The wellness world is full of gut news, and with good reason: researchers are learning more every day about how the microbes that live in our gut give us important clues about how our bodies use energy and about our overall health.
But actually, it can be difficult to pinpoint what’s going on in your digestive system and your metabolism’s relationship 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 breath test for digestion and Lumen’s metabolism tracker 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 samples. There are also home food sensitivity tests available, although the cost-effectiveness of this may be up in the air as it is difficult to determine what is a food sensitivity, intolerance or allergy without much trial and error (and possibly a pile of medical bills).
But a vape-like device that you can put in your pocket and promises to give you metabolic and digestive cues is particularly promising. These gut analyzers work by reading your breath for the various gases being expelled and sending that information to your phone to give you actionable insights.
Here’s what we know about how they work and if they’re worth it.
A digestive breath tester for people with stomach problems
FoodMarble founder Aonghus Shortt had a technical background when he set out to find a better solution for his wife after her diagnosis with irritable bowel syndrome, so he created FoodMarble’s AIRE sensor. Specifically, 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 good 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 in the breath, Shortt says. In this case, high levels of hydrogen and methane indicate much of what FoodMarble calls fermentation — which is released when your digestive system and your 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 combined with the FoodMarble app, the device gives you information about which foods cause higher levels of fermentation, which also presumably results in more digestive symptoms, such as bloating. The goal is to help you limit foods that cause it fewer fermentation or fewer gases, and which are therefore easier on your intestines.
FoodMarble also has a food library, where you can search for easier-to-digest foods based on the information gathered by the breath tester. This can make it easier to shop for groceries or decide where to eat if you peruse restaurant menus ahead of time.
A device that claims to crack your metabolic code
Lumen’s portable metabolic test, which provides insight 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 of your breath, supposedly to indicate the type of fuel your body uses to produce energy. The goal is better metabolic flexibility, or your body’s ability to switch between different types of fuel.
Lumen says his device is based on a type of test traditionally reserved for testing athletes in a clinical setting. The device tells you whether you burn mostly fat or carbs, and the linked app suggests a day or meal plan for you, as reported in a review from Wired. Understanding how your body uses energy can help you promote a healthier or more sustainable weight loss plan or increase your energy.
Assessment of the gut health sorters
Dr. Niket Sonpal, a gastroenterologist based in New York, says hydrogen breath testing isn’t new. They are often used to diagnose digestive problems, including IBS, lactose intolerance, and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. And a tool that helps people limit foods that trigger their symptoms could be helpful. Sonpal says that with patients in whom lactose intolerance might be expected, he suggests a “lactose and chill” method, which essentially boils down to watching a movie while you eat ice cream and cheese, then wait to see if you get a bloated feeling, diarrhea or cramps. .
However, 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 higher hydrogen levels with no symptoms, there shouldn’t be any cause for concern, according to Sonpal. Indeed, FoodMarble says on its website that the breath test devices are intended 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 issues may have another existing or potentially more serious health condition. About one-third of people with IBS also have another condition, such as celiac disease, malabsorption syndrome, or Crohn’s disease, he says.
“How many people are going to buy this, adjust their food, but potentially delay a diagnosis of something more serious?”
Like the dish of other health tracking devices out there, breath testers and sensors that provide digestive or metabolic cues will be useful to many people, but not everyone. Perhaps they are best for people who already have an accurate medical diagnosis and are looking for tools to manage their symptoms, or people who are simply passionate about health technology and like to keep an eye on their stats, including their digestive or metabolic health.
Also, you are breathing into a device, not adding any drug or supplement to your body and introducing the possibility of side effects. So it might be helpful to use one as a first step, if you’re willing to spend the money. But weight loss can be more complicated than food choices.
“Food tracking devices are part of the multifaceted diamond that is weight loss,” Sonpal said.
In general, digestive and food-related problems can be difficult to diagnose, for the same reason that devices are 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 the 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 healthcare provider if you have any questions about a medical condition or health goals.