Last updated on July 28th, 2021 at 01:01 am
Suddenly, you can get an at-home microbiome test. For those of us who’ve struggled with gut health issues, this sounds like an amazing technological advancement! But are these tests legit, and why are so many popping up all of a sudden?
Startups are applying the insights discovered by big universities, governmental research bodies, as well as pharmaceutical businesses to establish direct-to-consumer (D2C) gut microbiome tests that you can self-administer. These solutions offer patients at-home testing kits that can be used to create personalized health recommendations (like what foods to avoid, eat more of, etc.) – and are trying to monetize through subscription probiotics supplements. So the business models have two steps: 1) get people to test their guts and then 2) sell them supplements to supposedly improve their gut health.
While the aforementioned universities/government bodies and pharmaceutical companies have conducted a lot of research, it’s still a bit up in the air as to if this research supports the direct-to-consumer (D2C) startups that are popping up. Some universities, such as MIT, point out that researchers have found that “changes in the body’s microbial ecosystems are linked to a wide range of different medical conditions, from gastrointestinal problems to diabetes and even Parkinson’s.” But, at the same time, they question if any at-home test can really produce scientifically valid results that a consume (and their doctor) can trust.
But that’s not stopping the market from growing! Perhaps many people believe that more information about your own body — even if not as complete as going in person to a lab — is better than none. Pitchbook, a venture capital research organization, thinks that the marketplace will generate around $58 billion in 2021 and estimate it will reach $100 billion in 2025. That’s a ton of money going to these services. Let’s dive in to learn more about these tests.
Explaining the microbiome: What is it?
The digestive tract microbiome includes all living microorganisms in the gastrointestinal system (consisting of microorganisms, protozoa, as well as fungi). There are more than 1 trillion types of microbiota, and together they operate almost as if they are an entirely new organ in a person’s body! And researchers have found that bacterial cells harbored within the human gastrointestinal tract outnumber their human’s cells by ten times, and the genes encoded by the bacteria outnumber their host’s genes by more than 100 times.
The microbiome is first produced during birth, and also rapidly changes and matures during infancy. By three years old, a stable, adult-like melange of microbiota is developed – and at this point, researchers say that the child’s microbial ecosystem is indistinguishable from an adults.
But that doesn’t mean that all kids (and adults) have the same stuff living in their digestive tract! Digestive tract microbes can vary dramatically from one person to another. And they can change within that person as well, since factors like anxiety, the environment, the foods eaten, medicines, age, and certain diseases can make the mix change.
With over 1,000 varieties of microorganisms in each person’s intestine microbiome, and with each one playing a different role, researchers have tried to tease out which bacterial genes correlate or drive particular human health issues.
This has gotten a lot easier with the tremendous improvements in DNA sequencing. Scientists are now able to use DNA sequencing to identify how bacteria and human health interact. And as we mentioned, health conditions like type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis and even cancer and depression have been linked to particular microbiome concentrations.
Studies in animals suggest altering one’s diet can affect the microbiome within a single day. So, if you believe that these animal studies apply to humans, it seems likely that you can change the mix of bacteria in your gut as well. And while the science isn’t 100% there yet, it seems intuitive that the right mix of supplements and diet changes can make a difference.
A word of caution about supplements
All of that said, the dietary supplement and probiotic industries are big businesses with slick marketing. According to Grand View Research study, the global probiotics market, which includes food as well as supplements, is anticipated to expand at 6.9% to $77.1 billion in 2025.
Probiotic supplement service providers stand to gain from consumers testing their gut microbiomes in an attempt to modify and improve their health. So, there is big marketing money here, and consumers should tread carefully.
D2C microbiome tests: How does an at-home gut health test work?
At-home gut-health test companies work by sending a test directly to your house. You then take a sample (this is a feces sample; thankfully the sample collection kits are well designed, come with clear instructions and are sanitary!!!!), mail the sample back in a postage prepaid package. The company then runs the tests and let’s you see your test results online. Simple as that.
What are the best at-home gut health testing companies?
A few of the most popular at-home microbiome test kit companies include:
- Thryve (Gut Health Test)
- Biohm (Gut Health Test)
- Thorne (Gut Health Test)
- Floré by Sun Genomics (Microflora Test)
- LetsGetChecked (micronutrient test)
- Notch (food sensitivity test)
Viome offers a $149 “Gut Intelligence Test” and also a $199/month membership strategy that includes vitamins, probiotics, and multiple tests per year. The company has said that it has more than 200,000 consumers as well as expects to achieve $100 million in profits in 2022.
What are the shortcomings of at-home gut health tests?
The tests are generally done by analyzing the genetic makeup of the person’s gut fauna. The majority of direct to consumer test companies (such as Thryve) analyze DNA. RNA sequencing is currently believed to provide higher precision and insights, but it has a higher price. The current cost of delivering RNA sequencing is likely to keep this particular piece of technology out of the average consumer’s hands. Over the long term, however, RNA sequencing costs will likely lower, allowing D2C gut-health test providers to sequence the entire genome and hopefully provide better scientifically driven results to the consumer.
Should you trust at-home microbiome testing and prebiotic supplement companies?
While we believe that the companies we mentioned, Thryve and Viome, are going their best to use science and offer a customer experience that builds trust, there are some cautionary tales in the industry. And discovering the connection between lifestyle modifications, microbiota, and health may take years. There are more than 1 trillion varieties of microbiota, so teasing out the specific ones that help or hurt any particular individual’s health will be challenging.
Devil’s advocate: more information — especially about your health — generally isn’t bad. So if you’re curious about your own gut, it doesn’t cost much to get an at-home test just to see what it says. If your results indicate that you could improve with a lifestyle adjustment, it’s up to you whether or not you’re up for trying it. Definitely talk to your doctor before doing anything too drastic, but otherwise, ask yourself if the recommended intervention makes intuitive sense. Remember to always trust your gut! (lol)
If you are curious to learn more about microbiome testing and the companies companies, check out our comparison between Viome and Thryve.