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Research continues to show the influence your gastrointestinal (GI) system (or your “gut”) has on your overall health.

While certain symptoms, such as indigestion, mood changes, and skin diseases, could point to imbalances in the gut, these exact connections can only be understood through testing. This is where microbiome testing could potentially play a role.

Microbiome testing measures the amount and types of microbes, such as bacteria and viruses, in your gut via a stool sample. While such tests may be conducted in a doctor’s office, a rise in at-home health testing has also led to an increase in microbiome testing kits you can complete on your own.

Even if there are a variety of microbiome testing kits available for home use, how do you know whether these are worth your time and money? More importantly, can you get concrete information about your health from the results?

Learn more about these types of test kits, as well as what we recommend for your overall gut health.

A gut microbiome refers to the microbes that exist in your digestive system. The intestines, stomach, colon, and esophagus are all important members of your GI tract, and they all contain microbes that affect the digestion process.

Microbes include both healthy and harmful strains of bacteria, as well as fungi and viruses. Collectively, these microscopic organisms are referred to as gut microbiota or flora. In addition to helping with digestion, your microbiome also plays a key role in your immune system.

When there’s an imbalance of gut microbes, various health effects may occur as a result. Common symptoms of gut disruptions may include bloating, stool changes, and heartburn.

Other perhaps less obvious impacts of a gut microbiome imbalance may be:

If you suspect a gut imbalance could be affecting your overall health, you may consider talking with your doctor about possible microbiome testing.

Microbiome tests — whether done in a doctor’s office or at home — are conducted via a stool sample. Unlike other types of tests you may be able to do at home using blood or saliva samples, these are fecal tests that require fresh stool samples.

The primary purpose of this type of stool testing is to analyze microbes and potential imbalances in your GI system.

Also, a stool sample analysis can provide clues of potential inflammatory conditions or autoimmune diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and Celiac disease.

Currently, the information provided from a single stool sample via a microbiome at-home test is extremely limited. As the technologies behind home testing continue to evolve, the hope is that these tests may provide more concrete health information.

It still requires a stool sample

Like traditional microbiome testing you might undergo at a doctor’s office or lab, at-home kits you can order online rely on a stool sample. Once you order a kit, you submit your sample and send it back to the testing company in the provided prepaid package.

It still goes to a lab for analysis

Once received by the company, your sample is submitted to their lab where it undergoes analysis. It may take several days or up to a few weeks to receive your results. Supposedly, your results should detail the types of microbes found in your sample, along with any possible food sensitivities and inflammatory markers.

Are at-home microbiome tests ordered online legit?

Overall, at-home microbiome testing can be considered a first step in understanding more about your gut for informational purposes only. These types of tests should not be used to self-diagnose any potential health problems.

Home testing for gut microbes is also not entirely reliable. For one, any chronic symptoms should be addressed by a doctor with a series of tests and a physical exam, not a single home test. Also, these kits are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

After your test, you can decide whether you want to bring your results with you to your next doctor’s appointment and discuss any further steps to take regarding your health.

The cost of microbiome testing depends on whether you order a kit on your own, as well as the brand. The average stool test costs under $200 but may be more expensive depending on whether you select more in-depth kits that require other samples, such as blood or saliva.

On the other hand, if your doctor orders a microbiome test for specific medical reasons, it’s possible that part or all of the cost may be covered by insurance. If you have insurance, talk with your provider ahead of time to see what types of tests may be covered under your plan.

Your doctor may suggest fecal testing to help diagnose certain gut issues, such as infections or gastritis. Temporary, daily samples may be required to make a more accurate diagnosis. You can also ask your doctor directly for a stool test if you’re interested in learning more about your gut flora.

While some doctors offer microbiome tests, the at-home market is growing at a quick rate, along with other types of kits you can order online. The appeal of these types of tests is that you can complete them within the comfort of your own home and then receive the results digitally within a few weeks.

