Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
29 Mar

Maybe There is Such a Thing as Too Much Information

A couple weeks back, the LA Times published a piece on a geneticist’s experience with “personalized medicine.” Based on careful and constant monitoring of his sequenced DNA and around 40,000 health markers – or “omics” – over 14 months by a team of his colleagues, Stanford geneticist Michael Snyder observed in painstaking detail exactly what his body was doing during periods of sickness and health. If and when a viral infection entered the picture, Snyder and his team could watch how thousands of biomarkers responded. He could track its invasion, his body’s battle against it, and its eventual retreat. Although Snyder had no family history of diabetes, his sequenced DNA revealed he was at risk for it, so he began monitoring his blood sugar. Sure enough, a couple weeks after the viral infection, he noticed that his glucose was abnormally elevated. Analysis of his “omics” profile during the infection showed that auto-antibodies, which are often produced by the body in response to infections, had begun targeting an insulin receptor-binding protein which impaired his ability to clear glucose from the blood. Snyder was eventually diagnosed with the disease (but later fought it off with diet and meds), and though it isn’t spelled out clearly in the article, it sounds like the fallout from the viral infection may have precipitated his development of type 2 diabetes.

It’s a good story, but how applicable are its contents to the average person without an armada of geneticists at his or her disposal? I’m dubious, though I can see the argument for finding out where you stand on certain specific genetic predispositions:

  • Diabetics should probably learn which “Metformin response” genotype they are before filling a prescription for the drug. If they’re non- or low-responders to the drug, it won’t be as effective.
  • Whether or not you have the genes for hereditary hemachromatosis, or excessive iron absorption, can be useful knowledge (especially for men who neither menstruate, pit fight, nor engage in bloodletting). If testing indicates you do have it, you can take simple steps to correct or mitigate the issue, like giving blood and drinking red wine, tea, or coffee with iron-rich meals to lessen iron absorption. But those aren’t bad things to be doing regardless.
  • Those with a “malfunctioning” MTHFR gene may have issues producing folate, a crucial fertility and pregnancy nutrient. Women who have the genetic variant should probably supplement with extra folate before and during pregnancy. But that’s something pregnant women should probably already be doing.

But for the most part, there’s just not a whole lot we can do with this information. I guess it could be cool to use your “omics” to “see” a cold or flu coming before it touches down, but is that even very feasible for the average person? Snyder’s team of chemists were analyzing 40,000 variables every time they took an omics measurement (20 times over the course of 14 months), while the average blood test (which we get maybe once a year) looks at around 20 variables. They hope to narrow it down to a “subset of them that will be truly predictive of future health,” but that’s a long ways off. In the meantime, let’s keep in mind that Snyder’s biggest discovery was that he had type 2 diabetes. The genetic test indicated that the blood sugar was worth keeping an eye on, but the smorgasbord of esoteric biomarkers wasn’t required to tell him that he had elevated blood sugar. It was a simple blood sugar test, a basic $10 pin prick that you can pick up at the drug store, the very same test that millions of diabetics and health-conscious consumers use on a daily basis. The omics report revealed the connection between the viral infection and the diabetes, but the real, actionable data – that he had a problem regulating his blood sugar –  could be attained quite easily.

Research like this is important. It can show us how our genes interact with our environment, and it can identify which biomarkers should be tracked and which should be discarded as irrelevant. It’s also cool that we could conceivably watch our biomarkers in flux as they respond to viral infections, actually see the cytokine storm that responds to the flu, or watch the inflammatory cycle that occurs after a heavy workout and makes training adaptations possible. I won’t argue against that. I am, however, wary of people rushing out to jump on the latest trend in personalized science, spending a lot of money, getting a product (that may not even be legible to a layman), and trying to base important lifestyle decisions on the information therein. Sometimes, simpler is better. Sometimes, easy is more effective. Sometimes, less is much, much more, while more information is constricting, stress-inducing, and paralyzing. Let the research commence, but I’d refrain from acting on it until you (and the folks doing the research) actually suss out all the implications. 

