Personalized Health

Appears in the August 2018 issue.

It all started when I couldn’t get pregnant. I devoured books on nutrition and diets, and my quest for optimal health became a 20-year passion, stoked by evolving nutritional needs: years of infertility, seven pregnancies, six nursing babies, ravenous teenagers, my changing hormones and, through it all, constantly trying to lose weight.

Yet after two decades of studying and trying diet trends, I was still confused and overweight. So when I learned about Arivale, a genetic-based wellness company, I was intrigued—and skeptical. After some research on the company, its potential benefits and its privacy policy, I decided to go for it. I needed a better way. My cholesterol had spiked to a startling 220 in October 2017, after years of averaging 168. It was time for something based on hard science, and Arivale looked promising.

Launched by biotechnology pioneer Leroy Hood, MD, PhD, the program takes a personalized, preventative approach to individual wellness. Arivale analyzes hundreds of data points from your genome, blood, gut microbiome, family history and lifestyle. You meet with a coach monthly by phone (in my case, a registered dietitian named Bridget), who explains your data and provides clear, actionable recommendations that are tracked on an online dashboard. The goal is to leverage deep insights from data with highly personalized coaching. Arivale is well grounded in peer-reviewed scientific research from the highly regarded Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), of which Hood is also a founder and from which Arivale spun out. ISB’s background is impressive—it’s worth an online search.

My experience started in mid-February, when a local lab drew 13 vials of blood, which were sent to independent agencies for analysis, then forwarded to Arivale. Within two weeks I received a report on my blood work that included 43 data points (compared to 17 from my annual physical). My cholesterol was 219, only one point less than my previous test last fall, despite efforts to modify my diet. My LDL was 136 (borderline high), and my omega-3 fatty acids were very low. Omega-3s are essential for maintaining heart and brain health and controlling inflammation, so this was concerning.

In March I received the genetic report covering heart health, diabetes risk, inflammation and optimal nutrition. Most interesting was learning I have a genetic predisposition for gaining weight when levels of total fat in my diet are higher—which is not the case for everyone. My genetics also revealed a slightly increased risk for cardiac issues.

For the first time, I now had scientific data showing it may be easier for me to lose weight on a low-fat diet with more complex carbs. No wonder the high-fat, low-carb diets I’d tried had increased my weight and cholesterol. I also saw the need to increase my cardio workouts, which I had let languish in favor of yoga. It was liberating to learn all of this.

Because sleep and exercise affect health, the Arivale program included a Fitbit so my coach could track my activity level, heart rate and sleep cycle. I also logged my food intake via an app, which I authorized Bridget to view.

Informed by all of this data, Bridget had me focus on increasing fiber and omega-3 rich foods, while reducing saturated fat. She had me slightly increase—not reduce—my calorie intake and eat more protein. Every two to three weeks, we discussed my progress and occasionally texted through the Arivale app. She gave practical and specific advice, like sending me recipes, planning healthy menus and recommending post-workout snacks.

In June, my blood was redrawn. My cholesterol was 200—down 19 points in less than four months. My LDL decreased by 7 points, my omega-3 index was 80 percent higher and I had lost 10 pounds: Good news all around. My weight loss has been slower than when I’m officially “dieting,” but for the first time I have a scientific basis for what my body needs.

An Arivale membership costs $199 per month, which can be cancelled at any time. Membership includes your genetic and blood data, regular calls with your coach (a licensed healthcare provider), a personalized action plan and the app. Although this would be considered expensive to most, I see it as a pay-now or pay-later proposition.

Arivale’s field is new and still evolving. Competitors have emerged, but at this point, no other company offers the depth of personal data and one-on-one coaching by a medical professional. In the sea of diet and nutrition advice, they are charting critical new waters that may bring breakthroughs. Research is showing that diet and nutrition are more effective when personalized based on your genetics, which offers a radical improvement over mass-published diet books.