The downside? Home microbiome tests are not approved by the FDA, and there’s also a risk of incomplete or inaccurate results. Certain companies that offer microbiome stool tests, such as Viome, also have poor overall customer reviews.

If you do decide to get a stool test done at home, be sure the company you’re ordering the kit from fully discloses important information, such as whether their methods are backed by any studies, what the lab looks for in terms of microbes, and their customer ratings.

If you’re looking for more solid information about your health, such as how you’re reacting to foods and digestion, we recommend the following alternatives instead of home microbiome testing:

Food sensitivity tests

Food sensitivities are just one health concern linked with gut microbe imbalances. If you suspect food sensitivities, the first step is to keep a food diary, carefully noting what you’re eating, drinking, and any symptoms you experience on a daily basis.

Traditionally, food sensitivities are diagnosed via a blood test from your doctor. The at-home health testing market also offers blood or saliva tests to help identify potential food sensitivities. By identifying these food triggers, you may be able to make dietary changes to ease gut symptoms.

For example, this food sensitivity test from Everlywell uses a small blood sample to identify 96 of the most common possible food sensitivities. A more advanced version is also available to test even more foods, at a higher cost.

As with home microbiome testing, we recommend using at-home kits for food sensitivities as starting points before getting clinical confirmation from a doctor.

Tests from your doctor

Blood tests from your doctor may help diagnose inflammatory conditions, food sensitivities, and other chronic issues involving your gut. They may refer you to a lab to get your blood drawn and then receive the results within a few days.

Depending on the results, your doctor may also follow up with other diagnostic tests, such as an endoscopy or CT scan. They may also refer you to a specialist called a gastroenterologist.

Make an appointment with a doctor if you have chronic digestive issues or other health concerns that aren’t improving despite making lifestyle changes. It may also be helpful to keep a food diary beforehand so your doctor can identify any potential triggers.

Skip any at-home testing and contact a doctor or clinic right away if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms:

With an increasing interest in gut health, more private companies are selling at-home microbiome tests than ever. These are fecal tests that rely on stool samples to determine the types and numbers of microbes in your GI tract.

Despite all these offerings online, it’s best to consider microbiome testing as a first step toward understanding your gut health — not as a diagnostic tool for any potential underlying medical conditions. Furthermore, microbiome tests are not FDA approved.

Talk with a doctor if you’re concerned about your gut or any other aspects of your health. If you do decide to try any at-home tests, make sure you share the results with your doctor so they can determine the appropriate next steps.

What is a gut microbiome?

A: Your gut microbiome refers to both the types and numbers of microscopic organisms (“microbes”) in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. These include bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, and more.

What does microbiome testing show?

A: Microbiome testing uses stool samples that can reveal the types of microbes in your GI tract, as well as signs of inflammation that could point to potential health problems.

How can understanding gut flora benefit your health?

A: Knowing what’s in your gut flora can be a first step in understanding your overall health, as well as the source of potential problems such as food sensitivities and digestive disorders. However, you will need to follow up with your doctor for further testing before achieving any such diagnoses.

What are the limitations of microbiome testing?

A: Microbiome testing can provide basic knowledge about the overall state of your gut, but it should not be used as a diagnostic tool for any health condition. To more accurately provide a diagnosis, your doctor may require more than a single stool sample, as well as other labs such as blood testing and urinalysis.

Can I order a microbiome test at home to diagnose health conditions?

A: Home microbiome tests should be used for informational purposes only. You should never self-diagnose any health condition. You may instead consider following up with your doctor if any of the home test results concern you.

What’s the average cost of a home microbiome test?

A: A lab test ordered by your doctor may be covered by insurance if you it, but you’ll need to check with your provider regarding your plan’s coverage. Home tests, on the other hand, may cost between $150 and $200.

What else can I do to support my gut microbiome?

A: If you don’t have any underlying health conditions that require treatment, you may support your gut health largely with lifestyle changes. These include eating fiber-rich foods and getting regular exercise.