DNA Analysis Can Help You Optimize Training and Nutrition: My Experience With SelfDecode

By on April 21, 2021

This post is both a SelfDecode review and a discussion around the role of genetics in training and performance. I also explore how DNA analysis works and how DNA itself works. If you just want the review, scroll down!

As someone who is very interested in self-optimization and the science of training, I have always liked the idea of having my DNA analysed. In theory, sites like SelfDecode allow us to get a peak inside our genetic makeup and to learn more about the way our bodies work – and the types of training and interventions they might respond to best. More personalized advice like this could well be an exciting new horizon for athletes and coaches.

Genetic differences in metabolism

I was, therefore, very excited to be contacted by SelfDecode and offered a free trial of their service. The results didn’t disappoint: this is a tool that has potential to be very useful for the right kind of athlete or anyone looking to improve their health and fitness.

In this post, I’ll explore why a better understanding of your DNA can be a valuable asset and what you can do with that information. You will also find my thoughts on SelfDecode itself – a mini SelfDecode review – as well as some information about how DNA works.

Disclaimer: Before I continue, I should disclose that I do earn a commission for anyone that follows my link and makes a purchase from SelfDecode. This does prevent me from being able to offer an entirely impartial SelfDecode review! However, I only entered into the partnership after having tried the service and enjoying what they had to offer. What follows are my honest opinions.

How DNA Analysis Works

SelfDecode, and services like it, analyse DNA data from swabs of saliva. You can purchase kits that include all the necessary tools and a return envelope, or you can use data you have already collected for use on other sites like Ancestry.co.uk. (Ancestry lets you download your raw DNA data.)

Because nearly every cell in your body contains a complete copy of your DNA, it is possible to get this information from an oral swab. With this information, SelfDecode is able look for known variations that correlate with specific traits. For example, if a particular gene is associated with tendon injuries, you can bet that SelfDecode will flag that up.

Cells in the body

From there, you can then look into the specific measures you can take to counter your less desirable genetic tendencies, and to maximize those more beneficial ones. Let’s say you find out that you have a

How DNA Encodes Information

DNA is the most efficient form of data storage known to man, a single gram capable of storing 215 petabytes of information (215 million gigabytes). There are around 3 billion “units” of information (reference) stored across the combined DNA sequence. A “gene” is a stretch of DNA that encodes for a specific function/trait (a simplification). There are around 30,000 genes in the human genome.

This information is separated into 46 pairs of chromosomes, stored inside the neuclei (center) of cells. Chromosomes mostly exist in pairs, with one from each parent. There are 23 pairs, though the 23rd pair are the sex chromosomes X & Y (women have two X chromosomes, men have an X and Y). While these chromosome pairs contain near-identical sequences, they can contain differences (alleles) inherited from the respective parent. In such cases, it will be the “dominant” gene that is expressed, or the genes will interact.

SelfDecode review

Each strand of DNA is a made up of nucleotides that side like beads on a thread. Nucleotides are comprised of three components: a sugar molecule, a phosphate group, and a nitrogenous base. These are called nucleobases or just “bases”.

These bases come in four possible flavours: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine (A, C, G, T). These form base pairs with complementary bases on the other strand. This gives DNA the helical structures we know and love.

Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms – Individual Differences in DNA

Because most of these positions are identical for almost all humans, we can focus only on those that show a significant amount of variation (varying in >1% of the population). These changeable positions are called “SNPs” or “Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms.” They’re pronounced “snips” because someone was being cute, I guess? These are variations affecting only one base in a pair, hence the “Single Nucleotide” part of the name.

DNA strand assembling from different elements. 3D illustration

Because we have two pairs of each gene, we then have to look at the corresponding chromosome to see if the same variation exists there. Those that inherit two copies of the same base (i.e. “GG”) are described as being “homozygous.” Those with just one copy are “heterozygous.”

There are countless studies identifying specific SNPs and showing how they correlate with particular traits. An allele is a “version” of a gene that has a particular effect. You might have the “brown eyes” allele for example, whereas a friend has the “blue eyes” allele (though it’s not that simple in reality).  

Sorry if this is a lot. It’s useful to understand all this before reading any SelfDecode review, or generally trying to understand the potential usefulness of understanding your own genes.

