How testing the DNA of your gut bacteria is one of the best steps you can take for your health.
Genetic testing has come a long way!
With recent advances in genomic testing, DNA tests have become more and more popular. Many people seek to find out more about their long term health risks or about their detoxification capacities, methylation and MTHFR genes, in the hope of being able to take action to improve or maintain their health, based on the information they receive.
While genetic testing can be very valuable, there are a few downsides.
Firstly, people are (quite rightly) concerned about privacy and what their genetic information may be used for. There are some concerns that insurance could be impacted by the information obtained and you may be unfairly disadvantaged compared to someone who doesn’t know their genetic risk.
Secondly, there have been some concerns about the accuracy of the direct-to-consumer tests. Reputable geneticists are finding that for important genes, such as the breast and ovarian cancer-related BRCA1 genes, results from publicly available tests are highly unreliable. (Some experts are now saying that these tests are only suitable for ancestry tracing). I maintain that these direct-to-consumer tests are valuable when interpreted by a qualified healthcare professional, however should not be relied upon solely, but rather read in combination with other tests and with a medical history. Where serious disease risk is indicated, these should be followed up with an independent lab with the relevant accreditation. Note that MTHFR is not a serious disease risk and these tests are still fine to use for that purpose should you wish to do so.
Thirdly, knowing your genes can feel, well defeating. Many people see all of the little red boxes on their gene report and feel that they have lost the genetic lottery. It can be hard to convince people to maintain hope for a healthy future if they feel they have a bad genetic ‘fate’. Unfortunately, a fatalistic attitude can be fostered by these results, and this tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy as your nervous system, and therefore your whole body, is VERY susceptible to the power of suggestion. Thinking that you will inevitably get sick because of your genes can actually make it happen.
For these reasons, I am finding myself using less and less genetic testing with my patients. Even more importantly, I am doing less genetic testing, because there are better tests to do!
Did you know?
Your body contains about TEN TIMES more bacterial cells than human cells?
In fact, the bacteria living inside your body contain a total of about 3 300 000 genes (3.3 million.) Compared to that, your own cellular 23 000 genes looks like a trifle, and the fact is, in terms of your health, the bacteria and other organisms in your body impact your health far more than your own genes do.
This is great news. Why? Because unlike your genes, which we can do little to change, your bacterial community is very plastic – no, not made of chemicals in a factory – plastic in the sense of pliable, changeable, something we can influence. And this is what makes gut bacteria testing so valuable, because the results give us actionable steps to take that we know will improve your health.
This makes gut bacteria testing really valuable, but it is important to choose the right testing method.
The method used to measure bacteria REALLY matters!
In the past, gut bacteria tests were based on culturing the bacteria (i.e. growing it) in a petri dish in a lab. This method had enormous flaws, as it required live bacteria to grow in order to count them – and live bacteria don’t always behave the way we want them to!
It has been demonstrated that with culture-based testing, many of the important bacteria die before the sample has been sent off because they can only live in anaerobic conditions (ie, oxygen kills them.) Others would die during transit to the lab, in differing amounts depending on time and weather conditions, making mail-in tests using culture methods particularly unreliable.
Just as concerning, the material that the laboratory uses to grow the bacteria in the petri dish (known as the medium) heavily influences the outcome. This means that certain labs tend to produce certain results – sometimes to the extent that every patient is told basically the same thing!
Patients will come in and say “my previous Dr did a stool test and I came back with low e.coli and high strep.” 99% of the time I could tell them exactly which lab had done that test before they told me, because the lab’s preferred media favours the growth of strep and is a disadvantage to e.coli growth. Other labs using different media have different results patterns depending on what media the bacteria prefer to grow on.
Unfortunately some of the most expensive stool tests in Australia are still using culturing methods. This is a sad waste of money but even worse, it causes people to undertake treatments that are often unhelpful, and sometimes downright detrimental.
So as you can see, culturing, or growing, your stool bacteria is not a good way to test what is in there.
Don’t grow it – kill it! (And then measure it.)
Along with the advances in genetic testing, we have seen an increased capacity to test the DNA of your gut bacteria.
The advantages of these methods are enormous, because they don’t rely on your bacteria surviving in transit to the lab, and they don’t rely on the type of media a lab chooses. The best thing, is that even the anaerobic (oxygen hating) organisms can be detected by these types of tests- this was never previously possible.
With a bacterial DNA-based test you take the sample then put it in a vial of liquid that kills it right away, so that no growth can occur. This is important so that you can see exactly what balance was there in your body before the outside environment started to affect it.
When your sample arrives at the lab, they run it through an analysis that detects particular bacterial DNA signatures, and those signatures are matched against a database of bacteria to determine what species the detected sequences came from. From there, you get a full list of all of the bacteria detected that could be identified. Occasionally a very rare bacteria that is not included on the worldwide databases may be present and unidentifiable, but is unlikely to be significant as we have records for the vast majority of important bacteria in the gut.
Taking a gut bacteria DNA sample is simple and easy!
Sampling for a gut bacteria DNA test is much easier and less unpleasant than you may expect. Because we don’t need a large sample to measure tiny quantities of DNA, all you need to do is wipe your bum like normal – no ‘collecting’ of stool is required – phew!
You simply wipe as per normal, then run the provided sterile swab over the soiled portion of the toilet paper until it has coloured slightly. You may collect a sample the size of a grain of rice on the swab, which is ideal.
Different test kits have different instructions but most involve swishing the swab in a small vial of liquid for about one minute before sealing the vial and discarding the swab. From there, you mail back to the lab in the provided satchel or box and it’s all done in a jiffy, no sweat!
Where can you have this done?
There are a number of different labs offering DNA-based gut bacteria tests and they all present their results in slightly different ways. It is important to choose the test that is going to give you the results that you can action with the greatest benefit.
I have seen reports generated by a large number of different companies. They all have various strengths and weaknesses, but only some of them provide enough information to be useful to a practitioner working to resolve a patient’s health disorder. Some are more general public interest type tests. These tend to provide very limited information about the bacteria found and give you a list of foods they do or don’t recommend. I have never found these food recommendation lists to be of much value to the patient as they don’t consider the whole person’s needs.
I personally prefer the test that provides me with the greatest detail about the greatest number of bacteria so that I can do my own interpretation and not rely on the lab’s recommendations.
Happily, the test that provides this information is also the best priced!
So which company do I recommend?
Drumroll please…..my preferred gut bacteria testing company is Thryve.
These guys provide a great mess-free kit for sampling, as described above, and results are usually available within 2 weeks of the sample arriving back at the lab. As a practitioner, I can look at the entire list of bacteria they detected and it is very comprehensive.
From there, I compare the levels found to research-based reference ranges and come up with a treatment plan to raise any missing good bacteria, and lower any bad ones. Treatment is ideally based on using prebiotics in supplements or foods – things that feed the correct bacteria – rather than using probiotics, which wash out of your gut very quickly once you stop taking them.
If you would like to get started on analysing your gut bacteria for your health’s sake, or just for interest, you can purchase a Thryve kit with a 10% discount here.
Please note that I will receive a small commission from this sale. I don’t promote Thryve to get commissions, I genuinely think they have the best test around, and getting an affiliate link was the only way to get my readers and patients a consistent discount.
Should you need help interpreting the test, you are welcome to reach out for an appointment. Thyrve also offers some approachable and fun information direct to you for your own interest.
If you are thinking you need to do some testing to see where your health is at, and were considering genetic testing, I would advise thinking again. Gut bacteria testing is much more affordable, more accurate and without the privacy concerns. Best yet, it gives you real steps that you can take to see wonderful changes in your health!