Gastroenterology Dec 8, 2022

Gut Check

UT Health Austin gastroenterologist breaks down claims surrounding gut health

Reviewed by: Kavitha Kumbum, MD
Written by: Lauren Schneider

Close-up of a woman's hands as she scoops yogurt onto a bowl of granola.

No, it’s not just you. Videos touting the importance of a healthy gut are all over TikTok. To find the truth in the trends, we spoke to UT Health Austin board-certified gastroenterologist and hepatologist Kavitha Kumbum, MD, in Digestive Health, a clinical partnership between UT Health Austin and Ascension Seton.

The Gut Microbiome and You

The gut microbiome is defined as the bacteria and other microorganisms that reside in the gastrointestinal tract. Each person has a person has a unique gut microbiome, and a healthy balance of gut bacteria may boost immunity and protect against metabolic disorders and obesity. Recently, the gut microbiome has captured scientific attention in part for its role in the gut-brain axis, the two-way communication network between the digestive system and the nervous system. Disruptions to the gut-brain axis are thought to play a role in disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition characterized by chronic gastrointestinal discomfort.

“IBS is a common gastrointestinal disorder, and about 50% of our patients have this diagnosis,” says Dr. Kumbum. “In the more recent years, there’s been a dramatic change in the understanding of the gut and brain in IBS based on new information about the gut microbiome.” Possible ways an individual’s gut microbiome could contribute to IBS symptoms include effects on intestinal motility, the sensitivity of your gastrointestinal organs (particularly the colon), and inflammation.

As the gut microbiome and the nervous system are known to interact, a rapidly emerging field of research centers on how a healthy microbiome might boost mental health. Certain probiotic supplements, which increase the levels of “good” bacteria, lower anxiety and improve mood in individuals with and without depression. “Even though there’s been a lot of research in this area,” shares Dr. Kumbum, “I think we still have not touched the surface of understanding what our gut microbiota can do to our overall health, including our mental health.”

The gut microbiome clearly has a powerful role in keeping us healthy; however, not every claim on social media is to be believed. “If you hear about something that is too good to be true, it probably is not true,” cautions Dr. Kumbum. She recommends validating health information through online resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) websites and consulting your physician or other subject matter experts.

Promoting a Bacterial Balance

While the exact relationships between the gut and the rest of the body may not be known for years to come, people can reap the benefits of a healthy gut microbiome today. Foods including yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi are a good source of probiotics, the healthy bacteria that can promote gut health. Prebiotics, nutrients that promote the flourishing of healthy probiotic, can be found in fiber-rich foods like whole grains and greens. In addition to these food sources, probiotics and prebiotics are both widely available as dietary supplements.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to gut health. “The gut microbiome is different for everybody and the more diverse your gut microbiome is, the better it is,” explains Dr. Kumbum. “Simply taking a probiotic supplement is not going to fix all the problems. Eating a healthy variety of foods and getting regular exercise are just as important as getting a supplement or a prescription from your doctor for maintaining your gut health.”

For more information about Digestive Health or to schedule an appointment, call 1-844-GI-AUSTIN (1-844-442-8784) or visit here.

About the Partnership Between UT Health Austin and Ascension Seton

The collaboration between UT Health Austin and Ascension brings together medical professionals, medical school learners, and researchers who are all part of the integrated mission of transforming healthcare delivery and redesigning the academic health environment to better serve society. This collaboration allows highly specialized providers who are at the forefront of the latest research, diagnostic, and technological developments to build an integrated system of care that is a collaborative resource for clinicians and their patients.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.