The Science of Happiness

According to recent studies, having two copies of a particular gene are the reason some of us tend to look on the bright side. Those of us who have a long variant of a gene called 5-HTLLPR (or the SERT gene), which helps to recycle serotonin faster and more efficiently than the short variant, tend to be the happiest.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays an intricate role in our behavior. Lower levels of serotonin in the brain can lead to depression. If you are a 23andMe member, you can view the single nucleotide polyporphism (SNP) data for rs4251417 where ‘C’ would indicate the short variant.

Given how well I know myself and my family history, I was not surprised to learn that I had two copies of the short variant. Some people are very discouraged to learn this about themselves. I look at it this way — knowledge is power. So I’m not hard-wired for happiness… so what? It just means that I have to try a little harder.

I always find that starting the day off with exercise leaves me feeling more positive throughout the day. It may be the LAST thing I want to do when I wake up in the morning, but I know how much better I feel after a workout.

Other ways to boost your serotonin levels include a good hearty meal (yep, that’s why they call it comfort food!) as well as good times with friends or family. Try choosing what suits you best on a given day.

Stay positive! Your genes do play a role in how you feel, but ultimately YOU are in control of your reactions.

Drug Sensitivity and Genetics: What You Need to Know and Share with Your Doctor


At some point in our lives, we are all more than likely going to be prescribed medications to treat an acute or chronic illness.  The way each of our bodies responds to drugs is different, and our genes play a role in this.  The science that predicts a response to drugs based on genetics is pharmacogenomics.

If you have ever read the labeling information about a new or existing drug that you or a family member have been prescribed, you have likely read about possible adverse events (side effects).  Pharmaceutical companies are starting to include pharmacogenomic data in their products’ labeling.  If you have had genetic testing done, the results can help your health care provider choose an appropriate drug therapy for you, as well as determine what an appropriate starting dose would be for those with sensitivities.

If you haven’t had genetic testing done, drug response information from your immediate family
members can be helpful for your doctor to know as well.  Talk to your siblings and parents about their health history. Tell you health care providers if you are discussing drug treatment and you have had personal genetic testing done. Likewise if you are aware of a certain drug sensitivity or positive response to a drug of a sibling or parent.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, there is an ongoing need for physicians to  educate themselves about pharmacogenomics.  If your physician is dismissive when you attempt to share this important information, you may need to look for a doctor who values informed patients who want to take an active role in their health care decisions.



More 23andMe Tips: Using the Family Inheritance Feature

As promised last Friday, I am following up my last post with another post on tips to help with your 23andMe relative finding endeavors!

I recently shared genomic data with a woman who was born around the same time as my grandmother.  We haven’t figured out our common ancestor yet, but from looking at our genomic data we share 10Mb of data on the X chromosome.  According to 23andMe, the region that we have in common contains genetic information related to female fertility.  Pretty interesting from a health and wellness perspective!

I know from chatting with some of the folks that I have met in the community that not everyone knows where to find this information.  This is what I am going to share with you today.

Log in to the service and navigate to Family Inheritance.  At the top, you will see an option “Compare the genome of” (yourself) “To the genome of” (people with whom you share genomic data) — Note:  names are hidden to keep member data private

Select yourself from the left hand column and begin going through your connections from the right hand column.  Initially, you will be looking at a Genome-Wide Comparison of yourself 1:1 against your connections.

When you find a shared segment of DNA (as I found a half-identical segment in the above picture in blue), you can then narrow your focus & look at specific genes per the options on the right hand side of the screen (Bitter Tasting, Circadian Rhythm, Endurance, Female Fertility, etc.)

You may be lucky and find your common ancestor after a few brief emails back and forth with a contact.  In most instances it will likely be more challenging, but after you find your common ancestry with one member the Family Inheritance feature can help you narrow down other relationships.  For instance, I met a predicted 4th cousin who also had a paternal aunt using the service.  He, his aunt, and I all share a half-identical section of DNA and therefore we could immediately focus on my 4th cousins paternal side to find our connection.

Happy relative finding!  As always, please feel free to comment on a post, email me directly, or Tweet any questions or comments!

Tips for Finding Relatives Quickly and Easily on 23andMe and Improving Your Odds That They Return Contact

I am a member of the 23andMe community.  For those of you not aware of 23andme, they are a personal genetic testing company located in Mountain View, California not far from my home.
If you are interested in wellness and in science (which I assume you are if you have found my blog!), then check out their site to learn more about their service.I tweeted today about how I had been able to find three 23andMe users with whom I had determined our relationships.  What I found really interesting was that the four of us are scattered around the world and didn’t see a link initially based on our last names or our listed surnames.  While our ages ranged from 30s to 80s, we all ended up being related via the same family line!

