Extreme navel gazing

Just as I was one of the first people to have my genetic information parsed (I joined 23andme in 2007), I simply had to jump on the microbiome bandwagon. Gut microbiome to be specific; call it navel gazing at a slightly deeper level.

And even more than with genetic information the science has yet to catch up with the general excitement. Everyone knows that the gut microbiome is super mega interesting and important. But nobody really knows much about what the specific bacteria do and how they interact with each other, impact your health and well being, and so on.

So they become these perfect Rorschach blots. Everyone sees what they want to see, especially people with a cause, mission or hope.

Anyway, at the end of 2012 I signed up for uBiome‘s Indiegogo campaign, and 16 months later finally got the results. Needless to say, it all took much longer than promised, but it’s early days, and everyone’s learning.

So, what’s the state of my gut microbiome?

Here’s a smattering of the results:

I’ve got a lower than average proportion of  Bacteroidales, bacteria who don’t digest fat well. In other words, it means I get more calories out of the fat I eat than the average North American. Which might well be true, since I seem to need fewer calories than other people. Perhaps my microbiome has adapted to me being borderline underweight all my life.

I’ve got way more Lachnospiraceae than most people. These guys help to digest fiber. I eat a ton of vegetables, so they would be useful.

I’ve got way lower than average levels of Faecalibacteria, who are common gut microbes that break down resistant starches such as legumes and unprocessed whole grains. Even more extreme, I’ve got zero Butyrivibrio in my microbiome. Butyrivibrio digest wheat bran, and play a major role in breaking down simple and complex sugars. Because I rarely eat grains and really no legumes at all, that isn’t perhaps surprising.

Confoundingly, I have lower than average levels of Lactobacillales and Lactobacillaceae, which are the bacteria in ferments, including dairy. I eat from several different strains of yogurt and kefir every week so these should in theory be high. However, there is some debate of whether these guys actually survive in the gut once you eat them, and I’ll be following to see where the science ends up.

Anyways, like I said, the science isn’t there yet. And I’ve got a feeling the answer will be complex, which will annoy all the extremists. That most bacteria types are neither “goodies” or “baddies” in the absolute. We’ll find out that humans are able to thrive with a broad spectrum of diets, and that the biome fluctuates and adapts to all kinds of seasons, foods and geographies. And they’ll find that ultimately all diets that contain a wide range and a large amount of vegetables will be beneficial for your microbiome.

Jeff Leach of The American Gut has recently embarked on a series of self-experiments in which he’ll plot the shift of his microbiome under a wide range of dietary/environmental conditions. While this sounds a little stunty, it might just generate a few interesting hypotheses. And The Human Food Project‘s research into the biome of the Hadza people seems like a worthwhile project.

Finally, I’d argue that the time for having your microbiome analyzed has not yet come. You will not learn enough for the results to be useful, and in any case they’ll support whatever your beliefs are. Like a horoscope, you’ll single out your own truths.

(C) Micah Lidberg

(C) Micah Lidberg




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