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Do you need supplements to heal your gut? Experts weigh in

Time for a gut check. Here's how to tell if your gut health is off track — and what to do if it is.

According to a 2022 survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), about a quarter of respondents said digestive health is their number one health priority, and nearly half rate it as important. On top of that, #GutTok has racked up more than 525 million views of influencers sharing personal stories about products that helped them heal their gut. 

But how do you know if your gut needs nourishing, and do these products make a difference? Here’s expert advice on the gut health trend.

Signs of an unhealthy gut

If you’re looking under a lens, an unhealthy gut has less microbial diversity than a healthy gut. When you have an unhealthy gut, the harmony between the beneficial and harmful bacteria is off, promoting a cascade of biological events that can put your health at risk. For instance, a 2017 review found that gut imbalances and inflammation may promote anxiety and depression. Physical and neurological health issues, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune conditions and degenerative brain disorders may also be initiated or promoted by gut imbalances.

That’s the broader picture, but many people consider gut health to be the absence of GI symptoms, like bloating, gassiness and cramps, which can also be signs of dysbiosis (or imbalance in gut bacteria). So, while occasional bloating and the like is normal, when GI problems are persistent or painful, it’s helpful to see a doctor.

For a quick and dirty gut health check, Amanda Sauceda, MS, RD, says to take a peek at your poop. “You want it well-formed, brown and easy to pass,” she explains. “A good rule of thumb is not going more than three days without pooping or going more than three times in one day,” she adds.

#GutTok: Here’s the deal on the trendiest gut health products

Here’s the scoop on products that are repeatedly recommended by TikTok influencers.

Probiotics

“In healthy adults, probiotics have been found to help with the immune system, better bowel movements and the vaginal microbiome,” Sauceda notes. Probiotics are also being studied for various disorders, but they aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, a strain that helps with constipation may not be the same as one studied for another issue. Therefore, if you want to try one, it’s helpful to shop for the specific strain in an amount shown to be effective for the goal you have in mind. A registered dietitian can help you navigate this.

Meanwhile, Sauceda cautions that if you’re doing a gut healing protocol, taking probiotics too soon may make things worse. And probiotics aren’t magic bullets; the beneficial bacteria they supply won’t live in your gut forever, so dietary and other lifestyle factors are still part of the best gut health strategies.

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are substances that feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut. You can get them from supplements, but you can also find them in numerous plant foods. And getting them from plant foods has the additional advantage of helping you meet fiber targets and supplying vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other health-promoting substances that contribute to body-wide benefits. So, in addition to fruits and veggies, aim to eat a range of plant foods, including pulses, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Plant foods are gut superheroes, so try to fill 75% of your plate with them.

L-glutamine

TikTokers are obsessed with this amino acid, which they say can help heal a leaky gut by strengthening the intestinal wall. A healthy intestinal wall is impermeable. When there are gaps, pathogens “leak” out, promoting inflammation and potentially instigating various health problems. 

There’s evidence that L-glutamine helps repair and maintain the healthfulness of your intestinal wall and microbial community, and supplementing may improve constipation. However, Sauceda cautions against using it without expert guidance. “A gut healing protocol is not a cookie-cutter process, and you would want to figure out why there are issues with the gut before you start supplementing,” she explains.

Bone broth

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 nutrition, notes Sauceda. And one study in rodents found that bone broth has anti-inflammatory properties and may help relieve symptoms of ulcerative colitis. 

This is one #GutTok trend most people can try, but for the 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. Meanwhile, besides sipping on it, Sauceda suggests adding bone broth to soups, grains, pasta and potatoes.

Digestive enzymes

Ideally, your body produces the necessary enzymes to break down carbohydrates, fat and protein. However, there are instances when you may need additional support. For example, lactose intolerance is a common condition in which your body doesn’t produce sufficient lactase, the enzyme required to break down the sugar in dairy products. As a result, people with this condition experience gas, bloating and cramping after eating dairy. But taking lactase enzymes with dairy foods can mitigate these symptoms.

Although digestive enzymes have a role in gut healing, they’re not for everyone. Plus, symptoms such as gas and bloating could indicate a more serious disorder — as can some enzyme insufficiencies — so talk to your doctor to evaluate your symptoms.

Do you really need products to heal your gut?

Not necessarily. “My biggest gut health product recommendation is fruits and veggies because more plant variety 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 controlling 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 be appropriate for you. Influencer advice is particularly appealing when healthcare is expensive or inaccessible. However, influencers aren’t necessarily experts who are trained in helping someone navigate supplements and make potential diet changes. This requires an expert who can analyze and understand the evidence, including possible risks.