The world of wellness is abuzz with gut news, and rightfully so: Scientists are learning more every day about how the microbes that live in our gut give us important clues about how our bodies use energy as well as our overall health.
But in fact, it can be difficult to find out what is happening in your digestive system, and the relationship of your metabolism to weight and health. This makes it difficult to find the cause of an upset stomach or symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. That’s why handheld devices like FoodMarble’s Aire digestive breath tests and Lumen’s metabolism trackers were born: to help people understand what the gut does and how our bodies use food for fuel.
Home metabolism tests are not new – there are a number of home tests that measure hormone levels that can affect metabolism through blood or saliva tests. It is also home food sensitivity tests available, although the cost-effectiveness of these may be up in the air as it is difficult to ascertain what is a food sensitivity, intolerance or allergy without a lot of trial and error (and possibly a bunch of medical bills).
But a vape-like device you can slip into your pocket, which promises to give you clues about your metabolism and digestion, is especially promising. These gut alcohol testers work by reading your breath for the various gases that are released and sending this information to your phone to give you practical insight.
Here’s what we know about how they work and whether they’re worth it.
A digestive breath test for people with stomach problems
FoodMarble’s founder, Aonghus Shortt, had an engineering background when he started looking for a better solution for his wife after her diagnosis with irritable bowel syndrome, so he created FoodMarble’s AIRE sensor. In particular, he wanted to help her and others with food-related symptoms understand how they digest food, so they know what triggers their symptoms and what foods are likely to be okay to eat.
To use the FoodMarble, you exhale into the device for 5 seconds, and molecules in your breath will flow over special sensors that signal different levels of gases present in your breath, says Shortt. In this case, high levels of hydrogen and methane indicate a lot of what FoodMarble calls fermentation—what’s given off when your digestive system and gut microbes, well, digest.
“Instead of you digesting the food, you have your gut microbes and they break it down,” Shortt said. “In a sense, they digest it instead.”
When paired with the FoodMarble app, the device will give you information about which foods cause higher levels of fermentation, which presumably also results in more digestive issues, like bloating. The goal is to help you limit the foods that cause it less fermentation or fewer gases, and which are therefore easier on the gut.
FoodMarble also has a food library, where you can search for more easily digestible foods based on the information collected by the breath tester. This can make it easier to shop for groceries or decide where to eat out when you look at restaurant menus in advance.
A device that claims to hack your metabolism
Lumen’s wearable metabolic test, which announces insights that can help you lose weight or gain more energy, also starts with an exhale into the device. A carbon dioxide sensor measures the level in your breath, which supposedly indicates the type of fuel your body uses to produce energy. The goal is better metabolic flexibility, or the body’s ability to switch between different types of fuel.
Lumen says the device is based on a type of test that has historically been reserved for testing athletes in a clinical setting. The device tells you whether you’re burning mostly fat or carbs, and the paired app suggests a day or meal plan for you, as reported in a review by Wired. Understanding how your body uses energy can help promote a healthier or more sustainable weight loss plan, or increase your energy.
Grading of the intestinal health classes
Dr. Niket Sonpal, a gastroenterologist based in New York, says hydrogen breath tests are not new. They are often used to diagnose digestive disorders, including IBS, lactose intolerance and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. And a tool to help people limit foods that trigger their symptoms can be helpful. Sonpal says that with patients where lactose intolerance is to be expected, he suggests a “lactose and chill” approach, which essentially involves sitting down to a movie while eating ice cream and cheese, then waiting to see if you get bloated , diarrhea or cramps. .
But knowing how much hydrogen or fermentation you produce after eating is not equally valuable information for everyone. Certain foods naturally produce more hydrogen. And if you have a higher hydrogen level without symptoms, according to Sonpal, there should be no cause for concern. In fact, FoodMarble says on its website that the breath testing devices are for people with SIBO, IBS or digestive issues — so not for people who are curious but have no symptoms.
But Sonpal adds that people with digestive problems may have another pre-existing, or potentially more serious, health condition. About a third of people with IBS also have another condition such as celiac disease, malabsorption syndrome or Crohn’s, he says.
“How many people are going to buy this, customize the food, but possibly delay a diagnosis of something more serious?”
Like the plate of other health tracking devices out there, breath testers and sensors that offer digestive or metabolic clues will be useful to many people, but not all. Perhaps they are best for people who already have an accurate medical diagnosis and are looking for tools to help manage their symptoms, or people who are simply passionate about health technology and love to track their metrics, including digestive or metabolic health .
Also, you’re breathing into a device, not adding a drug or supplement to your body and introducing the potential for side effects. So using one as a first step can be useful if you are willing to spend the money. But weight loss can be more complicated than food choices.
“Food tracking devices are one component of the multi-faceted diamond that is weight loss,” Sonpal said.
In general, digestive and food-related issues can be difficult to diagnose for the same reason devices that make them important targets for new devices to gain insight: It’s a complicated system, and related symptoms often overlap. But more information is better than less, and technology is keeping pace with our growing interest in gut health.
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care professional regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.