Did you know that approximately 70 million Americans suffer from chronic gut health issues every year? Many aspects of modern life like high-stress levels, too little sleep, eating processed and high-sugar foods, and taking antibiotics can cause damage to the gut microbiome. Before we delve into Sun Genomics' customized solution to gut health issues, let's define what the gut microbiome is. The gut microbiome consists of trillions of microorganisms in the intestinal tract, mostly bacteria, that are believed to be involved in well-being.
Adding a probiotic supplement to your diet may be a great way to improve your gut health. But buying probiotics can be quite challenging. Just walk into your local health food store, and you'll find a myriad of different brands, formulations, and claimed benefits. It can be confusing to determine what is right for you. Fortunately, that's where Sun Genomics comes in.
Sun Genomics is a microbiome health company that creates precision probiotic supplements based on a person's unique gut microbiome. Sunny Jain, Sun Genomics' founder and CEO, has 21 years of molecular and microbiology experience. He started the company in 2016 after his newborn son experienced gut health issues. I talked to Sunny about the importance of gut health and why Floré, Sun Genomics' flagship product, is the customized probiotic solution that can help heal your gut.
Christine W.: Why did you start Sun Genomics?
Jain: Sun Genomics was founded because my son was having gut health issues. I just happened to have the skill set to do something more directly about it. I analyzed his gut sample, tested it using different molecular technologies, and ran the gambit on his labs to see if there was something I could do to help. My background is in clinical diagnostics, and I learned a lot about understanding human genetics and genomics. Since 2016 I've been on this amazing journey about understanding the other half of our bodies, like how our microbial genetics interact with our human genetics.
It's so great you were able to help your son. What a touching story, that that's really what inspired this journey, and I know you're helping so many other people now through your work.
When he was about six months old or so—he's almost four now—his gut system didn't quite work the way we anticipated. He had painful stool and bowel movements. At that age, they're too young for medication. Now, this is me learning as a first-time parent what to do in these particular situations. The doctor recommended taking a probiotic.
I ran to the natural food store and headed to the probiotic section. This is what I call the wall of probiotic confusion. The thousands of options were just really intimidating. There was a refrigerated section, and then there was a whole other section that's non-refrigerated. There were different strains on different bottles. I have a background in microbiology; I thought I could figure it all out. But I couldn't. However, I did grab every single bottle of probiotic off the shelf that day and started testing them in my lab to try and figure this out for my son.
Whole Foods predicted that in 2021 probiotics are going to be a popular health topic. People realize that the gut is behind so many other health issues. Why is it important to have custom-made probiotics rather than the typical probiotics that are available?
The most important data set I've ever looked at in my life was the whole microbiome analysis of my son's stool sample. We did it with two different methods. The 16S rRNA sequencing gave a really low resolution. On the other hand, the whole genome sequencing (WGS) method gave this crisp resolution, like your 4K TV (or your 5K TV now). Just an amazing resolution down to the strain level.
I thought to myself, "Wow, there are hundreds of unique species I've never seen before here. Why am I seeing all this for the first time?" I wanted to understand what normal gut health was. I started downloading data sets from the American Gut Project that was co-founded by Dr. Jack Gilbert, Sun Genomics' medical and scientific advisor. I learned a ton about what people's gut microbiomes look like. As we compared the data sets, we saw a substantial difference between healthy individuals' bacteria and other gut organisms.
That was like five years ago. The science is just on an exponential curve now. We now know that your gut microbiome may be as much as 90% unique between two individuals. That was the foundation for why we believe and now understand that probiotic solutions need to be customized to an individual's gut microbiome ecosystem for you to get maximal nutrition and potentially avoid issues and chronic conditions later in life.
If you go to the store and pick something off the shelf, the odds that it matches your 90% unique microbiome are very slim. It's kind of like throwing darts at a dartboard and hoping you get lucky. That's why you sometimes hear people saying, "Oh my gosh, I tried this probiotic. It worked so great." But then they recommend it to ten of their friends, and it doesn't work for nine of them.
That's so interesting. I guess it's possible to get too much of one particular strain of bacteria that you may have enough of in your gut already by taking a generic type of probiotic.
Yeah. The concentrations that we share in an individual's Sun Genomics report actually tell you the relative abundance of one organism in relation to the other organisms in your gut. For example, if you're looking to relieve energy and fatigue issues and have a high concentration of Bifidobacterium longum, we would know that you don't need more of that organism because that's not going to solve the problem. You need to look at other gut microbiota that are impacting your energy levels and then stimulate the growth and nutrient supply for those.
I'm sure you've heard of some amazing success stories of people trying the Floré Custom Probiotics. Are there any that stand out?
These are n-of-1 stories, like my son's. I can see the inflammatory microbes of his gut have decreased after taking the probiotics. As a result, everybody in my family is now on our custom probiotics, by the way. It is these stories that are building the empirical evidence over time. One of those amazing stories that was shared with us is from a customer who is a Muay Thai fighter and trainer. She trained children and teenagers on Muay Thai fighting, and they would go to competitions and national championships. For the longest time, she wasn't able to practice with her students. She had been having chronic fatigue issues that were limiting her ability to participate.