How All This Relates to Your Performance

This is where things get interesting from a performance standpoint. For example, in the ACTN3 gene, the SNP rs1815739 (the R577X allele) encodes the protein alpha-actinin-3, which is expressed primarily in fast type 2 muscle fiber. Thus, the 577R allele variant (the CC genotype) is associated with increased power-based athleticism (study, study).

From one study:

The functional allele (577R) of ACTN3, which encodes human α-actinin-3, has been reported to be associated with elite athletic status and with response to resistance training, while the non-functional allele (577X) has been proposed as a candidate metabolically thrifty allele.

Similarly, the homozygous “CC” or “Val/Val” allele of the SNP rs6265 correlates with high cognitive performance and IQ scores (study, study, study) through increased production of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

BDNF brain

SelfDecode Wellness Reports – How to Take Action on Your DNA

So, what SelfDecode can do for you, is to automatically comb through your DNA data and find these noted SNPs that have a large body of evidence showing potential effects. You then get a bunch of detailed, personalized reports that highlight your strengths and weaknesses with actionable advice on how to mitigate the latter.

For example, while I am fortunate to possess the desirable rs1815739 for explosive athleticism, I also have a tendency toward muscle injury. This is due to two SNPs: rs4880 and rs1800795. This is also backed up by my own personal experience!

It turns out that rs4880 is a right sod. It is located in a gene literally called SOD2. The role of this gene is to protect the muscles against oxidative build-up caused by exercise via an enzyme called superoxide dismutase (SOD). Unfortunately, my homozygous AA genotype leaves me with increased muscle inflammation markers and reduced likelihood of a career as a power athlete. My wellness report, however, suggests I can combat this with hydrogen rich water – which has been show to effectively increase SOD levels (study, study).

I also learned from the “Essential Minerals” report, that I am at risk from a number of mineral deficiencies, including magnesium and iron. This is “nutrigenics” – the study of how genes affect nutrition.

Of course, I am most interested in fitness and cognitive performance, so that’s what my SelfDecode review will be focusing on.

What to Do With All This Information

Advice like this has the potential to be extremely useful for anyone trying to get the most out of their body. It’s too early for me to say if H2 supplementation is going to prevent muscle injuries going forward; but it certainly offers a great line of questioning that has the potential to be extremely enlightening.

It’s also just really interesting. When I got my first “general” report, I was really quite taken aback by how accurately it described my own experiences.

There were some elements that stood out as odd, of course. But on the whole, it was fascinating to see how my DNA shaped my experiences. Would I have become The Bioneer if it weren’t for some of these genes? Would I have pursued fitness if I didn’t have a natural ability to build muscle mass?

The Limitations

It’s important to understand the inherent limitations of this kind of information, however.

For one: this is complex stuff. To say that a single gene (let alone a single nucleotide!) can determine your performance in any given area, is a simplification. For example, you might have a tendency toward fast twitch muscle fiber (great!) but if you produce low testosterone, or if you have unhelpful tendon insertions, or if you have issue’s with motor learning… any of those things might prevent you from being an effective weightlifter.

Even within the wellness reports, you’ll see multiple genotypes that contradict each other. You might have several that predict great athletic performance and several that correlate with poor athleticism. (You do get a summary down the bottom that gives you a broader picture.)

Athlete

The predictions themselves are also based on a handful of studies in most cases. Some of these are involving professional athletes, or elderly participants. Others might have issues with their experimental design. There are almost always a few studies that found contradictory results. All a report like this can say is: “looking at the studies, there appears to be a correlation between genotype A) and result B).”

Only a fraction of the 4-5 million SNPs in the human genome have been studied at all. And of course, environment and training have HUGE roles to play in how genes are expressed and what we actually experience.

A Word of Caution

We risk a reductionist approach if we focus too much attention on specific genes. Some might lose the forest for the trees. We also risk driving ourselves mad by learning all of our potential issues – hypochondriacs need not apply!

Likewise, looking for “biohacks” to solve problems is often misguided. While some strategies can be helpful, training and consistent lifestyle changes almost always trump easy wins like supplementation. While hydrogen supplementation may be helpful for me, being gradual with progressive overload and knowing when the back-off is probably the more robust long-term solution.

