The Role Of Genetics In Chronic Illness

Updated: Jan 13, 2020

I am a functional medicine doctor who specializes in complex and chronic conditions.

Genetic data is one of the many tools I utilize to get people better naturally.

Many of my patients first came to me in alarm at the findings of their genetic testing with questions like "does this mean I will get [heart disease, Alzheimer's or autoimmune disease] for sure?" or "I wish I never got the test, now I am just dreading when this happens, will my children get this disease too?"

Instead of getting the answers they hoped for, they just ended up with more worry.

The risk assessment printout that you get from many online services can be truly horrifying - it can look like your life is suddenly a series of unavoidable health catastrophes.

abstract molecules in a pastel background. text overlay The Role Of Genetics In Chronic Illness Functional Healthcare Institute

Genetics Is More Than 'Risk Factors'

There are many, many variables that can change that risk assessment - the right doctor can help you lower your risk of certain diseases so you can increase your chances at a long and healthy life.

Besides, if you are looking at your genes all in terms of 'risk' you are largely missing the most important information.

Genetic data is used best by not thinking solely in terms of 'risk' - but in terms of 'function'. In this way, genetic data can be used to ease symptoms and help unearth the cause of the chronic illness you may be facing now.

Single Genes vs Genotyping

Usually, patients get genetic data two different ways. If a certain condition is suspected by a doctor, he or she may order a test for the presence of a single genetic variant for diagnosis.

Testing a single gene through a hospital has a higher degree of accuracy but may cost thousands of dollars.

DNA Helix
Single genes are usually less important than how your genome functions as a whole

Another option is to get a more comprehensive genetic analysis through companies that can send you a kit directly to your home. You get more information, and at a cheaper price, but the results are less accurate [1].

Single genes are usually less important than how your genome functions as a whole

If you have life altering genetic data, are contemplating surgery or long term medication as a result of your genetics - you need to have that genetic data confirmed by a medical laboratory.

It is also a good idea to work with a functional medicine doctor (not just a genetic counselor) to help you put this data into the context of your overall health plan so you can actually use the data to lower your risk of disease and reverse disease processes already going on in the body.

Once patients have their raw genetic data, many opt to put that data in various software programs that can tell you the meaning of your genes, your risk for certain diseases and things like how well your body is detoxifying or if your genetics make it harder for you to lose weight.

Heres why that can cause problems of its own.

'DIY' Genetics - Online Genetic Software

The utilization of online genetic software to assess risk is very popular and can have some very useful information.  Many times, however, the format is oversimplified to the point that it causes problems.

Often, online genetic software does not make clear that testing data from third-party companies can be inaccurate - always remember that confirmatory tests are needed and this genetic data should not be used to diagnose yourself.

woman typing on a computer
Remember, risk assessments are based on what science knows of these genes - and we don't know a lot.

Remember, risk assessments are based on what science knows of these genes - and we don't know a lot.

Sometimes these online risk assessments are based on solid research, but other times they are based on flimsy, unreproducible studies of small sample size.  

Not all risk assessments are equal, there are still large blank spaces in our knowledge about the human genome.

These risk assessments may lead you to google search results that detail all the things you are at risk for due to a single gene.

Blindly applying supplements and lifestyle changes in the hope that they will reduce disease risk or help your symptoms is not the best way to use your newly found data.