What does healing your gut actually mean?

7 Mins read

 ‘Gut Health’ is the latest buzzword on social media. Whether it’s dominating your ‘For You’ page or an Instagram influencer promoting a ‘gut-friendly lunch’, there’s no escaping it – but what does it actually mean?

If it isn’t Channel 4’s Know Your Sh*t or #GutTok promoting the benefits of healing your gut, it’s Tim Spector preaching scientific findings on trending podcasts (like this one, now close to 2 million views). Gut health is front and centre regarding all things health and well-being.

Wellness advocates and content creators like @tonichealth, @liv.ingwell and @anyaleviwellness have recently gained significant traction online from promoting this lifestyle, all in timely response to the research. The recent scientific discoveries around caring for your gut reveal just how beneficial it is for your overall well-being, mentally as much as physically; with science comes legitimacy, a rare occurrence with viral trends, especially regarding health.

It’s all well and good for accredited sources to use their platforms to give health and wellness tips, but with good comes bad. Here the danger lies with unqualified ‘clout’ chasers. There’s lots of room for misinformation, along with the negative influence of young people online – reinforcing the importance of listening to qualified nutritionists and dietitians.

Fortunately, this is something TikTok and Instagram aren’t short of, and following the right people could be life-changing for some. But what do they actually mean by the term gut health? And how do you heal it?

In a nutshell, your gut health is about more than just your actual gut per se. From the oesophagus to the bowel, gut health covers the entire digestive system – responsible not only for digestion but also aids hormone regulation and immune system activity. Recent studies have provided sufficient evidence to prove that the microbiome in your gut can affect both your physical and mental health. So, you might want to pay more attention to the “what I eat in a day to heal my gut” videos, they could be key to keeping you happy inside and out.

“Social media is a powerful tool, and I think it’s fantastic that the topic of gut health is growing in popularity” explains Julie Balsamo, a registered dietitian specialising in gut health. Julie explains that she takes a holistic, whole-body approach and doesn’t recommend “one specific diet.” She says, “eating for a healthy gut incorporates many of the same principles I recommend for overall healthy living.” 

Julie is just one example of a health professional using social platforms to educate their audience. Having gained a substantial following on TikTok, Julie has made it clear that her goal is to “empower clients with the knowledge and understanding needed to live free from their digestive and hormonal symptoms”, and she is no stranger to the impacts of an unhealthy gut, sharing that she had struggled with digestive issues herself for many years prior.

Julie will be the first to tell you the importance of prioritising foods that keep your gut happy. The food you ingest will play a significant part in make up of your gut microbiome, whether it be positive or negative, effecting us physically and mentally – in short; the gut is the foundation of everything.

The most simplistic way to break it down is by understanding that there are both good and bad bacteria that our gut needs in order to work to its optimum. It is known (but not common knowledge) that 80% of our immune system is in the gut, along with the majority of the happy hormone serotonin.

So, a ‘healthy gut’ simply means there are more good bacteria than harmful ones. The key is ensuring the harmful bacteria do not dominate – a common problem for many. If done correctly, the balance of this bacteria can lead to a multitude of health benefits, including reducing inflammation, which in turn can lead to a decreased risk of heart disease, as well as lower the chance of obesity.

Many suffer from different illnesses, both mental and physical, due to neglecting their gut health – simply out of ignorance. There are several factors that can contribute to having poor gut bacteria, some of the most common being: stress, poor nutrition (consuming lots of highly processed food) and any long-term use of antibiotics or medication.

It’s not just the viral nutritionists on TikTok who are excited about healing guts. Industry professionals share the same level of enthusiasm. Both Tim Spector and Giles Yeo have recently appeared on the popular podcast The Diary of a CEO; they spoke clearly and openly about the science behind caring for your gut health and the benefits of keeping it happy. With some of this new, ground-breaking evidence, it’s undeniable that this lifestyle change could make a huge impact if done correctly and with intention.

“It’s the diversity of gut microbes that gives you a diversity of chemicals and, we believe, a healthier immune system and a better metabolism.”

– Tim Spector

Yeo and Spector are also huge advocates for busting the ‘calories in vs calories out’ theory regarding successful and sufficient weight loss; “Calorie Counting is complete nonsense. There is no long-term study to show it is an effective way to lose weight and maintain weight loss” says Spector. Both professionals preach that it is more about what you eat rather than how much – for many who struggle with calorie counting and mental health, this could be key to them seeing success in terms of weight loss goals and overall well-being, mimicking the holistic approach, similar to that of Nutritionist Julie.

Ultimately, the key to achieving a well-balanced, ‘gut-friendly’ diet is to include variety in your meals day-to-day. Spector, the leading professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London and scientific co-founder of ZOE, believes that diversity in your diet is “crucial to warding off infections, combating age-related diseases and maintaining a healthy weight.”

