Celery-juice cleanses. Laxative abuse. Drinking too much water (yes, it’s possible).
Wellness advice—sometimes taken too far—has popped up all over TikTok for years, with a barrage of content from uninformed influencers, rather than health care professionals, touting hacks to improve you inside and out in a snap. One of the latest pet topics of the social media app: gut health.
At last count, the #guttok hashtag had nearly 642 million views, with tips claiming to relieve bloating, stop constipation, increase energy, decrease brain fog—the list goes on.
While focusing on your wellness is by no means a bad approach, what is problematic is the preoccupation of not being satisfied with a “normal” digestive system, says Dr. Aamir Ali, a gastroenterologist at Capital Digestive Care in Chevy Chase. Ali once treated a patient with severe inflammation in the rectum and lower colon due to a coffee enema—another TikTok-inspired idea gone wrong.
“The enemy of good is better,” he says. “[People are] trying to achieve that undefined ideal.”
Put another way, the gut is complex—and there’s still so much we don’t know. But let’s start with what we do know.
In a nutshell, a healthy gut is all about balance, says Dr. Aline Charabaty, a gastroenterologist with Johns Hopkins Medicine at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Upper Northwest D.C. “It’s judicious enough to know what nutrients need to be absorbed and what elements we are ingesting that are harmful. The gut should be strong enough not to allow the bacteria…we’re ingesting to harm our body,” Charabaty says. The intestinal lining and what’s inside the gut—or the microorganisms in the gut microbiome—should live in harmony. “They need to feed on each other and help each other out.”
Is there a one-and-done way to ensure everything is copacetic? No, she says. “There’s never going to be one thing that’s going to fix it.”
Signs of a healthy gut include regular bowel movements, not having acid reflux, and not experiencing pain with digestion, notes Jill Fuster, a registered dietitian with the Potomac Valley Psychotherapy Associates and the Eating Disorders Center of Potomac Valley in North Bethesda. All of that can, for most people, be achieved by eating a balanced diet and listening to your body—rather than “working” on gut health. “It’s like working on calf health or hand health,” says Daisy Miller, a licensed dietitian nutritionist and owner of Dr. Daisy & Co. in Rockville. Instead, you have to look at the bigger picture.
Regardless, the TikTok sphere is hard at work promoting quick fixes. “An extreme preoccupation with your health can cause anxiety, which can backfire and cause gut distress,” Fuster says. “There’s a need for people to understand gut health, but on a platform like TikTok, the majority of people won’t be able to discern what positive information is versus what’s just the next fad.”
A common sense approach: If you think you have a problem, talk to a primary care doctor, gastroenterologist or a dietitian. Don’t try to solve it on your own, or with only the help of TikTok. Here’s what health care professionals had to say about a few trending fixes.
Adding L-glutamine powder
Probiotics, supplements and powders all claim to be cure-alls for your tummy. L-glutamine powder, for example, can heal your gut lining, according to some TikTok users. But we typically make enough of the amino acid to support our bodies, Charabaty says. If you’re already eating a healthy diet—with proteins such as eggs, beef or tofu—you’re absorbing foods rich in it.
However, those with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease or celiac disease have intestinal linings with greater permeability than those with a normal system—and therein lies the kernel of truth in the trend, Ali says.
“[Adding L-glutamine powder] is related to the concept of a leaky gut, which is still in evolution,” Ali says. “The lining of the intestinal tract can become leaky and permit the passage of more compounds than usual” in people with injured intestines. We don’t know how to measure a leaky gut, he says, and there’s no accepted single test to demonstrate whether someone has it or determine its root cause. (Is a patient’s leaky gut causing symptoms of celiac disease, or is it part of the irregularities that occur in the digestive tract as part of the condition?) “You have to know what the problem is first,” Fuster says. “So see a gastroenterologist.”
Even well-researched additives, like probiotics—which supposedly help promote the good bacteria in your gut—are questionable because the gut is so complex. “We’ve spent millions of dollars researching probiotics and still don’t really understand what’s actually helpful and for whom,” Miller says.
The verdict: It might help if you really need it, but only a doctor can tell you that.
Snacking on papaya seeds
People either love or hate papaya, though most folks agree that the seeds are bitter. But various TikTok videos claim that scooping the seeds from the flesh of the fruit and downing them raw can remove parasites that live in your body.
“These seeds are associated with anti-parasitic activity, but it’s not proven,” Ali says. And if you actually think you have a parasite, turn to a doctor. “It’s better to take a medication rather than this agent we don’t know much about—or what parasite we’re trying to target.”
While the seeds are rich in antioxidants and monounsaturated fatty acids, they’re also high in calories. And while the fiber could help with constipation, so can the actual fruit.
“The risk of something like papaya seeds on TikTok is that people get the idea that it’s a magic fix…and more is better,” Fuster says. “And eating too much of any one thing, like papaya seeds, can be a problem.”
