Personal System Biology: We Can Only Change What We Know

7 Jun

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 system 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 system 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 system 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.

Metabolome: 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 system biology, our personal wellness abilities will also increase.

As an athlete, businessperson and parent, this is the method I use to stay engaged with my own system biology:

  • 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 I look at more granular data that is responsive to small changes in my diet and lifestyle, I want to see my results more often to better inform and reinforce my personal wellness program.

Adopting any program of diet, supplementation, pharmacy and detoxification all begins with measurement. I’m 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.

8 Responses to “Personal System Biology: We Can Only Change What We Know”

  1. Kevin Morgan June 8, 2011 at 11:57 AM #

    Hi Jim!
    I found you via the blog of one of my modern heroes, Tim Ferriss, who has influenced my life for the positive in so many ways. This was especially true last year when I started my blog in response to a life-changing event. Keep fit, live well, and have a balanced existence while you can I say. I like your stuff, which I’ll talk about soon on my blog (I am a small potato in the blogging world in a specialized niche, but I really enjoy doing it for some odd reason).
    I can be found at
    Kevin (Old Dog!)

    • Jim Kean June 8, 2011 at 8:44 PM #

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for the positive post. Keep up the good work on blogging. I am glad you received value from what I have written.



  2. Cheryl GreatHouse, LMT July 7, 2011 at 11:54 AM #

    Hi Jim! Great blog! I look forward to reading more (then discussing it with you in person when I see you lovely people next). Miss you both. Your project has always been fascinating to me & now that I have found you here I can keep up with it. BTW, you may find the TED talk by Simon Lewis interesting.

    • Jim Kean July 12, 2011 at 4:53 PM #

      Hi Cheryl,

      Great to see you here. I am glad you appreciate the topic. I will check out Simon Lewis.


      btw: claire says hi!

  3. anil patwardhan July 11, 2011 at 8:12 AM #

    Nice post. An algorithm or method of translating steady state levels of vitamins/minerals/metabolites measured in blood into US. RDI values would be gold. This is one feedback mechanism that is missing today.

    I know what the RDA is for vitamin C…but how do I interpret this for my own body when my baseline diet may be less healthy than most? knowing that my body is getting only half what it needs (for my age and lifestyle) would be a great motivational tool in improving diet ….particularly when that data is personalized and visualized on the web.

    • Jim Kean July 19, 2011 at 3:42 PM #

      Hi Anil,

      Thanks for the great post. You really got our focus of matching biology to inputs.



      p.s. Dave Hodgson says hi.

  4. Alexandra Harris July 15, 2011 at 11:00 PM #

    Hey Jim, found your blog through some WellnessFX research, great post. I think people greatly underestimate the power of knowledge especially when it comes to personal health. Diet and exercise are critical to a healthy lifestyle but, as you mentioned, there are so many other factors that come into play like stress, sleep habits, and naturally occurring chemicals. It’s unfortunate that people don’t monitor/focus on these factors as closely as they do their caloric intake however it sounds like WellnessFX is looking to change that. Would love to connect and learn more about your company (best email to reach you at?), keep up the great posts!

    Alex Harris

    • Jim Kean July 19, 2011 at 3:45 PM #

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for giving me a read and for your comments. We are definitely looking to change how people regard their overall biology. I will send you an email so you can get in touch.



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