Another day, another TikTok trend. While you might expect crazy workouts or diets from the social media platform, surprisingly, gut health is a popular trend that shows no signs of slowing down with #guttock reaching over 900 million views and counting. There’s all sorts of experts — some legit, most not — with tips on how to “heal your gut” from bone broth to boiled apples to aloe vera juice. And with a 2021 global survey of over 73,000 adults from 33 countries finding that almost half of respondents had gastrointestinal disorders, like irritable bowel syndrome or constipation, it makes sense that a lot of people in the world need help with their gut. But what does “healing your gut” actually mean?
First, it would be helpful to to understand what the term “gut” means. According to Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, gastroenterologist and New York Times bestselling author of The Fiber Fueled Cookbook, generally refers to the digestive system as a whole. “It’s the part of our body that processes and breaks down food and includes our stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and the enzymes we get from our pancreas, liver and gallbladder,” he tells SheKnows. “It also includes the gut microbiome, which are the trillions of microorganisms, mostly bacteria, that inhabit our colon and play a role in our digestion.”
Gut health, then, says Bulsiewicz, refers to the health of our digestive system, including our ability to process and digest our food without experiencing unwanted symptoms as well as the nurturing and supporting our gut microbiome, “with the recognition that the gut microbes play a role in more than just digestion. They are also connected to our immune system, metabolism, hormones, mood, brain health and genetic expression.”
Now that we know what “gut health” means, Bulsiewicz shares his insights on how what it means to heal it – and why you need to be way of all that #guttok advice.
Why is gut health so trendy right now?
People have always had issues with their gut so it’s curious why gut health is so “fire” now, but Bulsiewicz says it’s partly due to the “explosion of science” of recent times. “If we focus on the gut microbiome for a moment, which is the topic that most people are referring to when they talk about gut health, we lacked the ability to study these bacteria prior to 2006 or so,” he says. “New laboratory technology opened things up and suddenly we discovered trillions of microbes and thousands of species. We examined the relationship between the gut bacteria and diseases and identified that those with health conditions often had changes in their microbiome characterized by less diversity, less beneficial microbes, and more inflammatory microbes.”
What are some common misconceptions about gut health?
No surprise but there’s a ton of misleading information out there about gut health, which is why Bulsiewicz says when it comes to gut health it’s important to separate what research supports from what the internet claims. “If you’re not careful, the internet will lead you to believe that the secret to healing your gut is bone broth and collagen supplements and that gluten is the cause of most of our health related issues,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s not the consensus within the scientific community. There are literally no studies to indicate that bone broth or collagen supplements are beneficial to your gut health, and gluten can be problematic for a limited group of people such as those with celiac disease but for the vast majority of people they are far better off eating gluten-containing sourdough bread, barley, or rye.”
What Does Your Poop Tell You About Your Health?
When should people contact their doctor about gut health issues?
Bulsiewicz says there are certain red flag symptoms — blood in the stool, unexplained anemia or iron deficiency, fatigue, unintentional weight loss, difficulty swallowing, change in bowel habits, or severe symptoms like abdominal pain or intractable nausea — that if you are experiencing yield an immediate visit with your primary care provider and in some cases it may be an emergency, depending on which symptoms.
Beyond this, he recommends any person who is experiencing chronic digestive symptoms that are unexplained should seek medical care. “At a minimum, we need to understand what is causing the symptoms so that we can provide appropriate, targeted treatment and also ensure that it’s nothing serious,” he says.
How a doctor assesses gut health
As a gastroenterologist, Bulsiewicz says there are three ways that he uses to assess a person’s gut health. First is digestive symptoms, including abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, indigestion, diarrhea or constipation, which he says are all manifestations of a struggling gut.
Second, he pays attention to their bowel movements. “Our bowel movements are a window into what’s happening with our gut,” he explains. “When things are good, we should be having formed, regular, complete and satisfying bowel movements. When the gut is struggling, you will see changes show up with our bowel movements.”
Finally, Bulsiewicz takes note of health related conditions that are associated with a damaged gut. “There are numerous metabolic, autoimmune, allergic, hormonal, neurologic and mood related disorders that have been connected to gut health,” he says. “Typically these conditions arrive in clusters, so in a person with a damaged gut you will have several of these conditions at once even if they are different parts of the body.”
What you can do to help heal your gut
To help beat the bloat or alleviate any gut-related symptom you might be experiencing, Bulsiewicz says we should be striving to support our gut microbiome with our diet.
“All of our food choices ultimately come into contact with our gut microbiome,” he explains. “Their preferred food is dietary fiber, which you can find in all plant-based foods. Fiber helps to strengthen the gut microbes and improve gut health on several levels. Unfortunately, 95 percent of Americans are currently deficient in fiber intake. We should take steps to add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts and legumes to our diet.”
And with so much advice out there about gut health, Bulsiewicz acknowledges it’s a challenging time with an overwhelming amount of information out there, much of which, he says, “is actually misinformation that will confuse you and potentially lead to poor health outcomes if followed.”
For these reasons, he stresses it’s important to receive our advice from someone who is qualified. “Ideally, this includes medical professionals including physicians, physician extenders, dietitians, and other therapists who are licensed to provide care,” he says. “The first step in assessing information is assessing the source of the information and whether or not they are credible. If 99 percent of the healthcare community believes in one thing, and you’re taking your information from the other 1 percent I would recommend that you proceed cautiously because there’s likely a good reason that a person is a lone wolf.”
Before you go, check out the quotes we love to inspire positive attitudes about food and bodies:
We all want to be satisfied, even though we know some people who will never be that way, and others who see satisfaction as a foreign emotion that they can’t hope to ever feel.
Peace and happiness can be difficult to catch. Finding the right balance that lets us get to all of the different goals that we have in place is not always as easy as we would like.
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