A Healthy Microbiome Is A Healthy You!
When your health takes a turn for the worse, you naturally want to know why. Especially if it relates to digestion and gut health. Why has my digestion changed?
The opposite can also be true. Maybe you had a time in your life when you were feeling incredibly healthy. You’d want to know why so you can repeat that and get back to feeling that way. Can you test your microbiome to see what’s going on? How can I test my gut health?
One of the most popular answers to these “whys” right now is gut microbiome testing. The more researchers study the microbiome, the more we realize how important it is. Your microbiota regulates and establishes your health.
A healthy microbiome:
- Regulates your immune system
- Influences your metabolism
- Is critical to proper digestion and absorption of nutrients
An unhealthy microbiome is associated with:
- Inflammatory bowel diseases
- Liver disease
- Autoimmune disorders
Understandably, you want to know what’s going on in your microbiome -- especially if you're facing health issues. You might decide to go for microbiome testing. It’s expensive, but you want to know what’s happening. You want “answers.” Is it worth it? What exactly will it tell you? Is microbiome testing information accurate?
How Important Is your Microbiome?
Scientists and researchers have been increasing their focus on our gut and microbiome over the last two decades. The gut and its microbes have been called your “second brain” alluding to how important its function is to your health. Researchers have even found the same grey matter in your gut as in the brain!
But now that statement is under question. Out of every ten communications from your brain and gut, your gut sends nine to the brain. The brain only sends one back! This begs the question, is the brain influencing your gut, or is your gut affecting your brain? Research is showing us the latter.
An unhealthy gut actually changes your brain! In studies done with IBS patients, gray matter started to deteriorate. Researchers think this is what lead to anxiety and depression in this group of people. (1) All this time we’ve been looking to the brain to fix anxiety and depression when we should probably be focusing more on the GI tract and microbiome. This would also explain why people who have poor gut health frequently experience brain fog and cognitive/memory issues.
Beyond impacting your brain, your microbiome influences your genetics. These mighty little microbes also perform thousands of functions that you cannot:
- They synthesize a variety of vitamins and amino acids
- They transform your bile into an even more potent health-giving chemical
- Microbiota produce enzymes and break down your food to help provide you with energy
- They produce critical chemical constituents and short chain fatty acids
- They provide antimicrobial protection from dangerous microbes
They support your immune system and can help prevent allergies (2)
- These microbes produce hormones and neurotransmitters affecting your mood and memory
They even impact your sleep! (3)
You haven't made a mistake in thinking your microbiome is a top priority in getting yourself healthy. But will gut microbiome testing give you the answers you need?
What Do We Know About The Microbiome?
Science has come a long way in learning about you, your microbiome and gut health. The problem is, the more we uncover, the more we find out we need still need to discover!
How Many Types Of Microbes Are There?
Right now researchers have identified about 10,000 species that can inhabit your GI tract. Every few years they discover and catalog about 1,500 more. Right now they estimate that eventually, they will find 20,000 to 40,000 in total. But the truth is, even the top scientists don’t know for sure. Your microbiome is complex and dynamic. It’s constantly changing.
Every time they discover new microbes questions emerge like:
- What does this microbe do?
- What genes does it affect?
- How does it interact with other microbes?
- Has it always been in the microbiome or is it new?
- Is it supposed to be there, or should we try and get rid of it?
The more researchers find, the more they have to unpack that information. They scramble to figure out what the new data means to you and your health.
How Many Microbes Do We Have?
Doctors used to think that the number of microbes vastly outnumbered your own cells. Now that’s been revised. They presently state that the number is about the same. You have as many microbes as your own cells -- yet they admit there is about a 25% variance amongst different people. Plus, your microbiome changes continuously. Even one bowel movement can significantly change that number! (4)
Which Microbes Are The “Good” Ones?
We as humans like to analyze, gather stats and put everything into neat, clean boxes. The microbiome doesn’t play fair when it comes to stats and boxes!
Scientists still aren’t entirely sure what a “perfect” microbiome looks like. So microbiome testing is still in its infancy in understanding what your data means. They know that gut health is important. But does your “perfect” microbiome look the same as what would be perfect for someone else? The answer seems to be no.
The combination of microbes that create gut health differs from person to person. It even changes from region to region. Some underlying microbes remain relatively constant between you and everyone else. (5) But there is also some unexpected diversity.
Researchers studied a rural tribe in Africa to hopefully get some answers. They felt this group would be a great representation of what a microbiome would look like before being introduced to a Western diet with processed food. These people had dramatically more variety of microbes in their gut. They had some “bad” microbes that would probably give someone in a Western community diarrhea. They also completely lacked one microbe that has been proven to be “good.” (6) Yet they were very healthy!
The microbiome is like a city with different people and businesses. Each has a particular function to make the city (your gut!) run smoothly and for everyone’s needs to be met.
Yet the amenities in each city are different. The needs of a city with lots of rain will be different than those of a city that gets lots of snow. It makes sense then that microbes differ from person to person and region to region.
We still aren't entirely sure what each microbe does and what they do when combined.
This adds more questions as to what’s the best microbiome for you! Microbiome testing can’t nail down your perfect “community” of microbes.
How Much Does The Microbiome Change?
