When Should I Worry About...

Should You Do a Gut Microbiome Test?

Jan. 17, 2024 - Katie McCallum

You've tried probiotic supplements, adjusted your diet to contain plenty of prebiotic foods and heeded the other bits of advice for relieving digestive symptoms. But ... you're still dealing with gas, bloating and diarrhea or constipation.

Now, you're considering a gut microbiome test.

But what is your microbiome anyway? And do you really need a test for that?

What is your microbiome?

We often think of bacteria, fungi and viruses solely as germs that make us sick. But did you know that your body is home to trillions of these microorganisms?

This collection is called your microbiome. Rather than harmful, these microorganisms are beneficial. Residing within various areas of the body, they play crucial roles in your overall health — contributing to processes like digestion, immune system function and more.

"Microbiome composition — the types and abundance of microorganisms present — can vary significantly between individuals," says Dr. Arvind Reddy, a gastroenterologist at Houston Methodist. "This is particularly true for the composition of a person's gut microbiome, which can be influenced by factors such as diet, lifestyle and environment."

Researchers and clinicians have studied such differences for decades. While a "normal" microbiome supports a healthy gut, an imbalanced one is linked to several digestive issues.

"When the types or amounts of gut microorganisms are altered, it's known as dysbiosis," explains Dr. Reddy. "This can disrupt important processes and contribute to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)."

(Related: IBS vs. IBD: What's the Difference?)

It's why you might be considering a gut microbiome test. But do these tests actually tell you anything about your digestive health?

How does a gut microbiome test work?

Also called gut health tests, a slew of at-home gut microbiome tests are available for purchase these days. Your part in the process is quick and easy — you simply collect and submit a stool sample. Powerful technology, called sequencing, is then used to evaluate the microorganisms present in your stool. This step is complex and can take a few weeks.

"The end result is information about the various patterns of microorganisms you have in your gut," explains Dr. Reddy. "Some companies also quantify these microorganisms, giving you a population breakdown of the specific types of bacteria and yeast present."

Certain companies use this information to predict whether your composition is "normal" or not. Some even provide a gut health score, make personalized probiotic or prebiotic cocktails based on your results and offer other wellness products aimed at maintaining the right microorganism balance.

This all sounds well and good, especially if you're struggling with a digestive problem, but Dr. Reddy says the first step on the path to better gut health isn't as simple as taking one of these tests.

Should you do a gut microbiome test?

While companies may claim that the secret to maintaining a healthy gut involves knowing what the microbiome within looks like, Dr. Reddy warns that the clinical role of today's gut microbiome tests is debatable. None have been validated for their utility in assessing overall gut health. None are FDA-approved.

"At this time, there does not seem to be enough evidence to recommend these tests for routine health maintenance," says Dr. Reddy. "While these tests seem to be effective in mapping the gut microbiome, there is currently no benchmark for what a 'normal' gut microbiome looks like. So the question becomes what to do with the results."

As mentioned, microbiomes are highly variable — even normal, healthy ones. This makes it incredibly challenging to define the patterns or signatures that suggest a microbiome has become imbalanced. Right now, such information isn't well-defined.

Plus, the at-home steps for correcting microbiome imbalance aren't established either. For instance, whether probiotic supplements actually help maintain a healthy gut is murky. Their role in treating digestive problems is often even less clear.

"Research to further understand the gut microbiome is currently underway, including studying the effects of altering it in certain ways," adds Dr. Reddy. "We hope this gives us better guidance and direction in the near future."

Stay up-to-date
By signing up, you will receive our newsletter with articles, videos, health tips and more.
Please Enter Email
Please Enter Valid Email
Categories: When Should I Worry About...