ZOE is a health and science company who are currently carrying out the largest, most in-depth nutrition study in the world. They shared a quote from Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, a certified gastroenterologist. When discussing what’s the best thing you can do to improve your gut health, he responded, “If there’s one thing, and one thing only, that you can do to improve your gut health, it’s eating a wider variety of plant foods” preaching the same mantra as Tim Spector.

With all the research available, healing your gut appears to be fairly simple. Eat a variety of healthy meals and avoid highly processed foods and sugars – common sense, right? But when searching the trending hashtag #GutTok, it may not seem so simple with the amount of contradictory information. 

Mia*, aged 24, has always suffered from terrible periods. She took to social media, specifically TikTok, to find ways to manage her symptoms and eventually came across many ‘Gut-Health TikTokers’ and that’s where her journey with gut health began. Mia* was not alone with this decision, as 2022 seemed to be the year of ‘healing guts’ and has transcended into 2023. From sipping Lemon water and chugging celery juice, to chia seed drinks, #GutTok now has 940 million views in total.

Mia* decided to take check of her gut health during lockdown, jumping on this trend early. The 24-year-old saw some great health benefits in doing so; these included helping with regulating her monthly cycle, easing bloating and aiding weight loss, and the inspiration for this lifestyle change came from TikTok.

However, Mia* shared that she initially felt overwhelmed by the amount of content on her For You Page, “every influencer had different advice, and I didn’t know where to begin. But I definitely noticed a difference in my mood. So I booked an appointment with a holistic practitioner & herbalist, and that’s what really helped.”

This piece published in Forbes also touches on the importance of contacting a professional. Dr Rachel Koransky-Matson explained that “patients should always check with their primary care provider before trying new ‘trend’” as, for many, this can do more harm than good, both physically and mentally. As we know, your gut health affects all aspects of your health, so this is something we want to get right.”

“In my opinion, the focus should always be on quality, not calories!”

– Julie Balsamo, Registered Dietitian

With so much conflicting information, starting your gut health journey can seem fairly daunting. To make things as straightforward as possible, dietician Julie has shared her 3 top tips for anyone looking to start their journey:

 1. “Start with your diet – diet plays a major role when it comes to digestion. Before jumping into supplements, I always recommend first addressing the foods that you’re putting in your body. Ask yourself, am I prioritising…

  • Whole foods
  • Fibre and plant diversity
  • Quality proteins
  • Anti-inflammatory fats

2. “Address stress – If your body is continuously in a sympathetic state (fight or flight), you’re likely going to struggle with digestive issues no matter how many supplements and healthy foods you consume. Stress regulates digestion and can negatively impact everything from stomach acid production to GI motility!”

3. “Work with someone – There’s a lot you can do on your own when it comes to gut health. However, if you’ve already addressed diet and lifestyle, and you’re still struggling with a lot of symptoms, chances are there’s an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. The longer you prolong asking for help, the worse symptoms tend to become. This is where working with someone can be extremely helpful!”

Julie also shared how she prioritises her diet, focusing on “whole foods, quality proteins, healthy fats, plant diversity and gut nourishing options like probiotic-rich yoghurts and bone broth”, but she also preaches about having a balanced diet; key to sustainability and keeping you happy – “healthy gut, healthy body!”

Despite the overwhelming influx of information on platforms like TikTok, it’s about stripping it back to basics. Taking steps to eat and prioritise whole foods, a variety of plants and pro-biotics for healthy bacteria, these are all things you can find in your local supermarket – we just have to be wary of who we listen to.

Mia* shared that she “would definitely recommend consulting a herbalist, holistic practitioner or your GP for a food sensitivity test and blood test before starting your diet – so that you know exactly what works for you. And don’t rely on social media for tips, even if they claim to be “practitioners” in their videos!”

It’s clear that taking the time out to understand your gut and begin feeding it what it needs to work to its optimum could be life-changing. A healthy gut could be considered a secret weapon – the answer to your dreaded bloating, or help to get you out of bed with a spring in your step, manifesting as a natural mood booster. Even if the lifestyle change means clearer skin, or healthier hair, the benefits are endless and specific to each individual. It’s as simple as swapping out processed foods and making more conscious decisions.

If you’re interested in starting your gut health journey, there are multiple ways to start. Podcasts are always helpful; checking out the Zoe website might be of interest if you have some cash to spare, or even following accredited sources on TikTok can be a great, inexpensive way to start your journey – just be prepared for your FYP to be flooded! #GutTok

(* – name changed for anonymity)

Featured image by Alexandr Podvalny via Unsplash CC.

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