health

'I sent my poo to a gut health lab to evaluate my diet. This is what I found out.'

Think “gut health” and you probably think of probiotic pills and kombucha drinks. But the health of your microbiome – the 30 trillion odd microorganisms living inside you – is like a report card on your overall lifestyle.

“One of the most significant factors that influences what our microbes are up to is how well we are looking after ourselves,” says Dr Paula Smith-Brown, Lead Accredited Practising Dietitian at Brisbane company, Microba.

It begs questions like – is my gut healthy?

How healthy is your gut microbiome and what should you feed it?

It’s a question worth answering as research on gut health explodes. The little critters living inside seem to affect everything from our mood and sleep quality to our cancer risk and heart health.

These new findings are, “probably the most exciting thing that’s happened in science in the last 20 years,” according to Nicole Dynan, the Sydney-based ‘Gut Health Dietitian‘.

In my own self-experiment, I recently sent the scientists at Microba some poo on a cotton bud.

is my gut healthy
"Is my gut healthy? How healthy is your gut microbiome and what should you feed it?" Image: Supplied.

Using their world-first, evidence-based test, I found out which microscopic friends and foes live in my gut. It also revealed substances they produce that affect me, like vitamins and neurotransmitters.

I was keen to know whether my "good enough" approach to healthy eating was letting the good bugs flourish. And whether my microbial diversity had bounced back from serious antibiotics in recent years.

A diverse microbiome is a healthy one. It resembles an inner "rainforest" of varied, beneficial microbes, rather than a neglected garden overrun by a few weeds.

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Why is diversity important?

"Let’s say one species is performing an important functional job and something happens to that species. Then if you’ve got a really diverse microbiome there are other species that can also step in and perform that job," explains Smith-Brown.

It seems my inner bugs are thriving under the “everything in moderation” diet – porridge for breakfast, salad for lunch and chocolate whenever. Compared to healthy people, my microbial diversity is on the high end of average, and there is no one species growing out of control.

What is the difference between prebiotics and probiotics? Post continues after video. 

But then I read something puzzling — four of the five most abundant microbes in my gut are unknown. Brand new to science, they remain unnamed.

Smith-Brown says having unknown inhabitants is common. "It's such undiscovered territory. Other companies that use the old-fashioned technology would just not have picked those up at all."

My diversity might be good but the report still shows work to do. Using my answers to a diet questionnaire, Microba evaluated my usual meals against the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

Apparently I’m only getting 3.5 serves of vegetables compared to the five recommended. At least I'm in good company with the 92 per cent of Australians who don’t eat enough greens.

"The reason we compare to the Australian Dietary Guidelines is that they are very well evidence-based," says Smith-Brown.

"The majority of the plate is made up of fruits, vegetables, and wholegrain cereals, and then we're just having moderate amounts of our lean protein foods. And that's really what a healthy microbiome wants."

Based on the report’s personalised list of foods to foster specific helpful bacteria, my shopping trolley now includes more chickpeas, apples, eggplant and very dark chocolate.

Yep, the gut health scientists prescribe chocolate. With a caveat – it must include at least 80 per cent cocoa solids.

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The reason? Cocoa, like tea and coffee, contains thousands of phytochemicals.

Do you consider yourself healthy? Turns out only 7% of the population is. Post continues after audio. 

“Some of [the phytochemicals] feed beneficial species. Some have antibacterial actions, so they kill off the bad guys. While others, our microbes actually convert them into compounds which are helpful for our health directly,” explains Smith-Brown.

Overall, my microbiome is revealed to be boringly average.

But for me, the main perk of the analysis is having black-and-white data as motivation to heed advice we've all heard before.

When the dietitians say "eat more vegetables" the report shows they really do mean ME.

Of course, no one knows what will be revealed until they take the test.

Dynan tells me about one of her patients who did, then discovered high levels of bacteria that help fat move from the gut into the bloodstream. It spurred her patient to adopt a mostly plant-based diet (which Dynan would have encouraged anyway).

Having experienced debilitating depression, diverticulitis and weight gain, Dynan says her patient is now "phenomenal" since moving to a more plant-based diet, thereby feeding the “good” bugs.

Smith-Brown agrees the personalised advice can be powerful. "A lot of the advice we give everyone should be following, but we're able to say according to your microbiome, you're someone who would really benefit from focusing on your plant-based foods…or not having too much animal fat."

Microba is clear the test is not for diagnosing health conditions.

Because the science is so new, the implications of what they find in your microbiome are largely unknown.

For this reason, Sydney GP Dr Dasha Fielder doesn’t endorse microbiome testing. “There is not enough evidence to recommend these tests and the cost does not justify the benefit,” she says.

At $349 a pop, it’s certainly not cheap.

If nothing else, I now have proof that trillions of “good” microbes are relying on me to make healthy choices. As Smith-Brown says, “When you think of the numbers, we're just a small part of them."

Louise is a freelance health writer whose work appears online at SBS, Essential Kids, Financial Review and The New Daily, and in magazines such as Fernwood, Nourish, Jetstar, and Holidays with Kids. Her work has twice been highly commended in the Excellence In Nutrition Journalism awards. 

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