My tweet received a reply from a 23andMe member who wanted to know if I had any tips on how to make the Relative Finder process less intimidating.  For example, when I log in, I can see 352 people who are predicted third cousins to “distant” cousins.  Most are just listed as “Male” or “Female,” so unless a member has made their profile public it can be tough to decide where to begin.  A second tweet came shortly after from @akhomenko via Twitter asking me to share my tips widely.  Seemed a perfect topic for today’s blog, so here goes!

Tip #1 — Go for the Low-hanging Fruit!
Log in to the service and navigate to Relative Finder.
At the top, you will see an option to sort your list in a variety of ways.
Select “Sort by Last Name”.  This will bring you all of the users with public profiles to whom there is a predicted relationship.  Scan the list of names to see if anything rings a bell and go from there.  If nothing looks familiar to you, then select the person who has the highest percentage of DNA in common with you.  I have found that members with public profiles are more responsive to direct messages and tend to share more in their profiles.  When you invite someone to share genomes make sure to customize the message!  Receiving a message that looks like it was written by a computer program is about as exciting as opening junk mail at home.  I find that I get the greatest response when I make the other party curious enough to answer my message.  Make it personal!  I might say something like this:

Hi Jennifer,

23andMe has identified us as potential 3rd cousins with .24% DNA in common, so we are definitely related.  I’d like to share stories with you to see if we can determine how we are related.  I hope to hear from you soon.



Tip #2 — Sort by Percent Shared
Still in Relative Finder, select “Sort by Percent Shared” from the drop-down menu.
Now you are going to see those members with whom you share the most DNA.  In my case, many of these are NOT public profiles, so you have to start out by sending an introductory message.  Again, customizing the message will increase the likelihood that the other person writes you back because you have peaked their curiousity.  For folks in this category, I started by those with whom I shared the greatest percentage of DNA.  The person at the top of my list and I shared .76% DNA, and we were quick to determine how we were related after sharing surnames.  With some of the other connections, I’ve really had to go through my family tree database (which luckily I had handed down to me by a first cousin of my grandmother that I met randomly via!)

This should get you started making a few initial connections.  In my next post, I will talk about how you can use the Compare Genes and Family Inheritance features to help you even further.

Enjoy the weekend!

The Science of Sleep

Are you a night owl or an early bird?  Personally, I don’t think I am either. However, research shows that a preference for being an early riser or a late sleeper is influenced by genetics.

how much sleep do you need

A study conducted at the University of California at San Francisco by Dr. Ying-Hui Fu and her team revealed a rare mutation in the gene DEC2 of a mother and daughter who needed only an average of 6.5 hours of sleep per night due to more intense REM sleep states.  People with this mutation (also called “short-sleepers”) appear to sleep more efficiently.

Think you are one of the lucky few?  The odds are stacked against you. Less than 3% of the population is said to carry this mutation.  For the other 97% of us, how do we find out how much sleep we need?  In seventh grade math class, I remember learning a formula for calculating how many hours of sleep we need at night based on our age throughout childhood.  Once we hit the age of 18, our sleep needs pretty much stay the same (between 7.5 to 9 hours) assuming the absence of certain medical conditions.

After feeling sleep deprived for close to two years, I took a long-needed sleep vacation!  I didn’t have to go anywhere other than my bed; I just had to prioritize this little but necessary experiment, and I was on my way to feeling better than I have in years.  Here’s what you need to do.

  • Carve out two weeks where you have some flexibility to go to bed at the same time every night & wake up without an alarm clock
  • Don’t worry… for the first couple of days you will sleep longer if you have been sleep deprived – your body’s way of paying off your “sleep debt”
  • Continue going to be at a consistent time and waking up naturally.  Within two weeks, you will establish a sleep pattern and obtaining the same amount of sleep each night

Nine hours ended up being my magic number.  No wonder I had felt sleep deprived!  I was getting between 6 and 7 hours of sleep every night for the past several years.

Need other tips for getting a good night’s sleep?  Make sure you are sleeping on a comfortable mattress and pillow, and limit television watching and computer use in the few hours before bedtime.  Try to exercise in the earlier part of the day and steer clear of late-night caffeine and alcohol intake.

Schedule your sleep vacation and follow this simple formula.  You’ll be sleeping like a rockstar before you know it.