Not only are we not sure which microbes each of us need, but your microbiome is also forever changing. Even within the same day! (7)
Some things that influence the changing of your microbiome are:
- Exercise (some microbes die off when you exercise)
- The foods you eat
- When you eat
- The amount of light you get
- Where you are in the world (you are exposed to new microbes when you travel)
What you encounter in your day and how you perceive it can even change your microbiome. Scientist discovered that immediately after stress, your levels of “good” bugs go down. This lets the “bad” bugs go up in number, specifically one associated with loose stools. (8)
Microbiome Testing -- A Shot In The Dark
As much as we want to analyze and figure out our gut health, is microbiome testing the answer?
Scientists have many kinks to iron out before they can really understand what your gut test is saying. Considering that having a little stress or eating a strange food right before your test could change the outcome, how accurate are these tests? These tests are a snapshot of a moment and don’t necessarily correspond with your gut ecosystem.
Different microbes are more active at certain times of the day than at other times. Your microbiome composition can vary as much as 60% throughout the day. A morning and evening gut test will be radically different. (9)
Is a Stool Sample REALLY What’s In Your Intestines?
The content in your stools is a poor reflection of what is going on in your gut. Internal biopsies reveal that the microbiota present in your stool sample can be completely different from what is actually colonized in your intestines. An entirely different set of microbes can appear “dominant” in your stool than what is actually in your gut. (10) There is typically a much higher diversity in a biopsy than a stool sample gut test.
That being said, if you have ulcerative colitis, the opposite can happen. When researchers looked at biopsies and stool samples from ulcerative colitis patients, they were astounded. There was very little microbe colonization in their intestines. Yet there were many microbes in their stools. (11) This could give you a false positive. You might think your intestines are teeming with good microbes, when in fact there is almost none.
A gut test only tells you what is coming out of your body, not what’s actually in it.
Will It Reveal Parasites?
One answer you might specifically be looking for with a stool test is, do I have parasites? It may or may not be able to tell that. Most parasites die soon after they leave their host. Most of them release chemicals and enzymes that start to decompose their bodies shortly after death. By the time your gut test gets to the testing lab to be analyzed, those parasites might dissolve completely. You won’t get an accurate answer to whether you have a parasitic infection.
Different Tests, Different Outcomes
If all those variables were not enough to affect your microbiome testing results, the type of test changes what gets revealed as well.
Different companies have different methods. This includes how a sample is:
For example, some testing labs freeze your sample. That can preserve some aspects of your test, but it can ruin others. Some microbiota is well preserved this way, but others tend to disappear which could skew your results. (12) Some labs are more efficient at extracting the DNA from samples than others.
These labs also try and detect toxins in your sample. The delay between taking your sample and analyzing it can change what they detect. But do we really need to know what specific toxins there are? Or do we just need to get rid of the toxins?
The taking and handling of these tests need refinement before we can rely on their conclusions. Analyzing your microbiome is trickier than you think.
Taking Action Instead Of Taking A Test
If gut tests aren’t accurate, what’s the answer?
The answer is to focus on what helps your microbiome be healthy and vibrant, not whether it might be sick.
1. Get Your Gut Moving!
Your GI tract is the primary way your body gets rid of metabolic wastes and dangerous chemicals. If you are constipated, you are essentially poisoning yourself, and your microbiome. Studies show that being constipated changes what microbes are dominant in your gut. The ones associated with pathogenic diseases take over your GI tract. Get this drainage pathway moving regularly -- at least two times a day. This will tip the microbes in your favor!
2. Make Sure Your Liver Bile Duct Is Open
One of the jobs a healthy microbiome loves is to take your bile salts and turn them into bile acids. If you starve the microbiome of bile acids because your liver bile duct is blocked, they can’t produce it. A lack of bile acids changes the microbiome and can activate other diseases. (13)
The liver bile duct is another drainage pathway you need to keep flowing for a healthy microbiome. There are herb combinations that also support better liver function. Coffee enemas open up the liver bile duct and purge toxins that are hampering your and your microbes. It will also give them the bile salts they are craving.
A healthy, open liver bile duct will dramatically change your microbiome!
3. Feed Your Friendly Microbes With Fiber
Most people of Western nations eat far below the amount of fiber needed to keep their little intestinal community happy. You can’t digest fiber, but they love it. When you don’t feed them fiber, they start to die. The ones left over scrounge for whatever they can find. Unfortunately, they are not very friendly. What they feed on is your intestinal wall! They start to degrade the mucosal barrier in your GI tract. This not only harms your intestines but also leaves you open for infection from dangerous pathogens. (14) Eating a variety of vegetables and low sugar fruits can keep your microbes satisfied and leads to better gut health.
4. Eat Fermented Foods
If you want to kill two birds with one stone, feast on fermented foods. You will be giving your microbiome the fiber that they are after. You will also be adding microbes that could increase your microbiome diversity. Kimchi and sauerkraut have fiber, nutrients, and good microbes. Fermented food consumption dates back for thousands of years. (15) It’s associated with good gut health and even mental health, so add fermented foods to your diet. They may take some getting used to since our modern society has shied away from them. But no guts, no glory. Be brave.
Ask "How" Rather Than "Why"
It’s human nature to want to know why. Searching for “why” is how some of the laws of science like gravity were discovered. Wanting to know why isn’t a bad thing.
But it doesn’t necessarily fix the problem, especially since there is a lot we still need to learn about our microbes. Focusing on testing rather than overcoming can leave you hanging instead of healthy. The tests aren’t advanced enough for real conclusions to be made about your microbiome.
Choosing to spend your time and money in actions toward health, instead of analyzing why it’s missing can help you break free from what’s holding you back.