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What experts have to say about the gut health trend

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For those who are as invested in #guttok as us.

You might not have noticed it, but Gen Z are wellbeing obsessed. From prioritising work-life balance over their careers, to swapping alcoholic drinks to healthier alternatives (or ditching the booze altogether), it’s clear that the younger generation generally have much more of an interest in their health than many of their older counterparts.

According to data from the National Health Service (NHS), both smoking and drug use among people in their 20s to 40s in the UK is in decline, while research from data firm Kantar shows that a quarter of Gen Z would limit their alcohol intake to reduce the risk of disease.

As well as this, a 2022 study by Statista showed that between 19% and 27% of Gen Z followed some form of diet, with the most popular being calorie counting followed by vegetarianism. Dubbed ‘generation active’, research from fitness group Les Mills revealed that both millennials and Gen Z make up to 80% of health club members.

The growing interest in health and wellbeing can largely be put down to developments in technology — both Gen Z and millennials have access to a myriad of health information at their fingertips, something that previous generations did not.

Social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are flooded with health fads, information and trends. Among those is the ‘Heal Your Gut’ trend, a movement that’s amassed 78.8 million posts on TikTok and 256.6k posts on Instagram respectively.

The trend is centred around the importance of a healthy gut microbiome and how to avoid the symptoms that an unhealthy gut can cause — which can include, but aren’t limited to, digestive issues, sleep issues, sugar cravings and autoimmune problems.

The #healyourgut hashtag is flooded with videos and tips on how to ‘hack’ gut health, including through daily drinking of olive oil (yes, really), bone broth for breakfast and consuming cucumber juice, among other obscure tips and tricks.

But can you really ‘heal’ your gut, and what do experts think of the trend? We find out.

@oliveoilqueen Healing the gut is very complicated. EVOO was not the only thing, but my main medicine #fyp #foryou #oliveoil #evoo #extravirginoliveoil #healthyfats #guthealth #guttok #healingjourney #stomachproblems #WomenOwnedBusiness #bloating #constipation #guttok #ibstok #ibs #greenscreen ♬ space song by beach house – brook

#healyourgut — is the trend beneficial or damaging?

“Interest in gut health has soared by 450% in the past five years, affirming the strong demand from consumers to take gut health seriously,” confirms Kim Plaza, senior technical advisor at supplement brand Bio-Kult. “It’s important to note, however, that there’s no ‘quick win’ when it comes to gut health (despite information you might find online). Kim explains that there’s a myriad of external factors that can affect our gut microbiome, including what we consume, how we sleep and how much exercise we get on a daily basis.

Sammie Gill, specialist gastroenterology dietitian at Symprove, agrees, explaining that ‘gut healing’ is often used as a marketing term and is based on the unfounded idea that the gut needs help to heal.

“Firstly, it’s difficult to define what someone means by ‘gut healing’,” says Sammie. “It can mean anything from treating a ‘leaky gut’, to managing bothersome gut symptoms.”

Sammie explains that a ‘leaky gut’ is not an actual medical diagnosis and is often used within the wellness industry to diagnose anything from joint pain to headaches. “It’s simply a symptom of something else. ‘Leaky’ refers to the permeability of the gut lining and implies that toxic or harmful microbes are getting into the body and causing health problems. Remember that ‘leakiness’ of the gut is actually entirely normal — for example, during exercise, after drinking alcohol, or if you’re feeling stressed. A leaky gut can also occur with an underlying health condition such as undiagnosed coeliac disease or IBD.”

Sammie says that the trend can, in some instances, prey on people’s insecurities and vulnerabilities. “When it infers that you need fixing in some way, it can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and body image, and ultimately have a detrimental impact on self-esteem and mental health.”

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What are the symptoms of an unhealthy gut?

While there’s no one measure of ‘gut health’, some telltale signs that your gut might need some extra TLC is if you’re experiencing symptoms such as pain, bloating or gas.

Similarly, your bathroom habits can also tell you a lot about the inner workings of your gut. “Ideally, poop should be soft, bulky and easy to pass,” says Sammie. “There’s a huge range when it comes to frequency, and what’s normal for one person might not be normal for someone else. Anything from three times per day to three times per week is not a cause for concern.”

Sammie recommends becoming familiar with what’s normal for you and advises any sudden changes, including a noticeable change in frequency, alongside blood in your stool or weight loss, should be assessed by a GP or healthcare provider.

“Beyond poop habits, there may be other signs,” she continues. “Think about how you’re feeling — are you tired all the time? Are you susceptible to colds? These could also be signs. Remember, about 70% of your immune system sits in your gut, so it can have a large impact on how we feel as a whole.”

How can you promote a healthy gut?

“To answer this question, you need to first understand the composition of your gut microbiome, which is home to over 100 trillion microorganisms,” says Kim. “While there’s no ‘one-fits-all-fix’, we can start to see improvements to the gut and our overall health and wellness by proactively maintaining the balance of natural bacteria in the gut.”

To build a regular gut-friendly routine, Kim recommends consuming a wide variety of healthy, plant-based foods that are rich in fibre, as this will help provide an assortment of different nutrients, help support digestive function and provide diverse food sources for the different types of healthy gut bacteria.

“Alongside dietary fibre (which can be found in vegetables such as cauliflower, green beans and potatoes, as well as nuts, beans and wholewheat flour), taking a multi-strain bacteria supplement daily might also help to gradually increase the levels of friendly bacteria in the gut.”

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Green juice with kale on wooden chopping board

How long will it take to see a change?

“Everyone’s gut microbiome is unique, a bit like a fingerprint,” explains Sammie. “In other words, no two gut microbiomes are identical — each has its own configuration. And if everyone is unique, we’re all going to respond differently to the many factors that influence it.”

Sammie says that the gut needs a little time to adapt to a new change, explaining that when introducing new foods into your diet, you should do so slowly to reduce any unwanted symptoms — especially for those with sensitivity.

“The gut microbiome can change composition in as little as 24 to 48 hours with dietary changes (e.g. switching from a meat-based diet to a plant-based one). It’s the long-term health benefits, though, that you’ll want to focus on: plant-based foods are linked with a lower risk of chronic health conditions and better immune health overall,” says Sammie.

If you’re just starting out on your gut-health journey, remember that supporting your gut is a lifelong commitment and that, although change won’t happen overnight, your long-term health will thank you in the long run.

It’s also important to note that while social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram can be a great place to consume information, you shouldn’t try any new health trend without consulting a healthcare professional first — and no, doing shots of apple cider vinegar won’t fix all of your health problems overnight.

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