DNAFit Review

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Recently I was offered a trail membership to the DNAFit service. The service provides specific health recommendations (exercise and diet) based on access to your 23andMe SNP data. This kind of thing is right up my alley so I jumped at the chance to try out the service. Unfortunately 23andMe has been prohibited from providing health results to customers by the FDA, but for people who have already obtained health data from 23andMe, it’s still possible to get recommendations from DNAFit.

The Trial

I was offered a coupon to apply to various DNAFit services on an a la carte basis. I chose to apply the coupon the diet recommendations as that interests me more than exercise recommendations. Thus, this review only applies to the Diet recommendations on DNAFit, and excludes the Fitness section.

The Interface

The DNAFit is attractively designed, but I found the interface to be a little confusing. There is a collapsed view of your results that looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 11.29.44 AMand an expanded view that looks like this:
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So you can click on one of thirteen boxes in various shades of burgundy, and that box expands to fill out the three panel row (with vertical scroll bars on the rightmost two panels). Maybe I’m just slow to pick up on new interfaces, but it took me a minute to figure out how to get to all the data. I would have preferred a single large pop-up screen or panel without any scroll bars.

Health Recommendations

Most of the health recommendations seemed reasonable to me, and matched up with my own trial-and-error results regarding what works for me in terms of diet and nutrition. However, some of the recommendations (like limiting my saturated fat intake to 10% of my total caloric intake) seemed off-base, and made me wonder what studies the recommendations were based on. Human or animal studies? One-off or well-replicated studies? Tiny or large sample sizes? Unfortunately this information does not seem to be included.

Maybe the designers wanted to keep the interface simple and clean and not overwhelm their customers with data. However, since 100% of their potential customer base are early 23andMe adopters (health nerds), I strongly believe they should be erring on the side of providing too much data. 23andMe provides detailed citations for each health result (see below). Why not do the same?

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The complete list of diet results includes:

  • Ideal Diet
  • Carbohydrate Sensitivity
  • Saturated Fat Sensitivity
  • Detox Ability
  • Antioxidant Needs
  • Omega-3 Needs
  • Vitamin B Needs
  • Vitamin D Needs
  • Salt Sensitivity
  • Alcohol Sensitivity
  • Caffeine Sensitivity
  • Lactose Intolerance
  • Coeliac Predisposition

The most interesting results for me were that I supposedly have an increased need for anti-oxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and vitamin D. According to their results I am also susceptible to high blood pressure if I consume too much salt, possibly gluten intolerant, and have no trouble with digesting milk products.

I’ve come to many of the same conclusions from my own experiments (for example, I got rid of my asthma by reducing gluten and supplementing with vitamin D and fish oil). However, some of the recommendations seem premature, or too vague. DNAFit recommends that I consume a certain amount of B vitamins based on my heterozygous MTHFR, but they don’t specify if I should get those vitamins from food or supplements.

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My MTHFR results show that my body methylates inefficiently; thus I’m less able than most to convert supplemental folic acid to its methylated, biologically available form (folate). And if I consume too much folic acid that could even make folate less available. Folic acid supplementation has even been associated with increased cancer risk. Vitamin B6 and B12 are also only useable in their methylated forms (and most vitamin B supplements are not methylated). In addition to all this, I have personally noticed negative effects from supplementing with B vitamins (asthma, insomnia, agitation). B vitamins are complicated, and I think DNAFit would be better off specifying food-based sources. To their credit, DNAFit does provide a lists of foods high in the various B vitamins they are recommending.Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 12.16.26 PM

Users are able to download a PDF of their complete health report. The report is attractively designed, well-written, and includes detailed health recommendations which seemed for the most part reasonable. My only complaint is that I wanted DNAFit to “show their work” (include citations) so I could drill down and decided for myself in regards to some of their recommendations.

Pricing

If it were my decision I would provide all the health reports for a single flat fee. This might reduce early revenue, but it would almost certainly build the customer base and increase word-of-mouth marketing.

Privacy

Obviously, to use the DNAFit service, you need to provide the company access to your genetic data via 23andMe. This is a personal decision — it’s perfectly understandable if you’re not comfortable doing this. For me, curiosity usually outweighs caution. Here is the company’s privacy statement.

Would I Recommend This Service?

