An InsideTracker review by a Quantified Selfer

After being wrapped up in work on an insane startup for two years and neglecting my health, I decided in April 2014 that it was time for establishing a baseline of my health, and not only that - my performance. I'm in my early 30s, and ordinary lab tests I'd get from a doctor would screen for disease but won't target performance. Time for a Quantified Self approach.

Enter InsideTracker - a personalized blood test panel for up to 30 biomarkers aimed at optimizing health and performance (mood, energy, sleep, metabolism) and accompanied by study-backed recommendations involving diet, supplements and activities.

How is InsideTracker different?

InsideTracker web page

A regular blood test will check your cholesterol, glucose and C-reactive protein levels, to determine inflammation and the risk of heart attack and diabetes.

InsideTracker's scope goes beyond the user's health, towards optimum wellness and athletic performance. The latter was actually how I learned about InsideTracker - from Sky Christopherson's QS presentation on helping the US women's sprint cycling team train for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, which won them a silver medal. Among the digital health devices and services used, InsideTracker provided key feedback on biomarkers.

Plans range from DIY ($45, where you enter your existing test results and receive recommendations) to Basic ($99, testing Glucose, Cholesterol, LDL, HDL and Triglycerides), to Ultimate ($499), which provides results and recommendations for 30 biomarkers: albumin, ALT, AST, calcium, cholesterol, chromium, cortisol, c-reactive protein, creatine kinase, ferritin, folic acid, GGT, glucose, HDL, hemoglobin, LDL, magnesium, potassium, serum iron, SHBG, sodium, TIBC, total testosterone, free testosterone, transferrin saturation, triglycerides, UIBC, vitamin B12, vitamin D, white blood cell count, and zinc. Chromium isn't included in the Ultimate plan, but is part of the Performance plan. All plans allow you to enter previous test results, which InsideTracker will store and chart.

When I inquired about testing InsideTracker for the Quantified Self community, I had the privilege to talk with Gil Blander, founder and Chief Science Officer of Segterra, the company behind InsideTracker. Gil provided me with a discounted Ultimate plan, and we've had several conversations to integrate my feedback in a new revision of the InsideTracker UI. While my testing of InsideTracker was partially sponsored by the company, no part of this review was directly influenced by anyone else but myself.

For a 15% InsideTracker discount, please contact me.

My InsideTracker experience

After receiving a discount code from Gil, the checkout process was painless. The confirmation email arrived immediately, with a receipt and a lab slip that you must print when you go to the testing facility.

InsideTracker advises to refrain from intense exercise for about a week prior to the blood draw, take one day of rest, and to fast 12 hours before.

To have blood drawn, you'll need to pick a Quest Diagnostics facility (Segterra switched from LabCorp to Quest on March 26, 2015). There are many Quest locations in my area, but Yelp shows bad or at best mediocre reviews for them (LabCorp fared better), with some showing pictured of people's bungled up arms from shoddy blood draws. Make sure to check the Yelp ratings for your area.

Your phone number is required by both InsideTracker and Quest. You don't need to sign up and give your address and lots of irrelevant personal data; just check out as Guest and enter the same phone number you have to InsideTracker. If you do sign up, allegedly you'll have access to your lab results.

Scheduling and later rescheduling the appointment on Quest's site were easy - just use your confirmation number.

With LabCorp, I had the blood drawn on a Thursday, and results were already available on Saturday.

With Quest, I had the blood draw today, and will update when I get the results. The experience at Quest was much more involved than at LabCorp, and I can't say I'm happy with the change. Quest took way longer to get me in an out, and required irrelevant personal information (home address, phone number, email) that LabCorp didn't. The volume of blood drawn by Quest was also about 3x that of LabCorp: I took the Ultimate test on March 24 at LabCorp and gave 4 vials of blood. I took the same Ultimate test at Quest on March 27 and gave 10 regular vials of blood plus 2 smaller vials.

The InsideTracker website asked me a few lifestyle questions (drinking, smoking, activity level, exposure to sunlight 20+ minutes/day), then showed the biomarkers data. Once you have some data available, a pop-up window allows you to direct a question to the InsideTracker team. I was pleased to learn that those questions were read individually by Gil.

Tips for the blood draw

  • Over-hydrate the day before, and before the draw. You'll have much less of a change to faint or experience light headedness.
  • If cortisol is one of the biomarkers tested, go for a 9am or earlier appointment.
  • Bring a snack to eat right after the blood draw.

User interface

The InsideTracker UI consists of three main pages: Bloodwork, Nutrition, and Food Basket.

