By Lisa Elaine Held
Sarah Gupta, MD, is looking at the summary sections of my test report—a diversity score, the presence of pathogens, and “organisms outside of healthy reference range.” Her overall take makes me feel like I got an A, but maybe with a minus sign attached. “Your gut looks pretty good, I would say.”
Dr. Gupta is the medical director at UBiome, and we’re reviewing the results of a test called SmartGut, which I took at home and mailed to their lab, where they used sequencing technology to get a picture of the unique community of microbes that call my body home.
As someone who’s been more than swept up in the excitement over the microbiome as a whole new scientific frontier with major implications for human health, I was intrigued by the concept. Is the science really already at a point where this kind of at-home testing could provide useful information? If so, what can you actually do with that information?
“We’re at a really interesting phase in developing how we as clinicians can use microbiome information,” Dr. Gupta said. “It’s new, it’s not standard of care, but there’s enough evidence that we can start to incorporate it.”
Here are a few helpful things to consider to determine whether it might be good for your personal gut (and overall) health.
1. It’s an at-home test, but it really requires a professional
Most of the information you get from a SmartGut test is going to be hard to interpret on your own, and, in fact, you can only get it with a doctor’s order. “We want to make sure that people are working with a clinician,” Dr. Gupta said. “We’re a great lab company, but we’re not the doctor.”
The report does include lots of explanatory elements that help you understand what you’re reading, but you’re going to get way more out of it with a pro to evaluate it. This kind of information is even so new to doctors that UBiome provides guides for clinicians to help them understand how to read it and incorporate it into treatment.
UBiome did recently launch a “microbiome counselor program,” which is currently in beta testing. Once it’s available to all test takers, it’ll add another layer in terms of helping people understand what they’re seeing. (They also have a different test called Explorer that you can take on your own if you’re just a data junkie and want the info for yourself. It just doesn’t include associations with disease.)
2. It’s going to be more useful if you’ve got a health issue
If you’re just generally healthy (good for you!), the SmartGut test is likely going to be less illuminating than if you’re trying to pinpoint the cause of a health issue. For example, two of the seven organisms associated with being protective against obesity were “low” on my report. But since I’m currently at a healthy weight and maintaining that is not something I struggle with, that information isn’t that useful. On the other hand, if you were struggling with obesity, finding out many of those associated microbes were out of whack could lead your physician to think maybe poor gut health is one factor that’s preventing you from losing weight. And there are microbes associated with many other health issues that are laid out in the report, like type II diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and inflammatory bowel disease.
3. You’ll be contributing to science
Even if you take SmartGut and it doesn’t lead you to a solution to your bloating issue (yes, there are specific microbes associated with bloating!), you have the chance to contribute to moving the science of the microbiome forward. When you get the test, you have the option to opt into UBiome’s research database, and Dr. Gupta said the vast majority of people choose to participate. “We’re on track hit about half a million human samples, which is the largest data set in the world,” she said. “The more samples we have, the more we understand what’s in there, the more we understand what it’s doing for us physiologically.”
As for me? My very unscientific on-person experience was that I probably won’t be able to use my SmartGut results for much at all. The one thing the report gave me, if anything was a nice dose of stress relief. I had major illnesses as a child and have always suspected that the heavy medications my developing body was subject to likely did a number on my microbiome for the long-term. Turns out my gut looks “pretty good,” so I was able to breathe a little sigh of relief.