It’s not that I don’t see the merit in this stuff for some people. It’s just that I don’t care. I already have enough to worry about and obsess over. The last thing I need is another set of biomarkers to consider. I’ve been Primal for eleven years now. I’m happy, fit, healthy, with zero complaints. I’m happy and satisfied with my diet. Things are going well. Everything appears to be working, inside and out. I rarely go to the doctor, but when I do go for a checkup, everything checks out. Is there anything I’d drastically change about my lifestyle if presented with a full omics report? Honestly, no.

Say I went through with it and it told me that a huge cytokine storm swells up inside me every weekday around mid afternoon, indicating a stress response. Would that change anything? No! I know I need to relax more and reduce stress in my life (especially my work life), and “seeing it” would be interesting, but I don’t need a printout to tell me I need to work on it.

Say I learned that I carried the mutated ACTN gene for endurance sports (as opposed to the gene for strength or sprint sports). Would I then drop the heavy lifting, the hiking, the Ultimate frisbee, the beach sprints, and go back to running marathons and completing triathlons? No! I know how my body reacts to that type of training. Hell, there’s a very good chance I do have the mutated gene, given my success with endurance sports, but that didn’t make it healthy or even enjoyable. The genetics of it all are immaterial in a sense.

What are you going to do if it’s bad news? Agonize over it? Stew in a pot of your own helplessness? Stay up late scouring blogs and forums and databases for some way to make sense of the information dump? Or are you going to keep living your life, eating right, moving well and often, enjoying the company of friends and loved ones, savoring a good glass of wine (or whatever poison you fancy), getting up early for a crisp weekend hike, and generally doing the things that have already proven to lead you toward good health? 

Of course, some people love to know as much as possible (even if they don’t really know what the numbers and configurations of letters they get back from the testing company actually mean). Go for it, then. When the science gets stronger and they narrow those 40,000 variables to a couple hundred really relevant ones, I’ll pay attention too. I’m not promising I’ll micromanage my life because of it, but I’ll be listening with interested ears.

Where do you fall on all this, folks? Do you want to know absolutely all the wrinkles of your genome? Do you want a constant, daily play-by-play on the inner workings of your physiology? Or do you think that would be counterproductive to your goals and your desires? Let me know in the comment section!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I dig articles like this. Diet and exercise ones are fine and all, but sometimes it’s nice to see more expansive topics like this covered here.

    It was a very encouraging read. Thanks for that!

    I.C. wrote on March 29th, 2012
    • Oh, though maybe there’s some sort of irony in the fact that I’m reading it right now while also browsing 2 other forums and YouTube.

      Hmm…I might be having info overload right now, which is kind of related to the more specific ‘health info overload.’

      Something to think about, I guess.

      I.C. wrote on March 29th, 2012
  2. I love this: “Let the research commence, but I’d refrain from acting on it until you (and the folks doing the research) actually suss out all the implications.” Guinea-pigging is fun, but it shouldn’t be frenetic.

    Abel James wrote on March 29th, 2012
  3. Obviously stressing over details like this is no way to live life.

    I think it would be more interesting if biomarkers of our age were included. Some markers of aging might be more advanced than others, then we could take steps to reverse or prevent those specific types of aging at the cellular level.

    Some of us may have more intracellular and also extracellular junk (yes, that is the scientific term) than others. An easy way to reverse this would be to fast. As Mark pointed out the other day, lowering insulin to fasted levels will turn on autophagy, and help clear all that “junk” out.

    Just the thought of reversing markers of aging is very exciting. Although, how aging occurs has not yet been clearly defined by science, I still wonder about the possibilities of negligible senescence in human beings who live the right lifestyle. It exists in a few other animals.

    If anyone shows traits of negligible senescence, it is Mark.

    Matthew Caton wrote on March 29th, 2012
  4. Nice article Mark! I prefer to just live life without agonizing about any numbers. If one is healthy, feels great, and has no health ailments, then continue doing what you are doing. In this case, worrying about the numbers is just another added stress in life. So forget the numbers, just live (and love) life!