I like this service, but I’m not quite ready to recommend it. With a few easy fixes I would be happy to recommend DNAFit. Here’s a summary of what I think needs immediate fixing:

  1. Offer a flat, reasonable pricing plan (pay once for all reports).
  2. Provide citations (even if buried at the end of the health report).

I also think the interface could be made more intuitive, and I would change the B vitamin recommendation as described above, but those are minor quibbles.

My guess is that 23andMe will eventually gain FDA approval (the company is based in the UK so I suppose they are not subject to FDA regulations re: health recommendations), and at that point DNAFit may see their potential customer base expand significantly. I think the company is offering a valuable service and I wish them the best of luck.

 

Improving Gum Health — Commit to a System

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About a year ago my OralB 3D electric toothbrush died. I went to the store intending to get a new electric toothbrush several times, but each time I was put off by both price and the sheer number of options available. I decided to just use a regular toothbrush for awhile and see how it went.

Well, it didn’t go well. After six months or so using a regular soft bristle toothbrush (twice a day, with reasonably good brushing technique), I got bad marks from the dental hygienist. My tooth enamel was hard and I didn’t have any cavities (previous adjustments to my home care routine were still working in this regard), but she accused me of not flossing (even though I’d been flossing daily), and noted that my gums had bled slightly during cleaning. I had some deeper pockets around some of my molars that indicated gingivitis and a risk of periodontitis. Also, the cleaning process itself was uncomfortable, which indicated some sensitivity and inflammation. I was surprised by this — I hadn’t noticed any gum bleeding when I was flossing, my gums looked healthy (at least the parts I could easily see in the mirror), and I hadn’t had any pain or discomfort. But I believed my dentist and I found the news to be alarming.

I know that sub-par gum health is bad thing. Gum inflammation and gum disease are associated with heart disease, and some studies indicate that gum disease may actually cause heart disease. I’ve probably mentioned this a dozen times on this blog.

So I knew I needed to make a change. The day after that dental visit, I bought a Sonicare toothbrush and a Waterpik, and instituted the following program:

1. Brush with Sonicare first thing in the morning, before eating or drinking anything. Mouth pH is neutral at this point so enamel is not disturbed by brushing. Also any plaque accumulated over night is not injected into bloodstream by eating.

2. Floss and use Waterpik after breakfast. Also clean tongue with copper tongue cleaner.

3. Quick brush with regular soft bristle toothbrush 20+ minutes after lunch.

4. Before bed: floss, thoroughly brush with Sonicare, and rinse with mouthwash (fluoride and/or antiseptic). Several times a week gently clean between teeth and along gum line with Stim-U-Dent plaque remover (basically a big blunt toothpick).

I found the new routine easy to stick to. It took a couple extra minutes each day, but I rationalized this easily in terms of the prospects of improved longevity. Time spent caring for your teeth and gums is similar to time spent walking; it adds at least that much time to your lifespan. Dental hygiene time is free time!

After only a week I noticed that when I cleaned my teeth with the Stim-U-Dent (toothpick) I was hardly getting any plaque. The Sonicare product seemed to be doing an excellent job of keep my teeth clean, especially along the gum line.

Last week, somewhat reluctantly, I showed up for my dental cleaning and exam. My mood improved when my hygienist noted that my gums looked great, the pockets had reduced in size (my gums had tightened up), and there was no bleeding during cleaning. There was hardly any accumulated plaque on my teeth. Also, the cleaning process itself was not uncomfortable, and at times even oddly pleasant. Four months of the new system had worked.

Commit to a System

The experience strengthened my conviction that creating and implementing systems is a key aspect of maintaining good health. Sometimes to get the same result (healthy teeth and gums) it’s necessary to step up the system. What worked before may no longer be sufficient. Unfortunately, that’s just part of aging. The good news is that a few extra minutes of the right kind of daily maintenance can restore your health to a level as good as or even superior to what you experienced in your carefree youth (and if you’re young, you can prevent health problems and save a ton of money on health and dental care by implementing good systems early in life).

Ten years ago I was asthmatic, had a 32 inch waist, was prone to severe mood swings. Today, at age 45, I breathe easily (vitamin D, fish oil, paleo-ish diet), have a 29 inch waist (lower carbs, better sleep), and feel happy and motivated on most days (exercise, turmeric, life purpose). Poor health can be reversed, and many symptoms attributed to “aging” may in fact be simply due to substandard maintenance routines.

Commit to a system that works for you, and get healthy. Don’t accept poor health. If you need help getting pointed in the right direction, or have a story to share, feel free to comment below.

