According to a 2022 survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), about a quarter of respondents say digestive health is their number one health priority, and nearly half rate it as important. On top of that, #GutTok has garnered more than 525 million views of influencers sharing personal stories about products that have helped them heal their gut.
But how do you know if your gut needs nourishment and do these foods matter? Here’s expert advice on the gut health trend.
Signs of an unhealthy gut
If you look under the lens, unhealthy guts have less microbial diversity than healthy guts. When you have an unhealthy gut, the harmony between good and bad bacteria is out of whack, promoting a cascade of biological events that can put your health at risk. For example, a 2017 review found that gut imbalance and inflammation can promote anxiety and depression. Physical and neurological health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune conditions and degenerative brain disorders can also be initiated or promoted by gut imbalance.
It’s the bigger picture, but many people think of gut health as the absence of gastrointestinal symptoms, such as bloating, gas, and cramping, which can also be signs of dysbiosis (or an imbalance in gut bacteria). So while occasional bloating and the like is normal, when gastrointestinal issues are persistent or painful, it’s a good idea to see a doctor.
For a quick and dirty check on your gut health, Amanda Sauceda, MS, RD, says to take a peek at your poop. “You want it nicely shaped, brown, and easy to go through,” she explains. “A good rule of thumb is to not poop for more than three days, or not poop more than three times in one day,” she adds.
#GutTok: Here’s the deal on the latest gut health products
Here are the products that are repeatedly recommended by TikTok influencers.
“In healthy adults, probiotics have been found to help the immune system, better bowel movements, and the vaginal microbiome,” notes Sauceda. Probiotics are also being studied for various ailments, but they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, a strain that helps with constipation may not be the same as one studied for another problem. Therefore, if you want to try it, it is helpful to shop around for the particular strain in an amount that has been shown to be effective for the purpose you have in mind. A registered dietitian can help you navigate this.
Meanwhile, Sauceda cautions that if you’re following a gut healing protocol, taking probiotics too soon could make things worse. And probiotics aren’t magic bullets; the beneficial bacteria they supply won’t live in your gut forever, so diet and other lifestyle factors are still part of the best strategies for gut health.
Prebiotics are substances that feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut. You can get them from supplements, but you can also find them in many plant foods. And getting them from plant-based foods has the added benefit of helping you meet your fiber goals and delivering vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other health-promoting substances that contribute to whole-body benefits. So, in addition to fruit and vegetables, aim to eat a range of plant-based foods, including pulses, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Plant foods are gut superheroes, so try to fill 75% of your plate with them.
TikTokers are obsessed with this amino acid, which they say can help heal leaky gut by strengthening the gut wall. A healthy intestinal wall is impermeable. When there are gaps, pathogens “leak” out, promoting inflammation and potentially causing a variety of health problems.
There is evidence that L-glutamine helps restore and maintain the health of your gut wall and microbial community, and supplements may improve constipation. However, Sauceda cautions against using it without expert guidance. “The gut healing protocol is not a cookie-cutter process, and you want to understand why there are gut issues before you start taking supplements,” she explains.
This elixir is recommended as a natural source of glutamine, which can help repair and preserve the intestinal lining. For those with GI distress, bone broth provides easily digestible food, Sauceda notes. And a study in rodents found that bone broth has anti-inflammatory properties and may help relieve the symptoms of ulcerative colitis.
This is a #GutTok trend that most people can try, but for maximum benefit, shop for a quality brand. A recent study found that you don’t necessarily get a therapeutic dose of amino acids in store-bought brands. In the meantime, in addition to sipping it, Sauceda suggests adding bone broth to soups, grains, pasta, and potatoes.
Ideally, your body produces the necessary enzymes to break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. However, there are times when you may need additional support. For example, lactose intolerance is a common condition in which your body does not produce enough lactase, the enzyme needed to break down the sugar in dairy products. As a result, people with this condition experience gas, bloating and cramping after consuming dairy products. But taking lactase enzymes with dairy foods can alleviate these symptoms.
Although digestive enzymes play a role in gut health, they are not for everyone. Plus, symptoms like gas and bloating may indicate a more serious disorder — as well as some enzyme deficiencies — so talk to your doctor to evaluate your symptoms.
Do you really need products to heal your gut?
Not necessarily. “My biggest recommendation for gut health products is fruits and vegetables, because more plant diversity in your diet will help with a more diverse gut microbiome,” says Sauceda. In addition to diversifying the plants on your plate, promising evidence suggests that consuming fermented foods with live active cultures can lead to better gut health. Other lifestyle factors, such as managing stress and getting enough activity, can also support a healthy gut. For example, exercise can increase microbial diversity and reduce intestinal permeability, preventing toxins and other pathogens from escaping and promoting inflammation.
Also, keep in mind that what worked for your favorite TikTok influencer may not work for you. Influencer advice is especially appealing when healthcare is expensive or unaffordable. However, influencers are not necessarily experts who are trained to help someone navigate supplements and make potential dietary changes. This requires an expert who can analyze and understand the evidence, including the possible risks.