    Chika wrote on March 29th, 2012
    • agreed!!! if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so they say.

      yoolieboolie wrote on March 29th, 2012
  5. Personally, I would not want a day-by-day play of what was going on inside of me. This is somewhat analogous to investors who track day-to-day changes; this causes mass freak-outs. “Long-term investing” is what I would prefer, which is analogous to a unweighed, unmeasured Primal lifestyle.

    Frank wrote on March 29th, 2012
  6. I think having all those minute details, “possible” genes or “increased possibility” of a disease would add more stress and ultimately more harm than just as you indicated eating right, being active and making good choices.

    Nate Church wrote on March 29th, 2012
  7. I am all for getting more information, but yeah, maybe there is such a thing as TMI. Tracking 40k variables is pretty daunting.

    OTOH, that’s what computers are for (I’m a programmer…). If such a test eventually got cheap enough (and accurate enough, and repeatable enough), there is a possibility that the mainstream medical community might be forced to learn something about nutrition and exercise. And it just might, MIGHT, force them into learning what is wrong with statins and a couple of other toxins they now prescribe for treatment of a fictitious number (which would not be a good indicator of anything even if it wasn’t fictitious).

    Howard wrote on March 29th, 2012
  8. As someone who found out she had both copies of her MTHFR gene ‘malfunctioning,’ only after experiencing problems, I think specific genetic data can be very interesting and, at times, guide decision-making. It does have to be kept within the overall context of our lives, however.

    Alison Golden - PaleoNonPaleo wrote on March 29th, 2012
    • MTHFR gene…

      … is most expressed in Samuel L Jackson.

      oxide wrote on March 29th, 2012
      • I want these MTHFR genes off this MTHFR.. wait, wut were we talking about?

        Jeffrey of Troy wrote on March 29th, 2012
      • LMAO

        Chika wrote on March 30th, 2012
  9. Great post.

    You’ve got to differentiate the research (which is what this study was about, eventually) from the practical aspect.

    The research is amazing. And maybe we can distill it down to being able to supplement the usual models.

    But on a practical basis? Come on. We know what is killing us.

    charlie wrote on March 29th, 2012
  10. “It’s just that I don’t care. I already have enough to worry about and obsess over. The last thing I need is another set of biomarkers to consider.”

    Lol yep, yep and double yep.. that’s what I was thinking as I read through the article.

    I’m trying to keep my life as simple as possible and now I just want to eat well, feel fit and healthy and have more fun , cultivate more peace in my life and spread good vibes and this blog around. I just don’t need to know that stuff….

    Mark, what you are doing with your time and how you share your passion and knowledge with us here is life changing (you have had a huge impact on me and my family since the beginning of this year). I love reading your blogs and everyone’s comments and learning from you all.
    This place feels like home now and you guys are like my cyber family. Grok on and a big primal hug to you Mark from down under. You make a difference.

    Zorbs the Aussie wrote on March 29th, 2012
  11. Holy butt-weasel, Batman! I have a very good friend who works in the Snyder lab!!! I hope you don’t mind but I sent this post to her. I’ll be very interested to see what her (and likely her other lab mates’) response to it is :)

    cTo wrote on March 29th, 2012
  12. I’m with you, Mark. I don’t care. Simple, occasional check-up is good enough for me–I don’t see the point in measuring 40,000 variables. This seems totally insane, to be frank. And people think *I’m* obsessive about my health! Yeesh.

    Daniel Wallen wrote on March 29th, 2012
  13. Yep, I DO think there’s a TMI factor. The health scare du jour, esp. on a certain thin doctor’s blog, is just too depressing. Yes, I like to know some, and I like science, but good GRIEF! “Is this common killer still lurking in your refrigerator? Are you still taking THIS, are you getting enough of THAT, are you doing it wrong, is this common medical advice killing thousands of people a year…” Gah. there’s a line to how much of that I can deal with. So…I don’t! Eat right, exercise, appreciate what I have, try to cut stress…check. I’m good…

    Cathy Johnson wrote on March 29th, 2012
  14. I think it’s pretty neat. The fact that we saw in real time his type two evolve from a flare up of immunity is great. I wouldnt run off to spend a ton of money to do it myself, which I think is your point. Nonetheless, my answer to your question of TMI is unequivocally no. This is how science moves forwards, I suppose.

