Could Your Metabolism Offer More Clues About Your Health Than Your Genes?

We often look to our genetic makeup for indicators of many health conditions, and for good reason. There is evidence that some ethnic groups are predisposed to certain disorders. For example, those with African, African American, and Mediterranean heritage are more likely to develop sickle cell disease, and those with eastern and central European ancestry are more susceptible to Tay-Sachs disease, according to MedlinePlus.

Now, there may be a more precise way of determining who is more at risk for some disorders, and it has to do with metabolism rather than genes. A new study published in Molecular Genetics and Metabolism reveals significant differences in the metabolic profiles of ethnic groups. They found that while African Americans and Americans of European descent have different genetic makeups, they are more related metabolically. In the same way, Japanese and Chinese people share a similar genetic makeup, but their metabolic profiles are different. Additionally, some metabolic similarities were linked to certain health conditions not necessarily predicted by genetics.  

Metabolic screening may help identify certain health conditions

For the study, conducted by a Yale University team, researchers examined data from 400,000 healthy American babies from 17 ethnic groups to learn if ethnic differences could be detected in the metabolites in their blood. They discovered differences among the ethnic groups, which could be attributed to cultural factors, such as diet. The findings suggest that our environment may impact how our metabolisms form, and this might help doctors screen for certain health conditions, including cystic fibrosis, hypothyroidism, and metabolic disorders.

"This attests to the role of environment in forming our metabolism," Curt Scharfe, associate professor of genetics at Yale School of Medicine and senior author of the study, told Yale News. "Where people share the same culture and food, metabolic profiles are more similar. Where people are separated by circumstances ... then differences in metabolism are greater than genetic variations." Researchers acknowledged several limitations in the study, including the fact that the ethnic groups were self-reported. That said, Scharfe says metabolic research has a "promising future."