Microbiome Testing: Everything You Need to Know

Are you, like the rest of us, still wondering what exactly microbiome testing is? Do you have tons of questions about how it all actually works? Well, you’re in the right place to find out! Let’s start with the basics…

What is Microbiome?

If you thought that all bacteria are nasty little things that occasionally make you sick, and that you should stay as far away from them as possible – think again. In fact, there are around 300-500 different kinds of bacteria spending their lives inside of you, and helping you live your life to the fullest. Here’s another even more interesting piece of information: a 2014 study conducted by the American Academy of Microbiology showed that there are 10 times as many microbial cells in our body as there are human cells.

Now, these bacteria, combined with other microorganisms, such as fungi or viruses, make up our microbiota, or microbiome. This is basically a unique mix of all the microorganisms that live in your body, and every person has a different mix – like we all have unique fingerprints. And, although they are found throughout our body, it seems like the ones found in our gut have the biggest impact on our health. Since they literally line our whole digestive system, they have an impact on everything from our immune system to our mood. If you take a look at the gut microbiome of a healthy person, it will look very different from that of a person with a certain disease. This is where microbiome testing comes in.

How Do I Test my Gut Microbiome?

Well… it ain’t pretty.

Basically, the point of most microbiome tests is that you take a sample of your stool and send it to whatever company you have opted for. Collecting a sample, although it may sound disgusting, is usually not that messy. All the necessary equipment is included, and most tests only require you to swab a used piece of toilet paper, seal the sample, and ship it. Some tests will also ask you to fill in a questionnaire about your lifestyle and diet, while others may come with probiotics that you should take for a certain time before collecting another sample.

What Information Will I Receive?

The company will test the sample you send to them in order to identify the types of bacteria that live in your gut. They will use DNA sequencing to find something called 16S rRNA, which is only found in microorganisms, while humans don’t have it. This way, they can analyze the genetic materials of the microorganisms in your gut. This usually takes around 4 to 8 weeks, but it may vary depending on the product you purchase.

As a result, you will get an insight into different areas of your gut health. These tests will not only give you diet recommendations, but they also might be able tell you if you are suffering from some abdominal problems, such as diarrhea or bloating.

You won’t, however, receive any concrete diagnoses for specific gut conditions. In case you are worried about a more serious gut problem, you should consult your doctor.

Another thing you should know is that your microbiome changes literally on a daily basis, depending on what you eat, drink, and how you live in general. In other words, you can’t pass or fail this test – it is more complicated than that. The good side is that it also means that you can heal your gut, and you can do it very quickly.

How Can I Use the Information I Receive?

This is still an emerging area of research; however, a few studies so far have shown that diversity in your microbiome can have different effect on health and weight.

You can use the information you receive and consult a doctor to discuss how you can improve your diet in case some of the levels are extraordinarily high or low. However, you should keep in mind that in these tests, your microbiome is compared to someone who has a well-balanced digestive system, but it is not set in stone. “Healthy” can mean different things for different people. So just because something is higher or lower than it usually is in healthy people, it doesn’t mean that a horrible disease is waiting for you around the corner. You should check with your doctor, but it could just be something irrelevant.

So… Should I do it?

This depends on what your expectations are. If you read this article up until this point, you probably know much more about microbiome and microbiome testing than you did a few minutes ago. But it is not exact science and it will not provide a magic potion that will heal your entire organism. This is an area that is expected to grow and become even more complex and thorough. But at this point, all microbiome testing will do is inform you.

You will receive a thorough report about all the bacteria that live in your gut, it will teach you about how diverse your microbiome is, and you will get an insight into possible problems with your microbiome. You’ll get some general advice on how to behave to improve your microbiome diversity or quantity. You can also take the report to your physician and they may be able to come to a diagnosis based on them.

To Sum Up

As mentioned earlier, microbiome testing is still an emerging area of research, and who knows what else it may be able to do as time goes by. It’s never bad to learn more about your body. After all, only by doing this testing will you be able to determine whether it is worth it for you, or not.

Erica Mesirov, Editor, Nutritionist/Dietician, MSHN

Erica Mesirov has a Master's degree in holistic nutrition and writes the award winning blog Eat, Lose, Gain. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, her dog and her two kittens. When she isn't helping people live vibrantly, Erica spends her time watching girl movies, reading books her mom would say don't challenge her, and making lopsided pottery creations.

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