The Bloodwork Detail view (below) is the default one, and shows your biomarkers sorted by risk, with the ones that need most work first. In my case, the top biomarker needing attention was the relatively common Vitamin D insufficiency (even Hawaiians who spend more than 4 hours per day in sunlight suffer from it, due to personal variability in responding to UVB radiation). None of the five regular medical checkups that I had had prior to this InsideTracker experiment, had tested my Vitamin D levels.

InsideTracker bloodwork detail

Each biomarker is displayed along with:

  • a brief description and the absolute value
  • its history, if you've entered previous bloodwork results
  • a Recommendations tab advising on dietary, supplement and exercise choice
  • a Science tab citing studies published on PubMed and supporting every claim that InsideTracker makes

During my evaluation of the service, the InsideTracker developers had upgraded the UI to a sleeker, more modern and clean look.

I was pleasantly impressed with the attention to detail, such as the automatic highlight of the row and column under the mouse in the Table View. A simple enhancement, but a useful once that not even Google Spreadsheets or Excel support, despite being aimed specifically at presenting tabular data.

InsideTracker UI neatness track rows and columns

From this page, you can also export the data as CSV. I've tested this functionality, and all results (both those by LabCorp, and those I had entered manually) were exported.

Nutrition

The Nutrition page lists all your biomarkers, with the problematic ones on top, and a list of diet restrictions you might have on the right. This makes it easy to select foods aimed at optimizing a particular biomarker: in my case, I need to up my Vitamin D levels, and I prefer to minimize cooking, so I selected "Read to eat". InsideTracker promptly advises:

eggs, eel, mackerel, salmon, sardine, Swiss cheese, whole grain cereal, yoghurt

...plus some alternatives like herring in case I don't find any eel nearby. Perfect.

InsideTracker Nutrition 2

However, if you need to optimize for more than one biomarker, or just want a biomarker-optimizing diet spoon-fed to you, check out the Food Basket.

The Food Basket

The Food Basket is the sort of software that hopefully in 20 years will drive Star-Trek-like food printers to come up with the perfectly balanced, personalized and varied meal that you need. It has 7,500 foods in its database and a button called "Not happy with this food? Generate a completely new food basket".

InsideTracker Nutrition 2

Again, you can pick dietary restrictions such as vegan, paleo, or lazyminimal preparation, drag a calorie slider to match your desired caloric intake, and the Food Basket will update itself.

Now here's a crazy thought: what if Food Basket were integrated with Google Shopping Express, which supports Whole Foods? I would gladly pay for a monthly service to send me minimal-preparation ingredients that can be quickly thrown together into optimized meals.

Things to improve

While writing this review, InsideTracker has already revamped its UI, so there's very little to complain about. One aspect would be the selection of activities in the Sports section of the onboarding questionnaire - I found Martial arts lacking, though it's arguably more common than, say, skating.

Another aspect would be the interface for selecting meal/diet preferences (aka food restrictions). The choices are represented by checkboxes, so you can select both "Vegan" and "Pork-free", which is a bit redundant. "Ready to eat" seems like a subset of "Minimal preparation" but both can be selected separately or together. Perhaps a combination of radio buttons and drill-down checkboxes would make the choices clearer.

Follow-up

After supplementing with 5000 IUs of vitamin D per day for three weeks, I retested:

InsideTracker Nutrition 2

Turns out you can rapidly improve your levels of vitamin D (and even overshoot). Since vitamin D deficiency was associated with a significant risk of cardiovascular disease and reduced survival, it's worth keeping an eye on it. The jury is still out on what exactly is optimal for a particular individual: a 4.5 year study of 420,000 people in Israel aged 45 years and older concluded that "Vitamin D in the 20-36 ng/mL range was associated with the lowest risk for mortality and morbidity. The hazard ratio below and above this range increases significantly." Another study on ~14,000 adults (17 or older) in Kansas concluded that mortality was essentially same in the 20-40ng/mL rage. ConsumerLabs has compiled more research in their Vitamin D review article (paid content) and considers the healthy range to be between 25 and 35 ng/mL, for the average population. For me in particular (male, white, early 30s), InsideTracker recommended 40-48.

More information

InsideTracker was exactly the motivation I needed to once again take my nutrition and exercise regimen seriously. Hope you found this review useful. Please feel free to ask questions in the Comments section below. Also,

Update

In April 2015, I ran another exeriment powered by InsideTracker: Can a 3-day fast reset your immune system?

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