After she began taking our product, within weeks she began to enjoy some of the activities that she hadn't previously been able to do. She had trouble with breathing, brain focus, moods, bowel movements, and bloating. It was just amazing to hear her story of how she got back to training, how she got back to running outdoors and doing endurance exercises as well. We're super supportive of the stories that our customers share with us after benefitting from the product. It's great to hear them.
It's great to hear that she got her health back and back to doing something that she enjoyed so much. I took the Floré Complete Gut Microflora Test. It was great that someone took so much time to talk with me about my results and share dietary tips. I thought that level of customer support was amazing. Can you say a little bit about how our diet impacts the microbiome?
Sure. Everything we eat and breathe goes through our windpipe, down the esophagus, and into our stomach. They come into contact with the digestive system and the gut microbiome in our body's intestinal tract. These microbes need to be fed in a deliberate way to hone in on the gut microbiota. So if you eat things that are high in sugar or meals with macronutrients that are unfavorable for the microbe population, you're going to have an unfavorable shift in your gut microbiome (it's called dysbiosis).
But if you eat the right macronutrients, then you'll have a better shift in your microbiome. Favorable macronutrients are foods like cruciferous vegetables and vegetable fibers in general. Eat leafy greens as a substantial portion of each meal. Make sure you get good, clean proteins that are low in saturated fat. That could be fish, chicken, turkey. You could try other animal proteins but look for the ones that are low in saturated fat or are lean cuts. Also, plant-based proteins are an excellent choice. This could be things like tofu, soybeans, lentils, and other legumes.
Also, look at eating fruits, especially those with high fiber content. Blueberries have polyphenols and are also high in fiber. You can also eat nuts as a protein alternative and getting those healthy fats into the gut system. When you put all these nutrients together for a meal, it can go a long way for the microbiota and gut microbes.
When you add things like glucose and sugar to your diet, you'll drive up the concentration of organisms like C. difficile, a toxin of the gut microbiome. Eating healthy fibers like arugula has many benefits, like helping to keep the barrier between the gut and the tissue outside intact.
Great to know. And we probably have to watch the saturated fats too. Even on a plant-based diet, it's easy to get a lot of coconut oil and things like that. Maybe too much of that is not so great either?
Yeah, there was a definite fad around coconut oil. I was talking to my wife about this the other day about how it smells and tastes good. But when you look at the label, it says 50% saturated fat per serving. But if you choose something like algae oil or even olive or avocado oil, those have less saturated fats. Depending on your cooking temperature, you can choose more healthy cooking oil options and still have a reasonable amount of flavor. And maybe find alternative ways to get that same flavor with spices.
That's a great tip. How about fermented foods? I know some fermented food advocates say things like, "You can get everything you need from raw sauerkraut and kombucha." What would you say to that?
The level of probiotics that we supply is in the billions of colony-forming units (cfu). So in a single capsule, the average customer will get everything they need—probiotics, prebiotics, botanicals—all customized into a single capsule. And that's going to be at a concentration of 60 billion cfu per gram. It can go all the way up to 120 billion cfu per gram. So there's quite a bit of range that's optimized for an individual. That amount is probably equivalent to a football field of kimchi or some of these other fermented foods.
There is some value in kimchi, yogurt, kombucha, and other fermented foods, just from a different perspective. They are actually the end product of a fermentation process. So you're feeding good nutrients to the gut microbiome by eating these fermented foods that can allow other organisms in the gut system to flourish.
So we think [fermented foods] are really good. But if you're looking for them to be your probiotic source, they're a low concentration source.
I feel like there's so much I want to ask you. It's hard to narrow it down to just a few questions. Let's talk about lifestyle factors. How are some ways that the microbiome gets altered in unhealthy ways? Do we have to be concerned about bathing in chlorinated water and things like that? Are there lifestyle factors that impact our microbiome negatively?
Science has now helped us understand the impact due to our environment and lifestyle. If we ingest certain types of impurities that can be toxic to gut microbiota, they may have a negative impact and change their shape. That potentially leads to dysbiosis. Antibiotic usage is already known to do that.
That doesn't mean that antibiotics are bad; it just means that when you're on antibiotics, you have to be aware that it's leveling everything: taking out the gut's good and bad microbes. It then becomes a race to rebuild your gut afterward. Right after you're done with antibiotics, you want to make sure you're flushing in some good, healthy gut microbes and eating healthy during that period as you restructure your microbiome back.
Other things, like a physical impact on the gut system, can also cause dysbiosis. There are ways in which the gut and lung system interact, and so just breathing in impurities can cause dysbiosis. So we have to be aware of the environmental factors and of the things that we're ingesting. One thing you can do, from a lifestyle perspective, is exercise. It has been shown to drive up some healthy microbes.