    Ali wrote on March 29th, 2012
  15. All of the biochemical information that is available today is really incredible, the next big leap will be translating it into useful advice. How amazing would it be if they were able to condense the analysis into a little companion robot that interpreted the 40,000 markers after every test and gave you advice like: “you should relax for one extra hour today” or “you should eat some grassfed beef liver today.” If the robot then proceeded to cook said liver, we would know we had arrived at a Utopian society.

    Missaralee wrote on March 29th, 2012
  16. The rather low correlation between current biomarkers and diseases runs up against the law of small numbers, since you are an experiment of one.

    For instance, knowing that you have a gene that give you a 20% elevated risk of colon cancer might be useful, but you are still much more likely to die of something else. These subtle effects are only significant if you look at them with large numbers of people.

    Tim wrote on March 29th, 2012
  17. I think that for myself, it comes down to how much time, effort, money I want to put into worrying my healthiness. And the answer is, not much.

    Kurt Russell once said that a man shouldn’t spend to much time on his hair. The same is probably true of worrying about health.

    Rubikzube wrote on March 29th, 2012
  18. Wow– pretty extensive stuff. Last year I had some bloodwork done at our company as a volunteer. Of 3 thousand workers they had a hard tiem finding 20 volunteers..but heck I thought it was a great idea.
    Anyway– everything- from the prostate markers to cholesterol numbers and tons of other blood specific markers were all perfect (for a guy who is 60!
    But I had been eating mostly primal for the last few years and didn’t have health insurance for a few of those eyars and hadn’t been for a checkup for over 15 years.
    So I attribute those solid numbers to exercise and primal eating and with the exception of one very minor cold I have not been sick in years. Blessed!
    Thanks Mark for the research– oh BTW I also fast on and off a few times a month and I love it!

    Pastor Dave wrote on March 29th, 2012
  19. Time spent worrying about minutiae is time that could be spent doing something to better yourself. Worrying has probably never improved anybody’s life.

    Primal Texas wrote on March 29th, 2012
  20. I had the 23andme genetic test recently, but don’t see results for the MTHFR gene and am very curious. Is it listed as something else -like a disease or condition? Do I have to do something else with my genetic information to find that out?

    Senneth wrote on March 29th, 2012
  21. I would want to know about the genes that lead to iron accumulation, but that’s also a cheap lab test. Actually, I’m already doing the most I can to activate by best epigenetics anyway, so even if I knew I had a gene for a certain disease, I’m probably already doing most of what I’d need to to avoid suffering.

    knifegill wrote on March 29th, 2012
  22. Yes, there is such a thing as too much information. After all life is for living, not worrying about all this stuff. Remember what that great philosopher of our generation John Lennon said : “Life is what happens while you’re busy planning.” Applicable to researching as well.

    Joanna wrote on March 29th, 2012
  23. Personally, I find it too tedious to follow my macros on Fitday, I eat as well as I can (maybe with a bit too much dark chocolate) and let the numbers calculate themselves.

    I try to trust in the process.

    Griffin wrote on March 29th, 2012
  24. I’m not a Luddite. But I loved the movie “Gattaca”.

    I like knowing more about things. I like knowing more about myself. I like finding out that lactose intolerance was the cause of a lot of my problems. I like finding out about various allergies a couple of years ago. But at some point at the micro-level, it becomes harder (except for very rare anomalies) to connect with the macro-level of how life actually goes. So for now, at least, I’m pretty uninterested in my DNA.

    Franklin Chen wrote on March 29th, 2012
  25. I think it’s fascinating — and potentially very helpful for many — that we see Diabetes being triggered by an infection, rather than by diet or some other factor.

