The gut is having a moment. Look up #GutTok on TikTok, and the hashtag has 606 million views. Your sister wants you to try the probiotic supplements she found on Amazon. Your cousin thinks it’s actually all about prebiotics, and you can really pack ’em in if you just try this “superfood” powder. You’ve also heard good things about bone broth. And kombucha. So what’s legit, and what’s BS?
You’re in the right place. And to be clear: Your gut is worth the hype. It impacts everything, from your immune system to your brain to your heart, lungs, and other vital organs. It’s why the saying “you are what you eat” is so well-known.
When your gut is healthy, it has a good balance of bacteria and your gastrointestinal tract can process nutrients. The science-y lingo for this bacteria is the gut microbiome or microbiota: trillions of tiny organisms that help you absorb and digest food. When there’s an imbalance in your gut microbiome, that’s when you start dealing with all sorts of nasty stuff like diarrhea, constipation, gas, and abdominal pain. It’s one of five main contributors to a healthy gut, according to John Damianos, M.D., an internal medicine physician focusing on gastroenterology at Yale New Haven Hospital.
What contributes to a healthy gut?
If any of these things go haywire, it can lead to a host of gastrointestinal (GI) diseases, such as inflammatory/autoimmune issues like celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis. “People with chronic GI symptoms, especially ‘red flag’ symptoms like weight loss or blood in the stool, really need to see a doctor to work up and diagnose their symptoms,” Dr. Damianos adds.
Ultimately, “what can affect a person’s gut health will vary case-by-case, because everyone’s gut is as unique as their fingerprint,” says Jenna Volpe, a registered dietitian based in Round Rock, Texas. But here, she, Dr. Damianos, and Jennifer Roelands, M.D., a board-certified OB/GYN and CEO of Well Woman MD, and Rhyan Geiger, a registered dietitian based in Phoenix, Arizona, have outlined general symptoms and causes of an unhealthy gut, plus a few treatments that can help heal your gut. Let’s get into it.
First, what are the symptoms of an unhealthy gut?
Got it, so, what causes an unhealthy gut?
Lacking any of the basic things you need for your overall well-being—a healthy diet, lots of water, regular exercise, sleep—will have a negative impact on your gut. While what follows isn’t a definitive list, experts tend to agree that too much of the below can upset your bowels:
What can I do to improve my gut health?
What are probiotics, and can they help heal my gut?
Probiotics are often misattributed as “good” bacteria in your gut, but that’s inaccurate, according to Dr. Damianos. The proper definition of probiotics, as recently updated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), is (ready to get your ~science~ on?) “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”
The average person doesn’t need a probiotic supplement for a healthy gut, but if you’re having certain gut issues (such as IBS), your doctor may prescribe you specific strains of probiotics to help.
One big word of caution, notes Dr. Damianos, is: “You can’t just pick any probiotic off the shelf. There are just so many supplements out there that have no clinical data to support their use. Anything that claims it will ‘cure’ your bloating or, yes, even ‘heal’ your gut is most likely trying to take advantage of you.” As part of the Scientific Advisory Committee for the Alliance for Education on Probiotics, Dr. Damianos points to its clinical guide to probiotics as a good resource to assess your probiotic needs.
What about prebiotics? Can they improve my gut health?
Part of why you hear experts recommend plant-based foods constantly is because they’re high in prebiotics, which feed the healthy gut bacteria, says Geiger. Good sources of prebiotics include: onions, garlic, asparagus, whole wheat, spinach, beans, bananas, oats, and soybeans, just to name a few.
As for pricier stuff like bone broth, kombucha, and other ~fancy things~ that claim to boost your gut? There’s not enough data behind ’em yet to say they will absolutely help, so if something looks like a pricey cure-all, it’s probably too good to be true. You’re best going for whole foods recommended by your doctor or dietitian.
If you’re experiencing gut issues for any reason, all experts agree that keeping a food diary can help you keep track of what feels good and what doesn’t. Then, make an appointment with a doctor or registered dietitian for guidance on what can help from there.
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