Feel like you missed the boat on DNA tests?
You're likely not alone.
To many of us, the subject of genetics went from a vague memory of my sixth-grade bio teacher talking about monks, pea pods, and hemophilia (which had something to do with Anastasia, but nothing about a rumor in St. Petersburg), to an everyday subject that people everywhere seemed to be familiar with.
It feels like DNA testing suddenly went from a long-forgotten science test to a pop-culture staple — with shout-outs in Top 40 song lyrics, celebrities learning about their genetic ethnicity on TV and posting their results on social media, and every political pundit on news networks — fake and not — sharing their opinion on a certain U.S. Senator's DNA test.
Since the human genome mapping was completed in April 2003, personal genetic data has become more and more accessible to everyday Americans. This is largely due to the easy, at-home DNA kits that DTC companies use to collect DNA samples. Just check out the popularity of the search term on Google:
In fact, by 2021, an estimated 100 million people will have taken a direct-to-consumer DNA test. While physician-directed diagnostic genetic testing definitely still has its place, direct-to-consumer DNA testing offers people a slew of different insights, all with a simple cheek swab or saliva sample.
If you live in the United States, there is no doubt that you are aware of DNA tests, but are you interested?
Do you wonder what people are really getting out of the whole thing?
What benefit do people actually gain from taking a DNA test?
Why should I take (and pay for) a DNA test?
We've got you covered: In this article, we are going to share eight big reasons why you might want to consider taking a DNA test. If you have a hard time seeing the appeal of what some may consider invasive and possibly risky, here are a few reasons why other people find them so interesting:
1. If you are curious about your roots
Let's start at the root of it all. The first successful direct-to-consumer (DTC) DNA tests on the market focused on providing people with information about their genetic ancestry.
But, did you know that you can learn different things from testing fundamentally different parts of your DNA?
Recent generations: Autosomal DNA tests
Autosomal DNA testing offers information about your ancestors within approximately the last ten generations. Rather than names and dates, which, for many people can be much harder to learn about, due to the need for a paper trail, and correctly recorded information in the first place, from your DNA, you can learn about your family's cultural and geographic origins.
An autosomal ancestry test provides people with an ethnicity estimate. Based on your DNA, inherited from mother and father combined, your results estimate which parts of the world your ancestors came from.
With all that has changed in the world within the last several hundred years — vast immigration, political changes, famines, wars, and more — it can be a comfort to many people to help establish or clarify some kind of ethnic identity.
A long time ago: mtDNA and YDNA tests
Not only can you learn things about your family within the last ten generations, but if you haven't noticed, humanity has been around for a long time. This is where your sex chromosomes can help to trace back, at least one line of your direct ancestry for millennia.
Sex chromosome DNA testing is broken into two groups:
- Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing follows your mother's family line, tracing a DNA sequence that has been inherited directly from your mother, her mother, her mother, and so on, for thousands of years
- Y Chromosome (YDNA) testing follows your father's family line. This traces a directly inherited YDNA sequence that has been passed down, unchanged, from father to son for many generations
Susan Roth, from U.K.-based testing company Living DNA, explains about ancient ancestry testing, "Living DNA also tests your motherline (mtDNA) if you are female, and both your motherline and fatherline (y-DNA) if male. This DNA allows us to determine your haplogroup which reveals your ancestors' paths out of Africa."
Note: Some companies combine both recent and distant ancestry DNA analysis into one ancestry DNA test product (ie, Living DNA, 23andMe), while others focus just one one type of testing, either autosomal or sex-chromosome testing kits.
2. If you are interested in own well-being
Roth explains that DNA testing offers consumers the ability to "Understand the role genetics plays with your lifestyle choices and how you can optimize your well-being." There are lots of options available if you are looking for a genetics testing company that will provide suggestions to help improve your well-being. You will often see different DNA kits offering traits reports bundled together in different packages. Roth explains that the genetic markers tested in this type of analysis affect a wide range of things, from weight management and digestion to strength, stamina, and nutrition. "You will discover how genetically your body breaks down different vitamins, food types and the exercise program that can support you."
3. If you want to improve your sleep
"As someone who writes about sleep for a living, I was super-curious to take an at-home DNA test and see what, if anything, it could tell me about my sleep," says Christina Heiser, the sleep health blog manager at Saatva. "I did 23AndMe and found out that I'm less likely than the average person to get deep sleep. When I learned that, I decided to take a few steps to improve my sleep quality, including wearing blue light-blocking glasses when using my phone or laptop before bed and trying to eat dinner at least three hours before going to sleep."
4. If you want to find biological family
"You might want to buy a DNA test kit if you've used an egg donor or sperm donor to help create your family," suggests Stephanie Smith from Pacific Palisades, California. "I have five children and three are not biologically related to me. I've used DNA kits to hopefully connect my children to their half-siblings, if they exist. We aren't interested in finding the donor or the donor's family per se, but we are highly interested in connecting our children to other children who share their DNA. Our egg donor has made at least four donations and each time the eggs she produced were shared with multiple families, including international families. How many half siblings my kids have is unknown, but I'm very excited to connect with those other families, both the kids and the parents who are raising them."
