One of the fastest-growing fields of interest among health professionals and consumers is gut health. We're hearing more and more every day about how our guts could be affecting our weight, mood and heart health.
So it's little wonder that at-home gut health tests are flooding the market. But do these tests really work, and are they worth the money?
The Promise of At-Home Gut Health Tests
There are dozens of at-home tests available today, ranging from $100 to upwards of $350. Most work by analyzing your stool and the majority promise to deliver you a microbiome profile, which the companies claim can tell you a lot about your metabolism, inflammation levels, intestinal permeability, cardiovascular health, sleep hormones, vitamin production and food intolerances. Every test promises something a bit different, but the various insights usually touch upon a few of these.
The makers of these kits say that having this kind info can help you with a variety of concerns, like improving constipation, diarrhea, bloating and immunity and reducing inflammation, fatigue and lack of focus.
What the Science Says
So, do these microbiome tests really work? Unfortunately, there's a lack of research in this area, which worries experts in the field. Both of the gut health experts we interviewed are not yet on board with these types of tests for this reason.
"I typically don't recommend [people] purchase these at-home gut microbiome test kits," registered dietitian Nicole Arcilla, RDN, owner of Your Gut Feeling, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "We're just beginning to scratch the surface of gut health, and so these test kits that have been trending lately are definitely in their infancy stages and don't necessarily provide useful information."
Elena Ivanina, DO, a gastroenterologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, agrees. She points to a January 2019 paper in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, which looks at the changing nature of the gut.
"This is a great review article because it describes why it is so difficult to accurately interpret microbiome tests," she says. "The gut microbiome is intrinsically dynamic and therefore changing rapidly. It's very sensitive to changes in diet or drugs, which means your results may be different after just a few days."
Other reasons for caution? Different tests with different methodologies will give different results. Plus, because of the lack of complete research, we don't really know what "normal" looks like when it comes to results from tests like these.
What to Know Before You Buy
At-home microbiome tests have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Ivanina stresses, so doctors especially have significant hesitation when it comes to interpreting the results. An example she shares is in the case of testing for Helicobacter Pylori infection, a type of stomach infection caused by bacteria.
"There is a very well-studied way to test for Helicobacter Pylori infection through a breath test, biopsy or stool test. Some of these new-generation gut health stool tests use a different approach that has not been approved to evaluate for H. Pylori, and therefore, the results should be interpreted with caution and validated with a standardized test before considering treatment."
Arcilla expresses concern over the potential negative and unnecessary consequences of taking these tests at home on your own. "The information may actually be harmful, particularly for those who are taking the tests on their own and trying to interpret the results on their own without a clinician," she says. "I know some tests will actually provide a list of foods to omit according to your results, even though they might be nutrient-dense foods."
Final Thoughts on Gut Health Tests
So, what can you do if you are experiencing issues you think might be related to your gut? Not all is lost here. You just need to work with an expert rather than trying to go it alone.
"The two gut tests that are most popular are from Genova Diagnostics and GI-MAP by Diagnostic Solutions Laboratory," Dr. Ivanina says. "These are used by many integrative or alternative practitioners who have experience with understanding these results and providing a personalized approach (making sure the results make sense based on your symptoms) and coming up with an individualized treatment plan."
Illustrating the importance of collaboration and expertise, even these types of practitioners refer to a gastroenterologist for a medical workup to avoid missing anything worrisome, Dr. Ivanina says.
Arcilla agrees: "The most accurate testing can only be found in a highly monitored environment — in an academic research setting. These tests may be considered as an adjunctive testing modality if there is interest and oversight by a trained health practitioner."
Finally, if you're still interested in trying an at-home test on your own, De. Ivanina has this to say:
"I believe that if a standard and thorough medical workup by a gastroenterologist has not revealed a concrete etiology to someone's gastrointestinal symptoms but has ruled out anything worrisome such as cancer or chronic inflammation, then these tests could be something to consider as an adjunct testing modality. In general, they are never necessary, but for people interested in learning more about the microbiome, they may provide some interesting information that is not available in standardized testing."