Interesting. I wasn't aware of the impact of exercise on the microbiome. That's so great to know. What health aspects could be tied in with the microbiome that people may be unaware of? For example, how does your microbiome affect your mood?
This is some of the newest science that's come out in the last couple of years. There's now a definitive association between the gut-brain access. The vagus nerve is closely associated with the intestinal tract. There's communication happening to and from the gut microbiota. This influences whether they release cytokines or other metabolites back into the gut system or trigger an inflammatory response pathway.
These are some of the things that we're starting to dive into on the academic science side. Working on the gut-brain axis has shown neurotransmitter release into the gut system, like serotonin and dopamine, to name a few. I think 70% of the serotonin in the body is actually produced in the intestinal tract, which, as you can imagine, impacts one's mood. We're still just at the beginning of understanding how this mechanism works.
So much fascinating information. Like you say, we're just starting to understand it—even the impact on parents. My daughter has special needs. I wonder how that relates as well.
We're also very engaged with the research community on ways to help with disorders and how we can help in things that now have closer associations to the microbiome. One of those collaborations that we're working on is with Arizona State University, and it's very aligned to the research side. We've launched the largest early-stage clinical trial around the gut microbiome and autism spectrum disorder. We're excited to be able to take something that's like a health and wellness product and use some of those proceeds for those amazing scientists that are working on the gut microbiome and other conditions or disorders that can really help people in the future.
That's so wonderful to hear. There are probably so many areas, even dementia, and things like that could be, who knows, improved with increased microbiome health.
Yeah. The name of the game is longevity. If we can help our brains stay healthy and aware, that will go a long way. There's certainly a lot of evidence for longevity in the gut microbiome as well. We're trying to stay on top of it all as it comes out.
What would you like to see happening in the world right now in 2021? What is your vision for people's health and well-being?
I think a lot of it has already begun. Our goal has been to democratize this and bring this out from the hundreds of thousands of scientific journals published around the gut microbiome. We want to bring products to the customers that can help them in a preventative way because we understand the microbiomes related to diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, obesity, and all these chronic conditions.
But if we leave it in the research realm, it may take decades before we can begin to actualize some benefits. So we want to democratize this type of information and make it available to the general consumer and guide them with the latest science so that they can be informed and make decisions to potentially prevent some long-term issues.
Our goal, and one of the things that we're looking to do, is to cure all dysbiosis. That's the vision of Sun Genomics. Probiotics are just the start of it. We believe there will be new probiotic strains in the market to really provide that precision approach to your gut microbiome and dial it in even further.
From a parent's perspective, I believe every child at birth should have their gut microbiome checked, and it should be done in regular intervals, maybe every three months or at every checkup. Just to make sure that your early microbiota isn't put into dysbiosis and disrupted by some toxin-producing microbes of the gut. It also allows you to take a quick intervention if needed. That could shift your gut microbiome's fate, and it's something that we can do today, and the information is available.
That's so great that you have the testing available, that we have that ability to find out what exactly is going on in there and what do I need. I don't know if you want to share a little bit about how Floré by Sun Genomics works, the shipping of the customized products, and the testing?
It's pretty simple. You can go online to www.sungeomics.com, which will soon be flore.com. It's $99 a month. You subscribe, and the first month you'll get the gut test. You'll collect a micro stool sample (we are talking about poop here). That's how we can actually understand what's going on in your intestinal tract. You send that back to the Sun Genomics lab, and we take it from there. We'll extract the DNA, do all the DNA sequencing of the gut microbes, and then produce a report back for you on the portal.
Save $25 off your first order: CLICK HERE and use coupon code "naturalkitchen."
We also have a mobile app where you can engage with all the information and learn more about custom recipes and other things related to gut health. And you'll get an opportunity to talk to our health goal liaison. This helps us understand what you are looking to achieve, if you're feeling tired or bloated, whether you have gassiness or stomach pains, or something else going on. Or if you have any allergies or certain ingredients you want us to avoid, or have any special requests for the manufacturing team. We can put that into consideration.
And then we manufacture everything for you in our Sun Genomics GMP facility here in San Diego, California. And you get a 30-day supply cold-shipped directly to your door to keep the microbes alive. That's the second month. In the third month, you'll get that same custom probiotic. You can think of us as inventory for your custom probiotics. We keep it at Sun Genomics in our fridges and freezers, and then when it's ready every month we'll ship it over to you. At month five, you'll be able to take another gut test. We ship that to you for free. It's up to you if you want to take the gut test and reformulate your probiotics, or you're good on your current custom probiotics and don't want to change it.
We found that if you have an elevated organism like a SIBO or something like an E. coli that has grown really high, the first round of custom probiotics will knock that down. The second gut test will help us formulate what your custom probiotic for your baseline gut microbiome is. And then you stay on that, and hopefully, you'll feel much better and communicate with the team here. We're always listening and trying to understand how we can support your gut health.
Save $25 off your first order: CLICK HERE and use coupon code "naturalkitchen."
To learn more about Floré by Sun Genomics, go to www.sungenomics.com