Up until a few weeks ago, if you had asked me about my gut health, I would have said it was probably pretty good. I rarely experience digestive discomfort, bloating, or gassiness. And just in case you were wondering, I poop every day like clockwork. But if you were to ask me today, I’d just shrug and tell you that I actually have no idea.
When it comes to managing the health of my microbiome—the community of microorganisms in the gut—I thought I was doing everything right. I eat lots of fiber and probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, tempeh, miso, and pickles. I try not to go crazy with added sugar or refined grains. And I can’t remember the last time I took antibiotics. (Read these 3 ways antibiotics do more harm than good.)
So when the probiotic company BIOHM asked if I was interested in trying their new at-home gut sequencing test ($180 for one-time use or $117 for a quarterly subscription, biohmhealth.com), I jumped at the chance. By providing fecal swab, the experts at BIOHM would be able to analyze the swab and tell me what kind of bugs were living in my belly. They’d also be able to show me how my gut stacked up to the guts of other healthy adults.
So why would I want to send a sample of my poop to a bunch of scientists? By now, we’ve all heard how the state of our gut bacteria can influence our health overall—from immunity to heart health to stress levels—and, of course, digestion. (If you need a refresher, read this.) “By doing the gut report, you’re gaining insight into the bacteria and fungi that live there. And once you know what’s there, if something is out of balance, then you may be able to take steps to bring that balance back,” says BIOHM founder and Case Western Reserve University microbiome researcher Mahmoud Ghannoum, PhD.
As a health and nutrition writer, I’m all about doing things to optimize my health. So when my testing kit arrived in the mail, I stored it in the bathroom for the next time I had to go number two. When that happened the next day, I followed the kit’s super easy instructions: Wipe the sterile swab on my used toilet paper, stick the swab in a plastic tube, seal it up in a shipping envelope, and pop it in the mailbox. After BIOHM got my sample, they’d email me my analysis within a few weeks. (Even without a kit, here’s what your poop can tell you about your health.)
Did it seem weird to put something that had come out of my body in the mail? Well, yeah. Aside from the ick factor, I was sending off a packet that contained my DNA. I’m not a scientist, but it did seem like tossing my genetic information in the mail willy-nilly had the potential to be a bad idea. What if someone stole it or used it for purposes other than the microbiome sequencing test? What if the whole thing was a sham and some evil biologist was just trying to clone me?
I tried to categorize these thoughts as Highly Ridiculous so I could stop worrying. After all, BIOHM isn’t the only company to offer at-home microbiome tests. The American Gut Project, a research project that’s working to compare the microbiomes of people around the world, will also sequence your gut bacteria. And uBiome offers a test, too, but it has to be ordered by your doctor.
I forgot about the test altogether after a few days, until I received an email with my results. I had no idea what to expect, but the two-page PDF file that BIOHM sent me was sort of…underwhelming. It had a pie chart showing a breakdown of the basic classes of bacteria that were living in my gut, and another that showed the basic classes of fungi that were living in my gut. Below that, things got a bit more specific, listing the individual bacterial and fungal species that were in my microbiome.
Next to the information about my gut were charts on what has been found in people with “normal” guts. Weirdly, mine looked very, very different from this group of bacterially balanced folks. (Try these 5 ridiculously easy ways to improve your gut bacteria.)
Usually, I would have been alarmed by this. But I was mostly just confused. Because even though the analysis gave me a big list of all the bugs in my belly, it didn’t tell me what any of this actually meant for my health. After all, what good is it knowing that I have way more proteobacteria and zygomycota (a type of fungus) in my gut than other people if I don’t know what proteobacteria or zygomycota are, or the roles that they play in the body?
So I hopped on the phone with Dr. Ghannoum, hoping to sort everything out. But I wasn’t able to get the detailed information that I was looking for. Not because he wouldn’t tell me, but because experts just don’t know. “At the moment, we don’t have the science to say that a certain organism is associated with a certain symptom,” he said.
Instead, scientists can say that certain microbiota are tied to certain patterns. In my case, the bacteria living in my gut was associated with dysbiosis, which means the microbiome is out of balance, Dr. Ghannoum said. A bit more specifically, some of the main bacteria species in my belly are known to love feasting on carbohydrates. “So maybe the week that you gave your sample, you ate a lot of carbs and sugar,” he said.
This is your body on sugar:
But as for what that meant for my health overall, or how to make my microbiome better? That was still unclear. Your microbiome can change within days based on what you eat. But I hadn’t tracked my diet before submitting my sample swab. So I don’t know if I had gone on a bread and cookie bender that threw my microbiome temporarily out of whack, or if my seemingly healthy diet is actually pretty terrible. (Here are 8 things you should eat and drink if you do go on a junk food binge.)
Dr. Ghannoum agreed that having answers to these questions was important. And within 5 to 10 years, experts may be able to look at someone’s microbiome sequence and explain exactly what the findings mean. Then, they could make specific recommendations that could help a person improve their health, he said. But we’re not there yet.
The problem is, BIOHM’s test is expensive. (As a health writer, I got mine for free.) More than $100 is a lot of money to pay to for information that isn’t all that useful. At best, you might be reassured that you’re perfectly healthy, which wouldn’t be so bad. But if your gut bacteria doesn’t match up with the sample data, you’re left to try to interpret what the results mean on your own. Which seems like a ripe opportunity to get confused—or freak yourself out.
Some experts agree. “At this point, we don’t even know enough to make complete standards for the ideal microbiome test, and high-quality studies are lacking on how to use the test results,” says gastroenterologist Nitin Kumar, MD. And even if experts have found an association between a particular microbiome test result and a disease, that still doesn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
In short, microbiome sequencing tests sound like an awesome idea. And one day, they could be a valuable way to analyze what’s going on inside your body and improve your health. But to me, it seemed like the current tests could leave you with more questions than answers. For now, you might be better off focusing on eating a healthy diet and discussing your gut health concerns with your doctor, Kumar says.
Marygrace Taylor Marygrace Taylor is a health and wellness writer for Prevention, Parade, Women’s Health, Redbook, and others.