If gut health is on your mind, you're not alone. Nearly 47% of adults in the United States are prioritizing digestive health benefits, according to Brightfield Group’s Wellness Consumer Insights study. On top of that, #GutTok has racked up more than 999 million views on TikTok 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.
Symptoms 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 problems, like bloating, gassiness and cramps. So while occasional bloating and the like aren’t a big deal, when GI problems are persistent or painful, it’s helpful to see a doctor to evaluate your symptoms as they may indicate a GI condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, colitis or celiac disease.
For a quick and dirty gut health check, registered dietitian Amanda Sauceda says to 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.
Do trendy gut health supplements work?
Here are some of the trendiest supplements for gut health. However, note that if your gut problems produce enough discomfort that you’re looking for a solution, it’s better to seek proper medical care than to self-experiment with supplements. You may have a condition that requires prescription medication and some supplements may not be appropriate for you.
“In healthy adults, probiotics have been found to help with the immune system, better bowel movements and the vaginal microbiome,” Sauceda notes. Probiotics are 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. And it should be noted that the American Gastroenterological Association doesn’t recommend probiotics for most GI conditions.
If you want to try one anyway, 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. Just keep in mind that probiotics aren’t magic bullets; the beneficial bacteria they supply won’t live in your gut forever.
And even if you’re taking probiotics, certain nutritional strategies will give you an edge. So, include a variety of fermented foods and eat a plant- and fiber-rich diet to improve the microbial diversity in your gut and boost your gut health.
Prebiotics are substances that feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut. You can get them from supplements and trendy lower-sugar sodas, but numerous fiber- and antioxidant-rich plant foods also have prebiotic activity.
Getting your prebiotics from plant foods makes nutritional sense because this strategy 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.
Since just 7% of adults meet fiber recommendations, there’s a good chance you need to boost your fiber intake for better gut health. To reach the fiber target of 25 to 38 grams per day for women and men respectively, add some mix of fruits or veggies to each of your meals and aim to eat a range of other plant foods, including pulses, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Plant foods are gut superheroes, so try to fill 75% of your plate with them.
While fiber is great for your gut, adding too much too quickly can produce symptoms. So, gradually boost your intake, and drink plenty of water while doing so, to lower the odds of any symptoms that might occur from suddenly bumping up your fiber intake. And if you’re going the supplement or prebiotic soda route, monitor for bloating and gassiness. The types and amount of fiber these products contain are more likely to contribute to digestive discomfort.
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 about 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.
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. Sipping on bone broth can also help you replace electrolytes lost after vomiting and diarrhea. And one study in rodents found that bone broth has anti-inflammatory properties and may help relieve symptoms of ulcerative colitis.
This is one gut health trend most people can try, but shop for a quality brand to get the most benefit. A recent study found you don’t necessarily get a therapeutic dose of amino acids in store-bought brands. You can also make your own at home.
Meanwhile, besides sipping it, you can use broth as the liquid base to cook grains (such as quinoa and brown rice), pasta and potatoes. Or use a splash of bone broth instead of oil when sautéing veggies in a non-stick pan.
Most healthy people produce the necessary enzymes to break down carbohydrates, fat and protein. However, some people may need a supplement for 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.
Without adequate lactase, people with lactose intolerance experience gas, bloating and cramping after eating dairy, but taking lactase enzymes with dairy foods can mitigate these symptoms.
Although digestive enzymes can have a role in gut healing, they’re not a cure-all. If you’re experiencing gas, bloating, diarrhea or prolonged gut pain, the first step is to talk to your doctor to evaluate your symptoms.
If you don’t uncover a cause for these complaints, there’s some evidence that digestive enzymes may help.
Do you really need supplements 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.
And keep in mind that other lifestyle factors can also support your diet in promoting a healthy gut. For example, exercise can increase microbial diversity and reduce intestinal permeability, preventing toxins and other pathogens from escaping and promoting inflammation.
Stress can produce unfavorable changes to your gut microbiome, so finding ways to reduce stress is another way to promote gut health. Tools like deep breathing, meditation and seeking support from a licensed therapist are possible strategies.
Also, while it’s alluring to hear gut-healing stories from your best friend or influencers on social media, their gut health regimen may not be evidence-based, or you may be dealing with a different problem. When you’re feeling unwell, particularly if you have limited access to healthcare, the idea that an over-the-counter supplement can provide a solution is appealing. However, going the supplement route isn’t without harm — you may shell out money for products that won’t work for you, or worse, you may delay treatment for a treatable problem.
A better option is to work with a gastroenterologist and dietitian who can analyze the evidence (including the potential risks) and help you navigate supplements and lifestyle changes to boost your gut health.