The alternative health industry is widely broadcasting that so-called dangerous genetic variation is lurking in the human population, causing a public health crisis that is ignored by the medical community.This curious forewarning appears to have emerged out of an explosion of direct-to-consumer genetic testing and health gurus preaching that “natural” remedies can override our genetic make-up. Look no further than Deepak Chopra, who has gone deep down the rabbit hole in suggesting that our thoughts can rewire our biology.
Alternative practitioners are now forging highly profitable businesses based on patients coming to them with raw genetic data provided by testing companies, typically 23andMe, and walking away with hundreds if not thousands of dollars in nutritional supplements.But scientific and medical experts recommend against blindly screening for genetic variants called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). They warn that these tests carry problems of false results, over-diagnosis and meaningless information. Alternative medicine promoters argue otherwise, and they are spreading the message while churning big profits.
Ben Lynch, a naturopathic doctor in Washington state, has built an online empire centered on selling genetic analysis and naturalistic treatments for particular genetic variants, which are highly common and have almost no impact on health or disease. In an email, Lynch told me that he recommends screening for genetic polymorphisms to everyone who “wants to optimize their life and reduce risk.”Based on his own reading of the scientific literature, Lynch created an online platform, StrateGene, that flags SNPs from genetic raw data provided by direct-to-consumer testing companies 23andMe and Genos Research. On another site, Seeking Health, he sells products marketed to “target” biochemical pathways involving genes containing SNPs that StrateGene recognizes.*
Ricki Lewis, an author of genetics books (her latest coming out next month) and licensed genetic counselor who holds a Ph.D. in human genetics, cautions that any health practitioner who sells such services “is a modern-day version of a snake oil salesperson.”In 2007, Lynch graduated from Bastyr University, an accredited naturopathic program, outside Seattle. Naturopathy comprises a variety of alternative medicine practices including homeopathy, herbal medicine and healing touch. As a naturopathic doctor in Washington state, Lynch is considered to be a primary care physician. But it is important to note that graduates of accredited naturopathic programs only complete a minuscule portion of the training received by medical doctors.
Lynch reported to me that he no longer directly sees patients. He stated he is now “busy researching and educating,” which includes teaching continuing education courses and speaking at conferences hosted by Bastyr. Lynch is also the founder of Seeking Health Educational Institute (SHEI), which provides him with another revenue stream. Here, Lynch sells virtual courses to health practitioners wanting to implement genetic screenings, consultations and treatments into their businesses. These courses are also available directly to patients. He claims to teach how to create a million-dollar online business, as he allegedly did for himself while “in medical school.” And through a pyramid-like incentive scheme, Lynch gives commission to SHEI members who recruit others into buying StrateGene and SHEI products.
SHEI operates using a referral program to connect StrateGene and Seeking Health clientele with practitioners who have taken his online courses and paid annual membership fees. The practitioners listed on the site’s directory include acupuncturists, chiropractors, naturopaths, nutritionists, nurse practitioners and a few physicians. Lynch’s own brand of polymorphism screening and subsequent sales of supplements is often reproduced on the practice websites of his SHEI members.Debra Doyle, the genetics coordinator for Washington State Department of Health, is highly concerned that practitioners are selling such treatments and highlights that there is a “significant conflict of interest in any clinician who recommends or prescribes a therapy or treatment regimen that he or she would profit from directly.” In her opinion, “such practice would be highly unethical.”
So much of this alternative practice zooms in on one gene in particular: MTHFR.Lynch runs yet another website affiliated with SHEI and StrateGene called MTHFR.net. He boasts that this site is the “leading resource for unbiased, researched information strictly about the MTHFR mutation [sic].” Despite numerous errors in his use of genetic terminology, Lynch benefits from the fact that his ideas are widely consumed in the alternative medicine communityThe MTHFR gene encodes an enzyme called methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase. This enzyme is part of the metabolism of folic acid—an important B vitamin for many biochemical pathways, including the processing of some amino acids.