A combination of cutting-edge technology, increased health awareness, and limited access to health services has spurred the rise of at-home biodata test kits. These often expensive services require customers to post a biological sample – hair, blood, or even faeces – and promise to reveal the secrets of the human body through personal readings. Do-it-yourself genetic, health marker, and gut microbiome test services offer more than just data. They promise a way to become healthier, happier, our ‘optimal’ selves.
In general, tracking health statistics is becoming more commonplace – whether you own a smartwatch or not, your phone will track your steps. Period tracking apps and calorie calculators make it easier than ever to collect bodily data. DIY biodata kits draw upon our curiosity and take it one step further by promising to uncover the unknown, revealing latent indicators of health inside the body. But can they actually live up to these promises? And is there such a thing as knowing too much?
Allergy and Intolerance Tests
Tests that offer to reveal an allergy or food sensitivity from hair samples, your grip strength or ‘energy levels’ have no scientific validity and may encourage people to mistakenly avoid foods for a lifetime. To get tested for an allergy, consult your doctor. An allergy clinic will not only identify the best test for your suspected allergy, but also be able to interpret the results for you to manage symptoms.
Intolerance symptoms typically take longer to appear than allergic reactions. Lactose intolerance, for instance, can be a consequence of not having enough of the lactase enzyme in the body. However, intolerances can have varied causes that we may not be able to test for, yet. Typical advice is to keep a food diary, consult a doctor and try an elimination diet, where you remove one food from your diet and note any symptom changes.
Some DIY gut health kits claim to reveal food intolerances, overall health, or a predisposition to certain diseases and conditions, such as a leaky gut. Many involve sending a sample of your faeces to the provider. The tests can provide information about the types of bacteria in your gut, but shouldn’t be used to diagnose pain or discomfort, or as a guide to improve overall health. Gut health is in an exciting era of research, but not enough is known yet for these tests to live up to every promise. Beware of kits that appear to be capitalising on the gut health trend and those that try to sell you their recommended probiotic afterwards.
Genetic fitness assessments are another self-testing trend that claims to reveal the ‘fitness potential’ encoded in your DNA. Companies like DNAFit and Fitness Genes take a cheek-swab sample to provide customers with a personalised insight into their athletic potential. These tests are expensive and results and advice are generally shaky. Currently, research is not comprehensive enough to tailor training to individual genetics, let alone achieve this through an at-home test kit. One US company, Orig3n, was unable to identify a Labrador’s DNA as non-human in the results of its ‘Superhero’ test package, suggesting that the canine subject “has the cardiac output for long endurance bike rides or runs.”
You may be more familiar with direct-to-consumer genetic tests such as 23andMe, My Heritage and AncestryDNA. These tests are arguably more established in the public eye and are popular for heritage purposes. In recent years, some companies have offered health risk tests for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, late-onset Alzheimer’s and hereditary thrombophilia. However, a 2018 study found a false-positive rate of 40% in non-clinical genetic tests. In a clinical setting, a medical professional would be able to interpret genetic test results while taking into account the patient’s lifestyle and family history. DIY tests cannot replicate this service.
In France, genetic testing outside of medical or judicial orders is banned, and taking one could result in a fine of up to €3,750. You have to wonder why people would opt to open Pandora’s Box; why would you want to know your disposition to a genetic disorder when you can do very little about it? Yes, certain lifestyle changes are linked to health and longevity, but giving up smoking, eating a nutritious diet and regularly exercising are universal pillars of health – not just for people with an inherent genetic risk of disease. Then again, curiosity and the quest for self-improvement are normal human desires, and in the UK, adults are free to spend their money as they wish. Still, these tests may not be the most appropriate gift at Christmas.
If you have the money to spare and are prepared to take your results with a pinch of salt, then there may be no harm in taking DIY health kits (although commentators have flagged privacy concerns). However, you should not make any drastic lifestyle changes based on one, perhaps inaccurate test. These kits may be a good starting point, but they should not be used as a diagnostic tool. If you have serious health concerns, you should seek advice from a medical professional. Much of the advice these companies give will not deviate from standard health truths: stay hydrated, sleep well, reduce stress, exercise and eat your vegetables.