    Boom wrote on March 29th, 2012
  26. I don’t care either. Science, although I love it, has too many pitfalls.

    Years ago, I told med professionals I couldn’t eat gluten or my son (who I was nursing and very gluten intolerant) would become ill.

    I came home and searched everywhere I could on Pubmed. Everything said it wasn’t possible. But I knew it was happening so I ignored them all and stayed pristinely gf.

    I also told them my mouth ulcers were caused by gluten. Again, the status quo said this was not possible.

    Guess what happened years later. Yup, they said “Oops, turns out it does go through breastmilk and oh yeah, it does cause mouth ulcers (cankar sores).

    So for me no.

    But my teenage daughter doesn’t think she needs to be gf even though she gets sick. She said she would be better about it if a gene test says she has the gene. And so I’m doing some brain gymnastics over that at the moment.

    Kim wrote on March 29th, 2012
  27. No question that sometimes the best advice is: “don’t worry, be happy!”

    Chance Bunger wrote on March 29th, 2012
  28. You speak of Metformin….
    If anyones interested, the February 2012 edition of Life Extension magazine has an article on Metformin..
    They present evidence on Metformin’s ability to prevent/slash Cancer risk.
    They even go so far as to reccommend the possibilty of non-Diabetics using it.
    With some contraindications of course.

    Larry wrote on March 29th, 2012
  29. My family definitely gains muscle tone faster than normal. I did pretty well in marathon running, but i did better in sprint running and any sport that required short energy bursts.
    I never thought about having a genetic predisposition to it though.
    I’m the only healthy person in my family, and have been even before I started primal. I wonder why that is? Granted, I did walk everywhere, and ate much less than them, but i was by no means a healthy eater.

    Nionvox wrote on March 29th, 2012
  30. My husband and I both have 23andMe accounts. We got them more for fun(science nerds) than anything else. It’s pretty cool to see and I haven’t changed anything as a result of any of the findings.

    My husband, on the other hand, has been struggling with some health issues and noticed that he had a genetic marker that correlated with low testosterone. He started looking down that avenue and sure enough that is one of his issues.

    So, I do think these tests can have a valuable place in health and medicine and will eventually become affordable and common place as the technology gets better. Like any other test, though, they shouldn’t be a sole determining factor.

    momburger wrote on March 29th, 2012
    • +1

      rarebird wrote on March 29th, 2012
  31. Am i the only one who read “MTHFR gene” as “MotherrF****r gene”? Sigh…I really have been corrupted by the internet. MDA subliminally reminding me to go outside and get some fresh air and sun and stop spending so much time online. Duly noted.

    Patrick wrote on March 29th, 2012
    • NO, you are not the only one. I thought the same thing and am glad to join you in admitting to it.

      Joy Beer wrote on March 29th, 2012
  32. On the other hand, something to consider, all of you who feel healthy and happy. I too had no health complaints but a routine blood test turned up a high blood platelet count. Fortunately not in a danger zone. Turns out it was caused by a mutated gene and so far is not curable nor is it known why the gene mutates.

    As we watched my platelet count every 4 months, it steadily climbed into a potential danger zone for a thrombotic event. It is being presently controlled by a drug and all indications are that I will probably die of something else.

    This condition is somewhat rare and usually happens to people over 50 but I see plenty of younger people who have this on discussion boards on the web.

    My doc told me a story of a 20 year old who’s liver was severely damaged by a thrombotic event because she too had this mutated gene and her platelet count was sky high. She had no indication of her condition before the event.

    Bottom line…one does not always know what is going on inside one’s body even though all seems well on the outside. I’d say, get a blood test once in a while just for preventative sake.

    Sharon wrote on March 29th, 2012
    • A high a1c in January, and high triglycerides were very good for me to know. I had no idea that my blood sugars would be high after 1.5 months of avoiding sugar, carbs… but I’d had an illness from November through December that required 18 days of antibiotics, including cipro, so knowing that illness can drive up blood sugars made an impression.

