Gut health plays such a central role in our wellness, affecting the status of our immune system, skin, nervous system, brain, and pretty much every other bodily system. The more we learn about the microbiome—and the ways in which our modern lifestyles disrupt the delicate balance of good and bad bacteria in the digestive tract—the easier it is to convince ourselves that our guts must be in utter disarray.
If you can relate to this paranoia—you're not alone. And your concerns may be valid, seeing as the standard American diet, chronic stress, lack of sleep, travel, and exposure to chemicals can all have pretty devastating effects on our gut health. But in reality, the only way to know for sure is to test. So I got my microbiome sequenced through a BIOHM gut report and then had a chat with Mahmoud Ghannoumm—a doctor of microbiology who led digestive health research at the National Institutes of Health—to finally face the truth (good or bad) about my gut health status. Here's what I learned:
1. Your microbiome is a moving target.
As much as I wanted this test to be pass or fail, that just wasn't the case. Instead, my results showed a snapshot of what my gut health looked like in that moment, and learning this made me feel both a little disappointed and somewhat relieved. Your microbiome is changing every day based on what you eat, drink, and do, so getting it tested is less definitive than you might like. But this ever-changing nature also means that each time you choose an apple over a Snickers bar your gut bacteria are thanking you—almost immediately.
2. Gut health isn't just about bacteria.
Yes, the BIOHM gut report included information about the of bacteria residing in my gut, but it also provided info on the fungal species that are inhabiting my digestive tract. Luckily, the most famous fungus, Candida, came back within normal levels (phew). But I did have elevated levels of one yeast that likes to feed off simple carbohydrates. This worried me, but Dr. Ghannoumm assured me that it could have simply been that I had eaten some fruit on the day before my test.
3. Diversity is just as important as quantity.
I like to think that I am pretty gut-health literate, so I was surprised by all of the names of bacteria and fungi in my results that I didn't recognize. Apparently, each one has an identified positive or negative role in a healthy microbiome. It made me think about how we get so overwhelmed with the number of probiotics in our guts that we might want to pay a little more attention to the diversity of bacteria and what their known roles are.
4. A healthy gut means something different for everyone.
In the BIOHM test, your gut microbiomes are compared to someone with a "well-balanced digestive system." But I was surprised when Dr. Ghannoumm didn't look worried when my results differed from the ideal sample. The healthy model was really just a reference point, and each person will have a different unique makeup.
5. Probiotics are not magic.
Probiotics are an awesome part of any wellness regime, but they aren't the holy grail. This is because healthy bacteria also rely on a healthy diet—full of fiber and nutrients—to really grow, flourish, and do their jobs. For example, a certain gut bacteria protects us against the flu, but it needs flavonoids (phytochemicals found in foods like blueberries) to actually activate this feature.
6. There's a LOT more to learn about the microbiome.
The fact that I just got my microbiome profiled using DNA-sequencing technology is proof that we've made a lot of progress in this area of science, but there is still SO much more to learn. We want to know more about the roles of specific bacteria and how they fit into the overall picture of gut health.
Overall, I learned a lot. But not as much as I would have liked. Luckily, scientists and researchers are working every single day to advance our knowledge of the microbiome. Here's to hoping we'll be able to take that knowledge practically, to improve our overall health and well-being.