That doesn’t take away from the potential value of these tools, however, so long as you keep these limitations in mind. And for their part, SelfDecode are always very forthright and up-front when it comes to disclosing these issues. They constantly remind you of this, which is a big boon. Just resist the very human urge to oversimplify and look for easy solutions.

Now, onto the SelfDecode review!

What You Get: A SelfDecode Review

I love the Wellness Reports pertaining to fitness and cognitive performance. These are in-depth, detailed documents that describe a large number of SNPs, and that offer lots of advice. What’s more, SelfDecode provides links to all the studies they used to form their suggestions. This is particularly useful, as it allows you to verify the claims and to dig deeper yourself.

You can see mine here:

My cognitive function report contains over 400 references – all relating specifically to my DNA. The amount of potential future Bioneer content here is insane.

There are many more wellness reports relating to other topics, too. You can find reports relating to sleep, to anxiety, to weight gain. Others weren’t so interesting for me, but might be more useful for others: reports pertaining to allergies, hair loss, eczema, chronic fatigue, blood sugar, and even COVID risk. Depending on the plan you choose, you can generate a select number of these reports, or access as many as you like. These reports are also updated from time to time, as new studies are published.

There are other features, too. You can access a “Personalized Genetics Blog,” for example, that shows blog posts that relate specifically to your DNA. And you can see things like your “potentially bad and rare” SNPs in a single spot, as well as a list of suggestions.

There’s lots to dig into, in other words!

Self Decode Review: Where There’s Room for Improvement

It wouldn’t be a fair SelfDecode review without highlighting a couple of drawbacks. For one, navigation can be a little unintuitive at times. For example, there are these great articles that show lots of detailed information about specific genes in the body etc. alongside your own phenotype (like this one). The only way I’ve been able to find these is through the wellness reports.

I also wish the wellness reports would provide information about desirable SNPs as well as the less desirable genotypes. If you have great genes, then you will see that outlined but won’t get much of a detailed explanation. Only when you have the less desirable genotype are you given more detailed information and actionable tips. Of course, you can just follow the studies in either case (which are always linked) and/or do your own research. But it would be nice to revel in my successes as well as having flaws highlighted… And perhaps to get some tips on how to double down on my strengths.  

Faster reactions

The Personalized Genetics Blog is not updated as often as it could, either. But these are small complaints. On the whole, I found SelfDecode fascinating – both from a geeky, scientific point of view, and from a practical standpoint. I’ll definitely be experimenting with some of the suggestions, and I’ll be reading those studies for a while to come. I think it’s going to lead to some very interesting new posts.

So, to conclude my SelfDecode review: I really like it! It goes above and beyond in terms of the information it delivers and it makes for fascinating, and highly, useful reading.

SelfDecode Review: Conclusions

The takeaway message here, is that anyone who wants to dive deeper into the nature of their own physical and mental performance could probably benefit from SelfDecode, or a similar service. While our understanding of the human body is still very limited and these insights are really only very small glimpses into its impossibly intricate workings; it offers a tentative first step toward a more refined approach to training and optimization.

And, as I said at the start of this post, this is a new frontier for athletes and coaches alike. Personalized advice is likely to play a big role in helping us to run faster, jump higher, and recover better. If you’ve ever wondered why you respond better to certain types of training, or even why you got particularly beneficial results from a specific nutrient, DNA testing could hold the answer.

But then again, it’s still just one piece of the puzzle.

Have you tried SelfDecode? If so, what did you think? I’d love to hear your own SelfDecode review down below. Likewise: do you see the potential for this kind of analysis?

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. Nick Urban says:

    Also a user & fan of SelfDecode. The reports are pretty thorough and I like that they list actionable recommendations. With all genetic analysis, today I still see a glaring issue with reductionism and isolation. We’re still discovering the new roles of SNPs. What was high risk yesterday can become low-risk today… and vice-versa.

    Still interesting and useful nonetheless.

    • Absolutely agree! It’s a very useful and interesting tool, but you really need to approach it with the right mindset. These are interesting insights that may or may not have a direct impact on your performance and wellbeing. Worth investigating but not set in stone by any means. All with potential mitigating factors. “The future is not set” 🙂 Great amount of info, too, you’re right.

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