      Now that I’ve read about the Snyder cause for Type II diabetes, I’m really nervous! I wonder if I’d not gotten the test, whether 5 more months of paleo/primal would have solved this, and I wouldn’t instead be worrying and thinking every day. OR, if knowledge about something like this will make me more dedicated because I personally need to be more dedicated due to a possible vulnerability.

      Joy Beer wrote on March 29th, 2012
    • Exactly!

      rarebird wrote on March 29th, 2012
  33. I was amazed to read that fallout from a viral infection may have precipitated Snyder’s diabetes. I had no clue that a viral infection might trigger diabetes. I think studies like these are good to gain information like that, but I would not sign myself up for it. I plan on eating, moving and sleeping well, and enjoying life while I have it.

    spincycle wrote on March 29th, 2012
    • It amazed me, and bummed me out, big time. Wondering if my longish illness this past fall did me in.

      Joy Beer wrote on March 29th, 2012
  34. I would loovvee to have my physiology constantly monitored!! Seriously, I have no concept of TMI. And I reckon it would be good feedback that could change how I live: what if there was a cytokines storm when I ate nightshades? That would change my behavior. Id be interested to see which genes turn on n off when I am on/off the pill- maybe it’d explain why my skin gets so bad when im off (like now) and maybe it could help me mimic the on state through careful lifestyle adjustments. This testing would be seriously masturbatory for me and if I had millions of dollars I’d hire a team to test and interpret my results today!

    SophieE wrote on March 29th, 2012
  35. I am so totally intrigued with how our bodies work that I would LOVE to have this kind of detailed information! I wouldn’t find it stressful, just fascinating. Maybe I should have been a Biologist!

    Camille wrote on March 29th, 2012
  36. Hello Mark,

    I work for a company who sells sequencers that make personal medicine cheaper and thus more accessible for each one of us. As such I have an interest in research like this. I’m glad you wrote this article to put things in perspective and I agree with you on applying this research to anyone’s daily life.
    But! And the but is a sort of request from me to you. I would like to ask you to stay close to this sort of research so you can keep guiding us on the process and the applicability of this research on our lifestyle.
    First of all because I like the fact that you constantly challenge and question your beliefs and I am convinced personal medicine will do just that. But also, and even more importantly so you can give a dissonant voice to all the commercial companies out there who might be (ab)using this new information for their own financial benefit and as such might do us harm.

    Kurt wrote on March 29th, 2012
  37. The best part of my day is checking-in with Mark and all the primal family. Mark, please keep writing, and family, please keep commenting. You guys inspire me!

    Paula Burrus Hinton wrote on March 29th, 2012
  38. Good article and generally applicable to the majority of MDA readers who value their health and have made it a priority. I also agree that having knowledge of one’s personal SNP’s may be problematic and create more anxiety than productive insight.

    Snyder’s findings and this type of research is valuable for the population of people who aren’t well or struggle with idiopathic symptoms, conditions and diseases.

    This research is vital to the movement known as Functional Medicine which is the approach to finding and treating the key underlying dysfunctions in the body. We use the study of epigenetics (how our environment communicates with our DNA) and nutrigenomics (how nutrition communicates with our DNA) to optimize patients physiology so their body can heal itself. That means they may not need to rely on allopathic medicine and the countless prescriptions they’ve been handed.

    So to a typical MDA follower this kind of information may seem irrelevant, but to the majority of Americans who experience unknown, annoying conditions that cannot be treated with lifestyle changes alone, this information might be helpful.

    Ryan Lazarus wrote on March 29th, 2012
    • Agree.

      rarebird wrote on March 29th, 2012
  39. I think its important for people to realize that viruses can have these kinds of effects.

    rarebird wrote on March 29th, 2012
  40. Cant wait until this type of info is “routinely” available!
    BTW – you can listen to M. Snyder deliver a fantastic genetics lecture via Stanford Mini MEd school (also on you tube). He is quite brilliant. The Stanford lectures are really great. A wonderful resource they make available to the world.

    deb b wrote on March 29th, 2012

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