 

No Rest Days (Until I Crashed)

Turns out I do need rest days.

Turns out I do need rest days.

Over the past few months I’ve been experimenting with writing fiction every day. Sometimes, because of work and family obligations (and/or my own procrastination), I’ve missed a day. But most mornings, I write.

Writing every day — benefits:

  • Writing every day keeps my subconscious mind engaged with my fictional characters. Ideally I wake up thinking about them, knowing what they’re going to do next.
  • Writing every day keeps my momentum going. If I hit a roadblock I’m forced to find a way to blast through it (instead of pausing progress to “think about it”).
  • Writing every day becomes habitual. It’s easier to write every day at the same time and place than it is to “find time to write”.
  • Writing every day creates the expectation among my family, friends, and clients that I will be unavailable for a certain amount of time each day.
  • Writing every day means that I will be writing from a variety of different emotional and energy states … not just energetic inspiration. Ferrett Steinmetz has a good post on this topic.
  • Writing every day provides me with a daily sense of accomplishment, bolstering my self-worth.

My writing routine looks something like this:

  1. Get set up at my standing desk (laptop, coffee*, water).
  2. Meditate for a few minutes.
  3. Turn off wi-fi.
  4. Start entry in writing log.
  5. Open current work document (I use OpenOffice). Revise previous day’s work.
  6. Write until quota is met (my current quota is 808 words). Take breaks only to exercise (free weights to generate lactic acid which in turn adrenalizes the brain) or to use the bathroom.
  7. Complete entry in writing log.
  8. Backup work to DropBox.

*As per this post, I don’t start drinking coffee until I’ve started writing.

Harnessing the Subconscious Supercomputer

We all have access to supercomputer that is constantly churning the available data looking for solutions to problems, new possibilities, and potential realities. Our conscious-awareness is a tiny spotlight that only captures a small fraction of what our brains are “doing.”

If you wake up with an idea or a solution, that’s your subconscious mind at work. Salvador Dali went so far as to develop a ritual to capture the surreal images of his subconscious imagination.

But it’s easy to waste this brainpower. We can waste it by overthinking disputes that are not important, or trying to control situations that are clearly out of our control (like what other people are thinking or feeling), or by obsessing over scenarios that are unlikely to occur.

How can we get the subconscious mind to work on behalf of the interests of the conscious mind? In other words, how can we direct the supercomputer to work on relevant problems and scenarios?

I think the most reliable way to do this is to take up a daily practice that is relevant to our major life goal or vision.

All Good … Until I Crashed

My daily writing system worked well for a long time. But gradually I began to notice diminishing returns. Though I always felt a sense of accomplishment after writing, sometimes I was feeling a sense of dread before starting, a feeling not unlike starting a long work day at a job you don’t like. Once again, Ferrett Steinmetz describes the feeling well:

Since I have arranged my entire life around avoiding that feeling, I knew this wasn’t a good sign. I don’t mind hard work, or giving myself a little kick in the butt to get started, but I didn’t want writing to feel like drudgery.

Last Thursday I went on vacation with my family to Camp Towanga (near Yosemite). Arriving in the mountains, I realized I was exhausted. Not just mentally, but also physically — I’d been lifting weights every day as part of my writing routine, and my entire body ached. I decided it was time to end the experiment and take a few days off.

Judaism takes Shabbat — the day of rest — very seriously. As I participated in the rituals surrounding the Jewish sabbath, I reflected on what a “rest day” means to be me.

What I concluded is that even though I thrive on structure and discipline, rest and relaxation and unstructured time is just as important. I’ve learned that waiting for inspiration is unreliable, but this doesn’t mean that I should always be driving myself hard. It’s OK to rest, to come down, to lie fallow. For me, it’s probably essential.

Not every successful writer writes every day without fail. And those that do pay a price. Stephen King, sticking to this 2000-words-a-day-no-matter-what writing habit, fueled himself with copious amounts of drugs and alcohol (as he describes in gory detail in On Writing). Correlation is not causation; not every drug user is a best-selling fiction author. But there is always a price to pay if you don’t rest.

Fear of Getting Out of Shape

From November to mid-March I took time off of fiction writing to wait for feedback from readers, revise my first draft, and work on music projects. During this time my writing “muscles” atrophied. Despite plenty of ideas, it was a real struggle to get back into a productive flow on the next novel. Now that the flow is back, I’m scared to lose it.

