Blood and Biomarkers: Tracking the Body from the Inside

InsideTrackerMike Goad / Flickr Creative Commons

Laura Ingalls is a marathon runner, triathlete, and running coach. In late 2013, she inexplicably began to gain weight. Her doctor told her nothing was wrong, and that to combat weight gain she should exercise more—a recommendation that she found baffling, given her active lifestyle.

Ingalls tried out InsideTracker, a Cambridge-based health optimization service that uses blood biomarkers to give individualized recommendations. She got one alert about her extremely high calcium levels, but dismissed it. When she got a second note, she decided to take a closer look.

Based on the data from InsideTracker, Ingalls found out she had tumors on her parathyroid gland and needed surgery.

“My doctor had not caught it, but InsideTracker had,” Ingalls says. “Every system in my body was being affected by this.”

Blood Has a Lot to Say

InsideTracker began when a team of scientists from local universities were researching how to increase people’s lifespans. Their research underscored how differently people react to certain foods, exercises, and lifestyle interventions. They also discovered that blood is a great indicator of individuals’ needs.

“Rather than looking at a one-size-fits-all, they realized that you could take the 7 or 8,000 food items out there, use them as specific, varied interventions for individuals to follow, and that you could measure the impact of those changes in people’s blood,” InsideTracker CEO Rony Sellam says.

InsideTracker uses peer-reviewed science and a large set of data as a baseline to analyze individual people’s biomarkers. While InsideTracker helped Ingalls find out she had a medical condition, the product’s main goal is wellness optimization—not curing illnesses, but rather improving people’s everyday health.

Blood biomarkers range from cholesterol to testosterone to iron levels. Some can signify muscle degradation and show that a person is overexerting themselves. Others can reflect why someone’s having trouble sleeping or isn’t losing weight despite dieting.

InsideTracker tests 42 biomarkers. These chosen markers are measures of health, wellness, and fitness rather than of disease. They are areas where people can make a difference through intervention, and they’re biomarkers that are relevant to big portions of the population.

InsideTracker

Rony Sellam, CEO of InsideTracker. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

“We connect those different biomarkers together. They tell a story together,” Sellam explains. “It might be that your bad cholesterol is great and your iron is low, so it might be that you need to eat a little more red meat. But if your bad cholesterol is looking not so good and your iron is low, we’ll find another type of intervention that wouldn’t have an impact on your cholesterol. So we’re trying to look at the overall picture that all the inputs are telling us.”

Looking at these biomarkers helps InsideTracker’s team thoroughly personalize its recommendations. This approach worked well for Ingalls, unlike her doctor’s generic advice of exercising more to lose weight.

“Part of the problems with my doctors was that they kept saying ‘Well, your calcium’s high but it’s not that high.’ But it’s not that high for the range of humans, but it was extremely high for a woman who was 35 years old and highly active,” Ingalls says.

Implementing Blood’s Recommendations

InsideTracker takes a person’s health goals into account—whether they’re hoping to feel more energetic, lose weight, or build endurance—and then creates a personalized action plan around four types of changes: lifestyle, food, supplements, and exercise.

Lifestyle adjustments could include spending more time outside in the sun, intermittent fasting, or changes to sleep habits.

Food recommendations are one of the areas where InsideTracker can shine compared to typical weight loss approaches. Everyone reacts to foods differently, Sellam says—“We don’t believe that food is intrinsically good or bad for you”—and so InsideTracker gives personalized plans based on biomarkers, rather than programs that suggest a standard slate of “healthy” foods.

InsideTracker’s supplement recommendations allow people to hone in on what nutrients they actually need, rather than relying on a generic multivitamin. Exercise changes go beyond telling people to exercise more—a recommendation could be to add a bit of strength training into a cardio workout to maximize results.

When following an individualized action plan, tangible results can happen in a matter of weeks, Sellam says.

People often feel more compelled to follow advice from InsideTracker than generic health recommendations, according to Sellam.

“When it’s your blood telling you you have a problem, you probably feel a little more compelled to do something about it. You also trust it as an input,” Sellam says.

InsideTracker has nutritionists, health coaches, and personal trainers available to help people implement their recommended changes. As a health and running coach, Ingalls often has her clients use InsideTracker so they have more information to work with.

InsideTracker offers a range of plans that vary in comprehensiveness. The DIY plan is for people who already have blood data, which InsideTracker can analyze at a basic ($49) or advanced ($119) level. Up the price ladder are plans including Essentials ($189) and High Performance ($299). The most extensive option, Ultimate ($589), tests everything from inflammation to liver health to oxygen and performance.

Several professional sports teams use InsideTracker to cope with challenges like fatigue and overexertion. Each athlete gets an individualized action plan, and the coach can help players implement their specific plans.

“It allows coaches to understand who’s overworked and who’s not, and where there’s opportunity for improvement,” Sellam says. “It allows us to create team-level views of what you should think about as a team. If you’re a team and you get on a bus to go to an event, if you have InsideTracker’s team platform you’re going to know what to stock the fridge with, because it’s going to look at the best bang for the buck for the entire group.”

When Sellam started using InsideTracker himself, he felt empowered. He’s implemented strength trainings, intermittent fasting, and oatmeal—which his wife had been recommending for years—into his daily life. His energy has increased dramatically, he says.

“I could genuinely see the impact of my lifestyle on my blood,” he says. “I eat oatmeal every day, and it’s because InsideTracker told me I needed to. I felt in control and I saw that, even though I’m not sick, I do have a lot of opportunities for improvement in my lifestyle, and I made a lot of these changes.”

The scientists at InsideTracker are starting to look into genetics and how they can further personalize health recommendations through that frontier.

“We’re interested in what your DNA can help us understand about you,” Sellam says. “Our goal for the future is to combine all the data inputs into a coherent and strong picture of who you really are. Your DNA, your blood biomarkers, as well as physiological markers that you might be able to obtain from an activity tracker—your resting heart rate, weight. The entire goal for us is to help you be empowered to know what you can do to improve your wellness and know that it’s supported by science.”

To check out InsideTracker, you can visit insidetracker.com or call 800-513-2359.

This story originally appeared in the The Wellness Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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