(Updates pricing in paragraph 4)
Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to abiding unusual pre-conditions to secure interviews. Blindfolds and undisclosed locations, for instance, were required to visit Salman Rushdie (then under a fatwa), and to meet the Billboard Liberation Front (a group that scaled buildings to “improve” outdoor advertising in the foggy dark of San Francisco nights). TV survivalist Bear Grylls suddenly whipped off his pants and insisted we go running in a frigid Central Park. He’d tell me whatever I wanted to know—if I had the breath to ask. Actor Viggo Mortenson had me personally sign a contract that the magazine I was working for would not, under any circumstances, retouch our photos of him. His scars were his scars.
But I confess I was taken aback when Tim Ferriss asked me to fast for 10 hours before we met—and to be prepared to give blood. Ferriss, if you know the name, but can’t quite place it, is the Four-Hour Guy. He’s written an expansive self-help trilogy: The 4-Hour Work Week (418 pages), 4-Hour Body (592 pages), and the 4-Hour Chef (672 pages). Still, if you were pressed to list his occupation, professional guinea pig might be most accurate.
Ferriss is also an investor in, or adviser to, more than 30 technology startups, including WellnessFX, a San Francisco-based company that provides sophisticated blood analysis via its website. InsideTracker, in Cambridge, Mass., and Talking20, in San Bruno, Calif., offer similar services; Talking20 focuses more on amino acids than on blood, but both represent a niche—albeit growing—market, and they are WellnessFX’s competition. Having me meet him to undergo a trial of the WellnessFX blood-testing service clearly offered Ferriss an opportunity to promote a business partner. It was also his way of initiating me into a 4-Hour “make-over” for this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek.
The WellnessFX process is fairly straightforward. Set up an account at Wellnessfx.com, filling in your medical history. Go to a phlebotomist or clinic, give the standard three vials of blood, and await the lab report (sent directly to WellnessFX). When it’s ready, schedule a telephone consultation. At the time of the call, you log in and follow along as the consultant interprets your data, which is displayed neatly on screen. The basic package—Baseline, it’s called—runs from $149 to $249. The one that Ferriss signed me on for—“the Ferriss panel”—is more involved and available, like an off-menu entrée, for $1,499. It includes, for one thing, an additional consultation with a nutritionist.
Ferriss says he does this blood work every two to three months. “Rather than doing one annual checkup, which is like taking a high resolution shot of a soccer ball in a soccer game and trying to tell someone what happened during the entire soccer game, this is like getting slightly lower-resolution photographs throughout that year so you can see the trend-lines,” Ferriss says. “If I’m really playing with new drugs or protocols, I might do it every two weeks. To me, that is a very smart investment. I can track if the drugs or protocols are working.”
On my teleconference, Dr. Justin Mager began by first explaining that if there were anything alarming that required immediate medical attention, he’d direct me to take it up with my primary care physician. He noted, too, that these blood panels use many more bio-markers than standard blood tests designed to screen for disease. We then moved on to a 75-minute exploration of my lipid, hormone, and electrolyte levels. Many of the molecules were familiar, such as cholesterol, glucose, and testosterone; others were far less so: homocysteine (a factor in inflammation), creatinine (serum), and several liver enzymes I don’t think I understood when I last knew their names in high school biology. Did my elevated levels of estradiol (the main form of estrogen) explain my recent weepiness at movies? Could be. In all, we discussed more than 80 findings. It was a lot to take in.
“Intuitive” is an abused term for describing a graphic interface, but it applies well to the WellnessFX blood report. Values for various nutrients, hormones, and particles are color-coded. It’s easy to tell at a glance what’s in the red, and could be a concern. The values themselves vary widely, but a sliding scale and range of preferred values provides helpful context for each. The definitions are clear. When we were done, Mager recommended I take several dietary supplements, among them omega-3 (fish oil), zinc, and calcium-D-glucarate. That last one binds with and eliminates estradiol, so I can buck up during Terms of Endearment.
Mager also suggested that after I’d added these to my daily regimen for a few months, I get a new test and see if my results had changed. Although frequent tests is an obvious way for WellnessFX to increase its bottom line, this part of the process—the self-medicating, monitoring, and potential tweaking of dosage—struck me as perhaps the most profound upgrade on the blood test one gets at the doctor’s office. Over time, I’ll be able to see if specific changes I make in my diet have an impact on my blood.
WellnessFX faces some regulatory hurdles to be cleared to operate in more states. Through a spokesperson, founder Jim Kean said he expects it to be available in New York by the fourth quarter of 2013. By the end of 2014, it should be available in every state but Maryland, where regulatory issues make it too difficult to operate. $250, meanwhile, will surely strike some as too steep for a test that comes built-in via a $20 or $40 co-pay at their regular doctor. On the other hand, it’s catnip for the Quantified Self types who can never have too much data on themselves. Wellness FX’s Christine Keating confirmed my other suspicion—that early-adopters of the service included a lot of cyclists and triathletes. As well as promoting blood health, such tests will allow those with the means to optimize the performance of their blood. How long, a cynic might wonder, before we’re all boring dinner dates with our hormone levels, or ghoulishly tweaking our hemoglobin in ways Lance Armstrong never dreamed of?