Can These Viral Remedies Really Heal Your Gut?
#GutHealth has taken over TikTok. We asked a gastroenterologist about the app's most popular gut healing claims.
In recent years I’ve had one consistent enemy: my gut. Granted, I don’t treat her too kindly. I consume a lot of food she hates, indulge in too many alcoholic drinks each week and probably don’t hydrate as much as she’d like me to. Because of this, she punishes me with painful bloating and irregularity. So basically, I feel like shit most of the time.
I am not alone in this experience; it seems almost everyone feels like shit most of the time, and most of it has to do with, well, their shit (or lack of it).
Last summer, “hot girls have IBS” became a widespread meme and a mantra among people with digestive problems. As CNET reported in July 2021, social media users, specifically on TikTok, openly discussed and joked about their constant constipation, bloating and diarrhea. These candid conversations about common digestive issues not only helped to normalize bodily functions and unite people struggling with stomach problems but persuaded people to take a closer look at their gut health.
Now it’s nearly a year later and, man, people are really into fixing their gut.
TikTok is practically overrun at the moment with videos on “how to heal your gut.” Simply search “gut health” and you’ll be greeted with an endless stream of videos from conventionally attractive people with flat stomachs explaining how they healed their gut. Some users have even accumulated followings for documenting their gut health journeys, where they’ll often hawk products and remedies like L-Glutamine powders and aloe vera juice.
Because gut health has become so omnipresent on TikTok, these types of gut-healing videos — and gut-healing programs some influencers are selling — have raised concerns. Some users, like Registered Dietician Abby Sharp (@abbeyskitchen), have argued that a lot of gut healing content is simply a “rebrand of diet culture.” Which isn’t a stretch. Most of these gut-healing TikToks begin with an influencer showing before and after pictures of their lower stomach before detailing the routine that helped them stay bloat-free and flat.
“It’s kind of taboo for thin people to engage in dieting and restriction, so a lot of thin influencers will now focus on the kind of anti-bloating or gut-healing properties of their diet,” Sharp said in a recent TikTok. “Don’t be fooled by this rebranding of diet culture most of the time it’s still a diet…If you’re following a thin wellness influencer’s gut-ealing program it’s worth just asking yourself do I have a functional gut disorder or do I just want to have a flat stomach too?”
Still, as Sharp mentions in her video, digestive issues and disorders are very much real and can be extremely debilitating, and it’s clear from the recent “hot girls have IBS” memes that lots of people are struggling with them (unsurprising, since many digestive triggers come from common food and beverages we consume on a daily basis, medications we take and stress.) Also, just because a remedy comes from naturopathic medicine (which most of these TikTok solutions do) doesn’t mean it will be a viable option for relief. But with TikTok positioning everything as a miracle cure, it can be difficult to weed out what’s worth the money and time and what’s just an influencer push.
I’d love a quick fix to the many gastrointestinal issues that plague my day-to-day, but I’d like to think I know better than to purchase a powder I’ve never heard of through an influencer’s affiliate link — but I don’t always! So that’s why I tapped Dr. Ali Kazemi, a Gastroenterologist at Gastro Health Virginia to guide me through the many viral solutions for healing the gut.
But before we get started, what does an unhealthy gut look like? According to Kazemi, signs that may suggest you have an unhealthy gut include but are not limited to: irregular bowel habits (like diarrhea, constipation, or both), bloating, fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea and/or vomiting, low back pain and bleeding.
Kazemi: Although aloe vera juice, ginger juice, and bone broth do contain some nutrients, the claim that they can significantly improve inflammation and the gut lining has not been proven in clinical studies. Though, ginger extract due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds has been suggested to help with inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel diseases and rheumatologic diseases.
The TikTok claim: L-Glutamine Powder will reheal your stomach lining.
Kazemi: Glutamine is a non-essential amino acid that can be taken as a safe supplement with minimal side effects. There is some data to suggest it may help with gut permeability; however, more research is needed to prove its effects on the gut.
The TikTok claim: Taking a probiotic every day will help heal your gut.
Kazemi: There are no clear guidelines suggesting the use of probiotics in gut health, however, small studies have demonstrated some benefits in C. Diff. Colitis, hepatic encephalopathy, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, and pouchitis. Also, not all probiotics are the same, as many will not resist gastric acids.
The TikTok claim: High-stress levels prevent us from properly digesting and absorbing nutrients. Therefore, we should try to lower our stress levels to improve gut health.
Kazemi: Due to the gut’s extensive nervous system, stress can be associated with certain symptoms in the gut. It is suggested that high stress can reduce the pain threshold which means gut pain and discomfort can be felt more easily. Bloating and gut motility can also be affected by stress which can then cause constipation or diarrhea. However, there isn’t strong evidence to suggest absorption is affected directly but possibly indirectly via altering the gut flora. Nevertheless, lowering stress should be implemented as it is beneficial to improving our overall health.
The TikTok claim: Being active after a meal helps digestion.
Kazemi: Studies have revealed that mild-to-moderate intensity activity such as walking can help with digestion and may lower blood sugar levels after a meal. However high-intensity exercise may lead to a delay in gastric emptying and gut motility.
The TikTok claim: “Oil pulling” can help remove toxins from your mouth and set your body up for better digestion and less inflammation.
Kazemi: There is no data to support this, although it is important to state that oral health is important whether it is via oil pulling or more accepted ways with brushing, mouthwash and dentist visits.
The verdict: While many of these viral remedies promoted on TikTok don’t seem to be backed by concrete clinical evidence (yet), they also don’t seem detrimental to your health. So if you want to whip up a soothing bone broth or introduce a glutamine powder into your daily regimen, it could be worth a shot.
Although, if you are experiencing gut issues or persistent extra-intestinal symptoms like rashes, joint pains, back pain or fatigue, Kazemi recommends talking to your primary care provider. In the meantime, he says you can hydrate well, eat healthy stay active and sleep well for a healthier gut.
“Eating a balanced healthy diet combined with regular exercise and activity is imperative to good gut health and good overall well-being,” he says. “Focusing on healthy foods with adequate fiber and minimizing refined carbohydrates can be an important way to improve the gut and the gut flora and prevent serious conditions.”
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