumers to commercially obtain, and the totality of understanding of gene-nutrient interactions and treatment protocols is maturing. As of 2021, a consumer can obtain testing for clinically-validated genetic variants, interpretation of the results, and a personalized nutritional solution for a few hundred dollars. Rewind 10 years and this service would have cost in the 10’s of thousands of dollars and would have required a team of healthcare professionals and scientists. 

And the relevant health data doesn’t stop at nutrigenetics. Fitness, sleep, and glucose data obtained through wearables, microbiome analysis from stool testing, and new-wave metabolomic analysis is offering an unprecedented look inside your body and what it needs for optimal function.

The personalized health industry has achieved step function growth in the past few years, and it’s only expected to increase.

 

IN SUMMARY:

The future of healthcare is personalized. Nutrigenetics is a key area of study as it provides insights into the driving factors of which micronutrients you need more of, less of, and which could be harmful.

For the individual, this means:

  • less guessing, more testing.
  • lower incidence of side-effects due to intake testing and analysis. 
  • optimal outcomes driven by their own biometric data.

Importantly, some practitioners and researchers in the healthcare section are still skeptical of nutrigenetics, nutrigenomics, other -omic technologies, and the applicability of many sources of biometric data. They feel it is superfluous and lacks clinical impact.

 

Our view is based on the desired outcome. If your health is not a primary priority and mediocre health is the goal, then it can be achieved with standardized processes and an old-school way of thinking. However, if optimal health and peak performance in all aspects of your life is a primary priority for you, then the only way to achieve this is to embrace everything that makes you unique and leverage the data to create bespoke solutions that meet your precise requirements. 

 

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Source:
(1) Fenech M, El-Sohemy A, Cahill L, et al. Nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics: viewpoints on the current status and applications in nutrition research and practice. J Nutrigenet Nutrigenomics. 2011;4(2):69-89. doi:10.1159/000327772