Personal Systems Biology: We Can Only Change What We Know

Our bodies are complex biological systems that are influenced by the foods we eat, the places we grew up, and the people and the genomes that made us. Not everyone will get identical benefits from eating the same diet, and we all deal with different exposures.

So how do we measure what is good for our specific personal biology?

Personal systems biology is essentially the sum of nutrition + exposure/toxins  + lifestyle + how those inputs affect our bodies through our biological and genetic makeups. Because we all process nutrition, toxins, and stress differently, a one-size-fits-all answer will not benefit us completely. Even a diet that is beneficial for some may be deleterious to others.

With new diagnostic technology we can collect a baseline, add interventions, and measure again in order to understand our personal systems biology better. By doing so, we gain leverage against disease by observing the metabolites  (chemical outputs) that are produced in our bodies, allowing us to make informed behavior changes to realize our personal best outcomes.

Imagine a personal database of your many biomarkers. Biomarkers are indicators of a biological state, like iron in blood. We can measure and track those and watch them change over the years as we change our habits. Through this measurement loop we can begin to see what effective changes we can make for ourselves, avoid disease, and take control of our health, performance and longevity.

Many of us are familiar with tracking nutrition and lifestyle choices. A few other important things to track for wellness include exposome, genome, and metabolome:

Exposome: Our bodies are not made of Teflon. What we do and eat, as well as the environments we expose ourselves to, can decorate our tissues like flies on a windshield. Many of these environmental factors can be measured by the marks they leave behind: the exposome. Diagnostics can now assess the exposures that affect our health from before birth to the present. The chemicals in our environment and our habits have enormous influence on our personal systems biology.

An October 2010 Scientific American article on sequencing the exposome states that “although genetics can predispose a person to many ills, more than half of disease risks — and possibly as much as 90 percent — likely stem from environmental factors, according to recent epidemiological research.”

Genome: In modern molecular biology and genetics, the genome represents the complete version of an organism’s hereditary information. It was thought for many years that the “hand you were dealt” by your ancestors pretty much dictated your health destiny. But in the past decade that idea has begun to change slightly. For example, many genes can be “turned on” or “turned off” depending on different biological inputs. It turns out that what you start with can be optimized or improved upon if you learn how your own unique system works.

The metabolome is the complete set of small-molecule metabolites that is the result of our body’s metabolic function — basically, the crime scene. By looking at what happens at the level of our body’s microprocesses, we can tell a lot about what we should do to keep ourselves healthy and whether what we have changed is guiding us in the right direction.

In January 2007 scientists at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary finished a draft of the human metabolome database cataloging and characterizing 2,500 metabolites, 1,200 drugs or active chemicals and 3,500 food components that can be found in the human body. The Human Metabolome Database now contains more than 7,900 known metabolites and is continuing to grow. As we continue to learn more about how these markers are affected by our personal systems biology, our personal wellness abilities will also increase.

This is our diagnostic approach:

  • Test: Get lab work done to find out more about toxicity levels, genes, blood chemistry, etc. Even tracking diet, physical activity, and stress levels can add clarity.
  • Integrative and functional medicine: Employ practitioners who are empowering and know how to work collaboratively with other practitioners. Engaging a variety of skills and voices is more valuable than relying on one source.
  • Research: Make interactions with practitioners as rich and informed as possible. Wikipedia and WebMD continue to be great sources.
  • Supplements: Take healthy food and supplements. Aside from supporting nutritional needs, certain nutrients are natural detoxifiers for the chemicals encountered in day-to-day living. They can also correct deficiencies
  • Retest: Get more lab work done. After a benchmark has been established, measure how new choices improve overall wellness.  As Jim looks at more granular data that is responsive to small changes in his diet and lifestyle, he wants to see his results more often to better inform and reinforce his personal wellness program.

Adopting any program of diet, supplementation, pharmacy and detoxification all begins with measurement. We’re excited about developments in this space and look forward to your feedback and questions.

Thanks to Dr. Bruce German for his assistance around the topics of metabolomics and nutrition.

The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.