But there’s a difference between taking a day or two off every week, and taking a few months off. If I don’t let myself rest on a regular basis, I might end up with a dry well for years. Bill Hayes has a great essay on this topic.

I’ve made a five year commitment to developing fiction writing as a skill and a new career. That doesn’t mean I have to sprint the entire five years.

Going Forward

Basically, I’ll be observing weekends and holidays. This doesn’t mean I won’t produce on Saturdays and Sundays, but it won’t be quota-driven production. I’ll work on whatever I want to, as inspired.

When I’m writing a first draft, I’m going to aim for 15,000 words a month. That should give me a first draft in six or seven months. With editing, revisions, and breaks to work on other projects, it might take me 18-24 months to complete a novel. Since I’m also working for living, running a music label, blogging, and being a parent, this seems like a good pace. Any faster and I think I’d risk burnout.

Buyer’s Market

Kurt Vonnegut, in the intro to Bagombo Snuff Box, mentions that there was a strong seller’s market for short stories in the 1950’s. These days, there isn’t. For various reasons we now have a glut of fiction writers at the same time the publishing industry is struggling. It’s a buyer’s market for fiction of all kinds.

What this tells me is that it’s more important than ever to focus on quality over quantity. Of course, you have to produce huge quantities of work to get to quality, but at some point you have a choice: work more selectively and carefully, or churn.

Churn has its place. Churn can break you out of inaction. Churn can make you realize you are capable of producing far more than you ever thought possible. But churn won’t get you to great. Great requires multiple drafts, throwing out bad work and starting over, and listening to that annoying whisper in your head that lets you know you can do 10% better if you’re willing to put in 100% more time. Heck, good might even require all those things.

Back to School — Getting Bedtime Back on Track

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This is the last week of summer for Oakland Public Schools — school starts on Monday. We let bedtime for our six-year-old slip a little later over most of the summer. Even on days she had camp, the camp drop-off was usually later than her regular 8:30am school day. Like many kids she gets a huge energy burst right as it’s time to go to bed, so bedtime is often a struggle.

Ever since we did our no artificial light experiment several years ago, we’ve been turning lights way down in the evening. Even so, our daughter wasn’t getting to sleep until 9:45pm up until last week. Knowing we’d all have to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 7am once school began, we started to worry about how to get back on schedule.

Luckily we remembered how well turning off the lights had worked in terms of getting all of us to bed earlier, so we tried that. If our daughter hadn’t already brushed her teeth before the sun went down, we allowed her to bring her flashlight to the bathroom, but no overhead lights, no lamps, etc. When it’s dark, it’s time for sleep … so get the book reading in early while you still can.

We’ve added some fun rituals: lighting candles, a few minutes reading by a low-lumen wind-up flashlight, the adventure of getting to bed in the semi-dark.

Short explanation: blue-wavelength light (emitted by light bulbs and screens, but not candles) prevents serotonin from converting into melatonin. The latter makes you sleepy. So keeping lights off in the evening helps you get sleepy (and thus go to sleep) earlier. Think camping.

The other factor is FOMO: fear-of-missing-out. With all the lights off in the house, our daughter is less concerned with what we are doing while she’s supposed to be going to sleep. A dark house seems more boring, which in this case is a good thing.

So the experiment is working … we’ve shaved 15 minutes off of bedtime every night since we started, and last night she was asleep by 8:45. The goal is 8:30 so we’re getting close. Most kids her age need at least 10 hours (at least if you want a kid in a good mood who can pay attention to stuff), so that works.

As for myself and Kia, we’re still staying up late on the laptops, or reading. I’d like to be getting to sleep a little earlier myself (if for no other reason than to get up before my kid and get some writing in), so I’ll probably put a “devices off by 10pm” rule in place for myself. Even with f.lux installed, computers keep me up later than just reading by lamp light.

How to Increase Your Daily Word Count by 75%

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Recently (twenty-one days ago), I modified my morning writing routine according to advice by Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. The change I made was simple: swap out one behavior (fiction writing) for another (surfing the internet) in response to the trigger of preparing and drinking coffee.