Finding biological relatives draws millions of consumers to the DNA testing industry each year. Depending on the test provider, a common feature of autosomal testing is the ability to match you with people that you share significant DNA in common with.
Basic offerings include a listing of how many centimorgans of DNA you share and a relationship estimate. Most databases will sort by the amount of shared data and estimate how closely you are related to other DNA samples in the database.
Depending on the story and the family, searching for biological relatives can provide unexpected, or shocking results. However, as Smith mentions, she is not necessarily interested in contacting the children's biological father, but in knowing any half brothers and sisters out there in the world.
5. If you want to contribute to ongoing research
You might want to buy a DNA kit if "you want to contribute to science and medicine," suggests Dr. David Koepsell J.D, Ph.D, Founder of EncypGen. While DNA testing services use customers' data for research or share de-identified data to third parties, like pharmaceuticals, you have a few options.
If you participate in DTC genetic testing, you can opt-in to participate in research, which can go to things like The Ancestry Human Diversity Project or 23andMe's new Type 2 Diabetes Risk Test. Additionally, Koepsell adds, "since most testing companies make most of their money selling your data to researchers doing basic research on the human genome; and if you choose any number of new online marketplaces (like EncrypGen, Nebula Genomics, or LunaDNA) you could even sell that data yourself and make the money you spent on the test back!"
6. If you want a tailored workout suggestion
"You might want to buy a DNA test kit if you want to save time and find the best workout based on your DNA, or if you currently workout and are not seeing results," suggests Franklin Antoian, one of the country's top 50 trainers and founder of iBodyFit.com. Antoian also works for FitnessGenes, a website helping people to do just that: find the workout that is most effective for their own body.
Just how will DNA data analysis help to find that key workout?
"FitnessGenes DNA test results will let you know the ideal amount of reps, sets, resistance and rest time to use during your workouts," explains Antoian. "Your results will also recommend the amount of workouts that you should perform per week."
7. If you're interested in longevity
A DNA test might be a good tool for you, "If you're interested in longevity," says John O'Connor, Founder of Gene Food, Inc., a provider of personalized, DNA-based diet and nutrition plans. "For example, heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States. Many of those deaths are entirely unexpected and sudden."
Genetic tests can help you focus on the health risks that you are more predisposed to. While O'Connor advises, "Regular lab tests and doctor visits are the first line of prevention," there's more to the story. "Thanks to advances in genetics research, DNA testing can help identify individuals who are at a greater risk for heart disease."
"Celebrity trainer Bob Harper, of The Biggest Loser, suffered an unexpected heart attack in his fifties at what appeared to be the peak of his physical health. Lab testing revealed he carried a genetic marker linked to an especially dangerous type of 'bad cholesterol' called Lp(a). Most doctors in America do not test for Lp(a), but the predisposition towards higher Lp(a) levels shows up on genetic tests.
When done early enough, genetic screening can put people on notice that they need to be even more vigilant in prioritizing cardiovascular health. Heart disease develops over the course of a lifetime, so knowing genetic predispositions as soon as possible can be a powerful tool for staying in good health well into your eighties and nineties."
You can learn about your genetic health risks from a variety of testing services. Some, like Color, AncestryHealth, and Invitae, even include genetic counseling services to help understand your results. However, if you have a family history of disease, or you are concerned about a specific health condition, you should consider talking to your doctor or a genetic counselor before paying for any of the available at-home tests, which may not be the most beneficial to your needs.
8. If you want to know what supplements to take
You might want to buy a DNA test, if "You want to ensure that you are taking the correct vitamins and minerals for your body," says Dr. Daniel Wallerstorfer, PhD, cofounder of Rootine, a company that custom-made daily vitamins tailored to your DNA, blood levels, and lifestyle. "A DNA test can tell you which nutrients are harmful, which may have no effect, which form of a vitamin you should take, and the best dosage for your body."
While everyone needs essential vitamins and minerals to be healthy, not everyone's bodies are the same. Due to searchable mutations in your genetic code, there are many cases where your genetic predisposition to vitamin uptake can be important. For example, Rootine tests 52 genetic variants with a proven impact on individual nutrient requirements. The selected variants are chosen based on research. In fact, says Wallerstorfer, these are based on DNA evidence from over 500 research reports.
You might wonder, what kind of things you can really learn about your individual nutritional needs from a DNA profile. Dr. W shares a few examples where understanding your genes can help:
- The APOA1 gene impacts the way your body handles Omega 3 fatty acids. If you have a certain variation on your gene, taking additional Omega 3 can worsen cholesterol levels (vs. having the beneficial impact everyone believes).
- Vitamin D is a critical vitamin in the body, and the VDR gene is responsible for activating the vitamin. If you have a certain variation on the VDR gene, your gene doesn't function as well as it could, causing you to need 2x the average amount of Vitamin D.
- Depending on the type of MTHFR gene mutation that you have, you should either take methylfolate or a higher dosage of folic acid.
- CoEnzyme Q10 is a powerful antioxidant used in many beauty regimens. If you have a variation on the NQ01 gene, your body cannot use CoQ10, which means it will simply go to waste.