"When in doubt, follow your gut," conventional wisdom tells us. And when it comes to your health, it's actually not bad advice. The organisms living in our guts can help explain everything from our weight to our mental state.
"There is clear evidence from various studies that our microbiomes impact human health," explained Cornell University professor Maureen Hanson and her research associate Ludovic Giloteaux. The pair told POPSUGAR that the bacteria in our guts are "involved in the processing of food we eat, helping us get important nutrients we wouldn't get solely from our digestive system."
Together, Hanson and Giloteaux have written a major paper on the microbiome, and they say that more and more research correlates conditions such as obesity, type II diabetes, cancers such as lymphomas, and inflammation to our gut microbiome composition. In addition, they said "there is increasing evidence that metabolites produced by gut bacteria can have effects on the brain."
Assuming you're comfortable sending a small sample of your poop, uBiome will analyze your microbes and present you actionable results.
Considering the importance of the microbiome, scientists are making more of an effort to understand the thousands of species that live not only in our digestive system, but also on our skin, in our mouths, and all over our bodies. As research continues, everyday people now have a chance to look inside their own.
One company, uBiome, offers a gut test kit for $89. Assuming you're comfortable collecting and sending a small sample of your stool (i.e. poop), uBiome will analyze your microbes and present you actionable results. I recently decided to try it out. While I wish I could have learned even more, I did come away with some new health goals.
How It Works
If you're familiar with the DNA kits offered by companies like 23andMe or Ancestry.com, then you'll recognize the process uBiome follows. After purchasing a kit online, they'll send you a box that contains everything you need to collect your bacteria sample and send it back to them to test.
There's a catch, though: instead of swabbing the inside of your month with a Q-tip or spitting into a little tube to collect your DNA, you have to dab a Q-tip on a piece of soiled toilet paper. The directions promise they only need a tiny amount, so it's actually not that gross. After that first step, you then mix the Q-tip in a container of the provided liquid, shake it up, seal it, and send it back to uBiome. Before dropping off your poop at the mailbox, you'll want to register your kit online and fill out a survey about your lifestyle habits.
In addition to the gut kit, uBiome offers a "time lapse" gut kit ($199), which lets you sample your gut three different times to see if changes you've made to your diet or lifestyle are impacting your microbiome. There is also a "five site" kit that will look at your gut, mouth, nose, genitals, and skin. I went with the entry-level gut kit.
When analyzing my gut sample, uBiome looked at:
- Bodyweight bacteria match: did I have bacteria correlated with weight loss or obesity?
- Probiotics match: did I have bacteria correlated with better mental health and gastrointestinal functions?
- Diversity percentile: how diverse was my microbiome?
- Most uncommon bacteria: what type of rare bacteria did I have?
First up: bodyweight. I learned that my gut is dominated by bacteroidetes, which is correlated with weight loss and a lower bodyweight. That wasn't a huge surprise to me, but it also told me that I had a lower percentage of the bacterium called akkermansia compared to people with a similar lifestyle and health profile as me (no ailments and a high level of wellness). Akkermansia has been shown to potentially combat weight gain and inflammation. In order to feed the akkermansia in my gut, my results recommended I eat a type of fiber called oligofructose, which is found in garlic, onions, and bananas.
They recommended I eat yogurt with live cultures, take supplements that contain lactobacillus acidophilus, eat fermented vegetables, and increase my consumption of dairy like kefir and buttermilk.
Next was my probiotics match, which was low. Specifically, they looked for bifidobacterium and lactobacillus. Bifidobacterium have been shown to improve gastrointestinal issues, while lactobacillus have been shown to improve mental health, including anxiety and mood. In order to improve this, uBiome recommended I eat yogurt with live cultures, take supplements that contain lactobacillus acidophilus, eat fermented vegetables that have not been subjected to a manufacturing processes, and increase my consumption of dairy like kefir and buttermilk.
The results looked at my diversity profile next, which compared the diversity of my bacteria to similar samples. Hanson and Giloteaux, who are not affiliated with uBiome in any way, explained to me that several studies show that the greater our gut diversity, the better our health.
"It's been shown that the lack of certain gut bacteria in infants, for example, may be a driver for food allergies in their later life or more sensitivity to specific foods such as milk or peanuts," they said. They also noted that while having low diversity does not mean someone will be obese, it could be a risk factor for developing a metabolic disorder.
UBiome told me that gut samples tend to generate a score between 6 and 9, and I got a relatively high diversity score of 8.34. In order to improve it, they said I could eat more fiber, exercise frequently, and avoid proton pump inhibitors, which are often used to treat ulcers and acid reflux. They also reported that antibiotics can dramatically decrease microbiome diversity, but noted that diversity has been shown to recover.
Finally, I found out about my uncommon bacteria. Apparently, I have three "very elusive" bacteria hiding in my gut, meaning they're found in fewer than five percent of all samples. My most uncommon is coprothermobacter, but I didn't get any information about what it does. Google wasn't much of a help, either.
In the end, I wish I could have learned more. While I did get some actionable takeaways — I will be eating some more pickled vegetables and trying to acquire a taste for kefir — the overall results felt incomplete and not totally easy to understand. For example, I wasn't sure what to do with the information about my most uncommon bacteria, since the uBiome site said "the rarity of these specimens does not indicate they are beneficial or harmful."
UBiome is upfront about the limitations of its analysis in its terms of service, explaining "the state of the understanding of microbiome information is rapidly evolving and at any given time we only comprehend part of the picture of the role of microbiomes." It also states that you shouldn't make any health decisions solely on the information provided and should always consult with a doctor.
I'm still glad I did it, as it reaffirmed my commitment to maintaining a healthy gut. Hanson and Giloteaux also recommended exercise, sleep, avoiding refined carbohydrates and processed foods, and eating more fruits and vegetables as ways for anyone to improve the quality of their microbiome. At the end of the day, I would only recommend uBiome to people who love seeing data and are eager to learn whatever they can about their health, even if it simply confirms common-sense healthy behavior.