Do home microbiome tests help gut health? A microbiologist tried 3 kits to find out
When you hear Speaking of gut microbiota, does that ever make you wonder what tiny creatures are crawling around in your own body? Like a microbiologist who studies the microbiomes of plants, animals and humans, I have seen public interest in gut microbes grow alongside research into their possible spectacular radiation on human health. Over the past few years, microbiome testing techniques used by researchers like me are now available for home consumers. These personal gut microbiome test kits claim to tell you what organisms live in your gut and how to improve your gut microbiome using this data.
I became very interested in how these home test kits work, what kind of information they provide, and if they can help you change your gut microbiome. So I ordered a few kits from Viome, Biohm, and Floré, tried them out, and sifted through my own microbiome data. Here is what I learned.
How do gut microbiome kits work?
All gut microbiome kits require you to carefully collect fresh feces. You put it in the different tubes provided in the kit and send the samples back to the company. Several weeks later, you will receive a report outlining the types of microbes living in your gut and suggestions on how to change your diet or activities to potentially change your gut microbiome.
What consumers don’t know exactly is how companies generate microbial profile data from your fecal sample. A typical approach that I and other microbiome researchers use is to extract and decode microbial genetic material from a sample. We use this genetic material to identify the species of microbes present. The challenge is that this process can be done in different waysand there are no widely accepted standards for determining which method is best.
For example, microbiome analyzes can be performed on two types of genetic material, RNA Where DNA. If the profile is DNA-based, it may give you insight only into the types of microbes present, not the active microbial genes or the activities they perform in your body. On the other hand, if the profile is RNA-based, it can tell you not only which microbes are present, but also if they play a role in your digestion or if they produce metabolites that can reduce the intestinal inflammation, among other functions. Viome generates its profiles looking at RNA, while other companies use DNA.
Other data analysis choices, such as how different types of genetic sequences are sorted or which databases are used to identify microbes, may also affect the level of detail and usefulness final data. Microbiome scientists are usually very careful to point out these nuances when interpreting their own data in scientific papers, but these details are not clearly presented in home microbiome kits.
What I learned about my gut microbiota
Although I used the same fecal sample for each kit, mixed well to ensure consistency, I was surprised that each of the three products I tried gave me different impressions of my gut microbiome.
Each company gives an overall “grade” on how your microbiome compares to what they consider “good” or “healthy.” My scores ranged from 39% (not excellent) to 72% (good). Interestingly, Viome, which infers microbial activity using RNA, gave the lowest score. He noted that certain microbial activities occurring in my gut, such as methane production and digestion efficiency, were not optimal.
I was also surprised by the variation in total microbial diversity reported by each company. While there was general agreement across the groups of microbes present at the phylum level, a more general biological grouping, there was a wide range of variation at the species level, the most specific grouping. One company reported 527 species of microbes in my microbiome, while another reported 312. One only reported 27.
Perhaps the most surprising discovery is that my gut may harbor a microbe that could (there are plenty of caveats here!) pose a problem for me in the future if I encounter certain medical situations. Even though all of the companies explicitly looked for this microbe in my gut microbiome sample, only two actually found it. Although I won’t name the exact microbe to protect my privacy, I’m not overly concerned about this result because more information, such as full genome sequencing of the microbe, is needed to better understand if it is is actually a worrying strain of this microbe. But this finding indicates surprising variations in results between different test kits.
Can this data really improve your gut microbiota?
Many microbiome scientists like me would probably say that the data provided by these kits is limited in giving you the power to alter your health. This is partly because the science of the gut microbiome is still a new field with many unanswered questions.
One challenge is that different people may have different proportions of microbes present in their guts. This variation has made it difficult for scientists and health professionals to agree on the type of microbial community makes a “healthy” intestine.” Some specific species, such as the bacterium C difference.and some large groups, like proteobacteria, are generally considered undesirable in large quantities. But there’s no clear consensus on why one microbiome might be better than another.
Even if you tried to improve your gut microbiota based on what your gut test told you, the results might not turn out the way you expected. Probiotics or diet changes can alter the diversity of your gut microbiome and how it functions, but studies often show that each person may have different responses to these interventions, perhaps due to their own unique unique microbial composition. The personalized ecology of gut microbial communities, combined with genetics, diet, and other factors, makes it difficult to prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions.
So why bother doing a gut microbiome test? For me, it was enlightening to learn what microbes I carry with me every day. When I eat my lunch, go for a run, or feel stressed, the microbes in my gut react to changes in my body. Researchers may not fully understand what these changes mean and how to manage our microbial partners, but getting to know them is an important first step.
This article was originally published on The conversation by Benjamin Wolfe at Tufts University. Read it original article here.
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