There is no normal or reference microbiome!

One of the common misconception is that there is a “normal” microbiome that can be used as a reference.  Below is a chart from “Metagenomic sequencing of fecal DNA“. Diet makes a major impact on the distribution and volume of the bacteria.

  • “In a study of gut bacteria of children in Burkina Faso (in Africa), Prevotella made up 53% of the gut bacteria, but were absent in age-matched European children.”[2010]

The chart below is for healthy individuals in 12 different countries.  In some cases neighboring very similar countries (Sweden [SE] and Denmark [DK]) have very different compositions.

world

This great variation means that testing the microbiome can only be done as group of individuals living in the same area with similar eating habits…. An individual result without reference from people with the same eating habits and possibly ethnic background is very fuzzy to interpret. Yes, highlights may be common — like low E.Coli, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria….  but they likely apply to no more than 80-90%, the other CFS patients may have different shifts.

People have asked me, “Did you get your microbiome done, what was it?” My honest answer was “No, such testing was not available when I last had CFS. I simply assumed that my pattern would be an appropriate match to that reported from the 1998 Australian studies”

Some Population Studies

“We analyzed the combined microbiome data from five previous studies with samples across five continents. We clearly demonstrate that there are no consistent bacterial taxa associated with either Bacteroides– or Prevotella-dominated communities across the studies. By increasing the number and diversity of samples, we found gradients of both Bacteroides and Prevotella and a lack of the distinct clusters in the principal coordinate plots originally proposed in the “enterotypes” hypothesis. The apparent segregation of the samples seen in many ordination plots is due to the differences in the samples’ Prevotella and Bacteroides abundances and does not represent consistent microbial communities within the “enterotypes” and is not associated with other taxa across studies.” [2016]

” All Egyptian gut microbial communities belonged to the Prevotella enterotype, whereas all but one of the U.S. samples were of the Bacteroides enterotype.

  • The intestinal environment of Egyptians was characterized by higher levels of short-chain fatty acids, a higher prevalence of microbial polysaccharide degradation-encoding genes, and a higher proportion of several polysaccharide-degrading genera.
  • Egyptian gut microbiota also appeared to be under heavier bacteriophage pressure.
  • In contrast, the gut environment of U.S. children was rich in amino acids and lipid metabolism-associated compounds; contained more microbial genes encoding protein degradation, vitamin biosynthesis, and iron acquisition pathways; and was enriched in several protein- and starch-degrading genera.
  • Levels of 1-methylhistamine, a biomarker of allergic response, were elevated in U.S. guts, as were the abundances of members of Faecalibacterium and Akkermansia, two genera with recognized anti-inflammatory effects.
  • The revealed corroborating differences in fecal microbiota structure and functions and metabolite profiles between Egyptian and U.S. teenagers are consistent with the nutrient variation between Mediterranean and Western diets.” [2017]

“This suggests that similarities between the Inuit diet and the Western diet (low fiber, high fat) may lead to a convergence of community structures and diversity. However, certain species and strains of microbes have significantly different levels of abundance and diversity in the Inuit, possibly driven by differences in diet.” [2017]

Bottom Line

IMHO: There is no clear definitive benefit from doing an individual microbiome testing — there is no reference that is reliable for it on an individual basis at a fine level of details. On the other hand, having results showing abnormalities help in several ways:

  • It encourages you to make changes in eating which will usually be for the better
  • It confirms that you have significant shifts and supports the concept that the gut is causing your symptoms.