From drinking extra virgin olive oil and cucumber-ginger juice to taking supplements and cleanses, social media platforms are stuffed with tips and “hacks” that claim to improve your “gut health” – a nonmedical term for activities and symptoms associated with your digestive, or gastrointestinal (GI), tract.
Celebrities, influencers, and everyday people are so focused on it, in fact, that The New York Times published a story explaining why “gut health” is taking over TikTok, for better or worse.
I get it – talking about GI symptoms and bowel movements can be uncomfortable. No one likes sharing that they feel bloated or have heartburn, diarrhea, or constipation. So, some social media personalities are trying to capitalize on the taboo nature of the topic by offering quick fixes that sound simple and plausible.
But, like most things that seem too good to be true, the bulk of the GI remedies touted on TikTok are not helpful – and some may be harmful. Most cleanses, for example, do one of two things:
- Act as a diuretic, flushing fluids out of the body, giving you a temporarily flatter, less bloated stomach. This can rob your body of electrolytes and leave you dehydrated.
- Act as a laxative, filling the GI tract with irritating or fatty substances that cause diarrhea disguised as a “cleanse.”
Neither of these functions helps improve GI health – they simply deliver instant gratification disguised as a long-term solution. To truly reduce GI symptoms and improve digestive function, the best place to start is understanding what “gut health” really means and how the environment inside your GI tract connects to whole-body health.
What 'gut health' really means
When people talk about “gut health” on social media, many are referring to the gastrointestinal microbiome. Your GI tract, which includes the stomach, small intestines, and large intestines (colon), is home to diverse microbiota – bacteria, single-cell prokaryotes, and multi-cell eukaryotes such as yeast and protozoa. These microorganisms aid in digestion and help protect you against harmful bacteria.
However, there is no medical consensus on what defines “gut health,” a term popularized by media. A healthy GI tract likely not only means the absence of symptoms and disease, but also the physical and functional wellbeing of the entire system. Transient GI symptoms are common and don’t necessarily indicate poor health – many people get gas, bloating, or loose stools from time to time.
These three medical tenets are the only fairly well agreed-upon criteria for good “gut health:”
- Ability to return to a healthy state. After illness or other GI stressors, a healthy digestive system should be able to resume normal function.
- Having a diverse microbiota. Your GI tract requires a certain amount of diversity for optimal function. The microbiota can be upset by taking antibiotics, dietary changes, drinking too much alcohol, or coming down with an illness.
- Having diverse microbial genes. This is inheritable information in the microorganisms of the microbiome and the abundance of different genes may indicate functional differences. Some GI and non-GI health conditions have bacterial gene signatures, including cirrhosis of the liver, coronary artery disease, and inflammatory bowel disease.
That third point gets confusing for people and may be where trendy “gut health” products have an inroad with consumers. Though many diseases are associated with changes in the gut microbiome, most are not proven to be cause/effect relationships.
For example, you might get a stomachache if you are nervous. That doesn’t mean stress has reduced your gut microbiome – the pain is likely just a symptom of an acute problem outside the GI tract. Additionally, mood can dictate what we eat and how active we are, both of which can become factors that cause constipation, diarrhea, and bloating.
Common GI conditions to get treated
Some conditions do start in the bowels, though, and no fast fix will prevent or treat the symptoms. A few common GI conditions include:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is characterized by heartburn related to stomach acid flowing back into the esophagus. Eating acidic foods and eating close to bedtime can increase symptoms, but the cause is a weakened esophageal sphincter – not the gut microbiota.
- Diverticulitis, which is when small pockets within the colon become inflamed. The cause of this disease is a structural change in the intestinal tract.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn’s disease can cause significant pain and bowel incontinence. Certain foods can make symptoms worse, but it is an autoimmune disease caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
If a cleanse or supplement is suggested as a fast fix for a GI symptom or condition, think twice before spending your money. There is rarely a one-stop treatment that works right away – in medicine or in trendy home remedies – and some trends might even make you sick.
Supplements make me especially leery. Many brands are expensive, and none are strictly regulated, so there is no way to be sure what you are taking.
Even probiotics, which doctors sometimes recommend, can have limited effects on your gastrointestinal health. Since most probiotics are not marketed as drugs, they are not regulated as stringently by the FDA. I recommend talking with a doctor or dietitian before investing in supplements that claim to support GI health.
Proven tips to improve your gut health
While there’s no quick fix to improve GI health, there are a few common sense – and proven – ways to feel better all around.
Eat a balanced diet that includes fiber and fermented foods. Research shows that eating ultra-processed foods (high shelf life, low nutritional value) changes the balance of organisms in the gut and can cause inflammation. Instead, try eating a balanced diet that includes fiber, such as oatmeal, nuts, grains, legumes, and fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha, to help increase the biodiversity in your GI tract.
Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated can help ease constipation and keep your digestive system flowing.
Get regular exercise. A 2021 review published in Frontiers in Nutrition suggests that moderate exercise reduces GI inflammation and helps diversify the gut microbiota. Elite athletes appear to have more diverse microbiota, particularly for specific activities such as producing short-chain fatty acids, which help prevent bad bacteria from growing, improve calcium absorption, and improve metabolism.
Work on managing stress. Stressful situations can interfere with normal GI function. Neurons in the gut communicate with the brain, reacting to feelings of fear and nervousness, for example. Common side effects of stress on the digestive system include:
- Changes in appetite
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Muscle spasms in the bowel
At the end of the day, there is no quick fix for GI symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. No tonic or TikTok trend will replace trusting your gut instincts and investigating your own unique GI health needs.
So, before you go all in on bone broth, aloe vera juice, or the latest powdered cleanse, talk with a GI expert. We can help you create a personalized plan that will work for your lifestyle – and wallet – long term.