An over-the-counter papaya enzyme supplement is a potential aid in digestive issues. Says Miller: “It can sometimes be a little helpful.” When taken appropriately, of course.
The verdict: If anything, an enzyme supplement is more helpful than the real deal.
Sipping bone broth
Some TikTok influencers will tell you bone broth is good for digestion, inflammation, skin health and anti-aging. One user filled a clear mug with it and said it “looks really thick when you pour it, which is kind of gross.” She then shared that she likes to warm it up before drinking to, presumably, make it more appetizing.
“I’m OK with bone broth [in moderation],” Charabaty says. “It’s natural. …There are no side effects [to consuming it in a healthy diet],” she says, noting that the protein in the broth may support bone, muscle and cartilage health, although there is no scientific evidence of this.
Fuster is also a proponent of adding bone broth to your meals—in a practical way, and assuming you actually like the taste. “If you have a slow cooker, it’s tasty to make and uses a resource we’d normally just throw out,” she says. She incorporates it as a base in chicken noodle soup for her kids.
But bone broth has gained in popularity because people are saying collagen in the broth strengthens bones, and that you can boost the amount of this protein in your body by consuming it. “That concept is untrue,” Ali says. For collagen to be absorbed, it needs to be broken down into component amino acids. “People think that when you consume collagen, it automatically attaches to the collagen in their bodies, but it doesn’t. And it’s not a particularly rich source of the necessary amino acids to build collagen anyway.”
A word of caution to chugging bone broth: A recent study, Ali says, showed that it has a high content of lead. “Potential excessive consumption could [contribute] to exposure.”
The verdict: This is harmless in moderation, maybe even mildly helpful, but you don’t have to drink the stuff straight.
Drinking olive oil
Olive oil is generally recognized as a good thing—it has many antioxidants, including monounsaturated fatty acids, and can aid heart health, decrease blood pressure and lower the risk of stroke. On TikTok, however, you’ll find people like Olive Oil Queen advising you to drink it straight for hormone health, nutrient absorption and weight loss.
“I’m a big believer in olive oil,” Charabaty says. “But you never want to make food an obligation, like: ‘I’m going to drink a cup of olive oil every morning because it’s healthy for me,’ ” she says. “You’re turning food into a medication.” Instead, food should be something you incorporate into your diet and enjoy—put it in your salad, she suggests, with grilled vegetables.
Additionally, Ali says, there isn’t much high-quality evidence that there are benefits to drinking olive oil neat. “People have cited anecdotally reduced inflammation or constipation, but this hasn’t been evaluated,” he says. He’s even had patients who tried this approach and ended up with cramping—far from the sought-after result.
The verdict: Don’t bother—just use it in your food.
Cutting out broccoli and other veggies
Certain TikTokkers claim that eliminating nutrient-dense foods such as broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts will reduce bloating. While there is a bit of truth in that—“cruciferous vegetables tend to produce more gas,” Ali says—severe side effects aren’t common.
Instead, bloating refers to air in the intestines, which is, for the most part, a natural part of digestion. The fear of stomach distension stems partly from the “thin ideal” of past generations, but it’s taken a new form. “Kids didn’t [used to] talk about bloating, and they do now,” Miller says. “It has to do with this idea that ‘my tummy is sticking out more than it should be.’ ” Indeed, many of the bloat-focused TikTok videos showcase people (frequently young women) comparing their former “bloated” bellies to their now “flat” bellies. (It’s reminiscent of the diet ads of 1990s-era TV.)
Something to consider, advises Ali, is that the vegetable you’re cutting out may not be the only culprit. Dairy and carbonated beverages can cause bloating, and if you consume all three at once (think broccoli-cauliflower cheese soup and a Coke), there could be a cumulative effect. But if you’re insistent on avoiding broccoli and its brethren, substitute equally healthy items—zucchini, lettuce, spinach, blueberries and strawberries.
Bloating also can be caused by not eating enough for a long period of time. “Your body slows down, your gut moves food more slowly, and the production of enzymes for digesting food decreases,” says Fuster, who mainly works with people who have eating disorders. “So when you go back to normal eating, often you feel awful. …You basically have to practice eating for a while.”
Restrictive eating and watching every morsel that you ingest complicates a basic aspect of living. “It leaves people feeling deprived because they aren’t enjoying their food,” Fuster says. “And that’s part of the reason we survive as a species.”
A better choice, Charabaty suggests, is to grill, boil or cook your food to make the fiber easier to digest. So soak your beans overnight (this leaches out the substances responsible for bloating) and discard the water, or boil and then roast or saute your broccoli. “But if you’re having a big party and you’re wearing a tight dress,” Charabaty says, “maybe just avoid [those foods] that day.”
The verdict: If you really want to, fine, but proceed with care.
Kristen Schott is the editor of Philadelphia Wedding magazine and a freelance writer living in Alexandria, Virginia.
This story appears in the November/December 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.