Over the last decade, gut health has moved to the forefront of the conversation on health. It’s been linked to everything from depression to obesity to even Parkinson’s disease – interest seems to be at an all-time high. According to Google Trends, searches for “microbiome” reached peak interest in November 2017, and the United States is in the lead for most searches on the topic over the last five years.
With all the excitement and promise of the microbiome as the secret to health, biotech startups have been popping up and touting the benefits of knowing what sort of bacteria are in your gut. The selling point is that once you know your bacterial profile, your diet can be personalized to optimize your gut’s bacteria – thus reducing disease risk.
The process is easy enough; you place your order, get a kit, submit a sample, and send it to a lab to be tested. Specific results may vary by company but include a profile – of varying detail – of the microorganisms found in your gut. Sounds great, right?
It may not be that simple. There is still much we don’t actually know about the gut and the role that each microorganism plays in health. While certain characteristics seem to be associated with better health – like higher microbial diversity, for instance – healthy individuals may have very different-looking results.
It’s also important to remember that our microbiome is constantly changing. Diet, medications, exercise, age, physical location, and exposure to pets all play a role in the type of bacteria that populate the microbiome. While a test may be able to give an interesting snapshot of the bacteria in the gut, we may not be ready to properly interpret the information or draw conclusions from it.
Researchers at the University of California are trying to learn more about the microbiome through an open-sourced project called “American Gut,” which has collected over 10,000 samples over the past four years. The hope is that the database will be able to broaden our understanding of the types of microbes we have, while acknowledging that our current understanding is limited.
According to the team at American Gut, “We’re still trying to understand what constitutes a normal or average gut microbiome, and we have a lot to learn about the functions of many of the microbes that inhabit the gut. Therefore, it’s tough to know what combinations of microbes are best for nutrition and health.”
One thing we know for sure is that a diet high in whole foods and low in highly processed foods helps support gut health (and all-around health). As interest in microbiome testing and personalized nutrition increase, Integrative Nutrition Health Coaches can play a major role in helping people make the connection between how they feel and how their diet may be contributing – without fecal testing.