My previous routine was something like this:

  1. Make coffee.
  2. Morning meditation (just a few minutes) and journal writing/day notes (also very short).
  3. Shower and dress, have first coffee.
  4. Breakfast with family, get daughter ready for school or camp.
  5. Drink coffee while reading the entire internet, until heart is racing and mind is full of bad news and cute animal pictures.
  6. Force self to begin writing. Write for 30-60 minutes until it’s time for lunch.
  7. Record word count and other variables in writing log.

This actually wasn’t a bad routine. I completed the first half of my current novel this way! I always felt great after meeting my tiny word count quota, and the writing process flowed once I got started (no writer’s block, no shortage of ideas).

But I knew that I was wasting time and that I could do better. In fact, I did better last year, averaging 726 words a day from May 2, 2013 through August 10, 2013. Recently, I knew I’d been writing much less than that. What changed? Part of the problem was that I was writing a sequel, and thus having to check the previous novel frequently to maintain continuity. I was also working with a looser outline this time, writing more by the seat of my pants. I had also lowered my daily quota. But the main problem was that I was getting a late start and wasting time.

Watching the Jonathan Fields interview with Duhigg provided the tool I needed to change. Coffee was a major behavioral trigger for me, but the behavior it was triggering wasn’t productive. So needed to substitute one behavior for another.

At first, effectively, this meant withholding coffee until I had actually started the writing ritual (opening documents, recording my start time, reading previous day’s work, etc.). But over the last few weeks I’ve noticed that the first sip of coffee now propels me into my work. Weird, freaky, easy. I’m back in a good groove.

I wanted to wait a few weeks before reporting any results to make sure the behavior change and productivity boost wasn’t a fluke. Here are the actual results.

Twenty-one days before starting “coffee trigger” experiment:
Total word count: 6,481
Average daily word count: 309
Average start time: 11:33am

Twenty-one days after starting “coffee trigger” experiment:
Total word count: 11,437
Average daily word count: 545
Average start time: 9:20am

Feel free to check my math, but that’s a 75% boost in word count, and I’m definitely getting an earlier start.

The new morning routine looks something like this:

  1. Make coffee.
  2. Morning meditation and journal writing/day notes.
  3. Shower and dress.
  4. Breakfast with family, get daughter ready for school or camp.
  5. Check email, quick look at most interesting news items.
  6. Drink coffee and write fiction for 1-2 hours.
  7. Record word count and other variables in writing log.

What’s Your Trigger?

What I recommend is not necessarily that you tie your creative process to caffeine intake, but rather that you note what environmental and chemical cues already exist in your routine and then tie your creative process to those cues. If you have a bad habit you’d like to substitute with a new behavior, think about what triggers the cigarette smoking, doughnut eating, or internet browsing. Waking up? The startup chime of your computer? The whistle of the tea kettle? What do those particular sights, sounds, and smells propel you to do?

If Duhigg is right, we can’t just “turn off” our reaction to the cue, but we can modify our behavior so that we do something else in response.

Should You Use a Word Quota? What’s the Right Number?

My daily word count may look laughably small to some professional writers. Stephen King’s quota is 2000 words per day, every day. My quota is 600 words/day, most days (weekends and holidays I still write and revise, but without a quota).

My current monthly goal is 15,000 words. That gives me a rough draft in approximately 6 or 7 months. That’s slower than King recommends for a first draft (in On Writing, he states that he likes to bang out a draft in 3-4 months), but it’s where I’m at right now.

Last year, when my daily average word count was higher, I was working with a higher quota (1000 words a day), but missing it a lot. I lowered my quota with the thought that meeting an easy goal provides motivation and ultimately increases productivity, but maybe I made it too low.

Ideally I’d like to consistently hit 1000 words/day without expending too much willpower. Maybe I just need to type faster. As a first step I’m considering raising my quota to 800 words/day.

At the moment I have ideas and rough notes for 17 novels. I’d love to achieve a pace of one novel per year. I realize I’m getting ahead of myself; I haven’t published any fiction, I don’t have an agent or connections. But what I’m doing now is working the process. If I succeed at fiction writing the reward will be more fiction writing, so I might as well get a good system going.

After I finish my current draft I plan to write music for a couple months while it’s being read. Ideally I’d like to get into some kind of regular production schedule where fiction writing is the main activity but there are breaks for immersion into music production, other kinds of writing, collaborative projects, and the like. While I haven’t yet worked out the details, what is clear to me is that I need a daily creative practice (with some intensity and pressure and measurable output) to maintain my mental health, wits, and love of life.

Please share your own thoughts, questions, and experiences in the comments.