With a new supplement on the market each week, consumers are inundated with new products. With so much conflicting information about what’s really healthy, this truly begs the question are gut health supplements worth the money?
Gut health refers to the balance of microorganisms that inhabit the gut; include different bacteria, fungi, archaea, viruses and protozoans (1). These microorganisms are collectively called the gut microbiota.
Advances in research of the gut microbiota are beginning to show how important a healthy gut may be in increasing overall health (2). Health outcomes of a balanced gut include optimised immunity, physical and mental health (3).
The excitement surrounding gut health has consequently caught on across many food and supplement companies. Marketing claims on these products often boast an array of benefits, including improved digestion, relief from digestive disorders, and improved immunity.
Worldwide, probiotic supplements command a US$37 billion dollar market (4). Other supplements such as collagen, reached US$293 million in the US in 2020 alone (5).
The hype is reflected in the sales, though are these supplements really living up to their claims?
Let’s further explore what the evidence has to say and ask the question – are gut health supplements worth the money?
Collagen is a popular supplement suggesting several health claims.
These include improved:
- Skin health
- Joint health
- Hair and nail growth
- Gut health
Collagen supplements often claim to improve gut health by healing the gut lining (6). When the gut lining is in poor shape, various food particles, bacteria and pathogens may be able to pass through the gut lining (7). This may result in several inflammatory diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and several metabolic diseases (8).
While collagen may seem like a good choice in healing the gut lining, there is no evidence to support these claims.
Several studies have found an increase in various markers of skin health such as collagen density and skin elasticity (9). Therefore, if youthful skin is your goal, collagen may be effective in this respect.
However, be wary of “gut health” claims, as there is not yet sufficient evidence to back these.
Bone broth is prepared by boiling bones over an extended time period, usually 24 hours. In this process, various nutrients such as amino acids, collagen and minerals are leached into the broth.
Boosting the immune system and aiding digestion are some of the marketing claims promoting bone broth. However, like collagen, there is currently no evidence supporting the proposed benefits of bone broth in the context of gut health.
In fact, several studies have highlighted the potential risks involved with diets high in bone broth. This is due to the presence of heavy metals such as lead (10,11).
Lead is a heavy metal that often accumulates in bone. This can leach into the broth during preparation. While hazards are relatively low, lead contamination is a risk that should be considered when consuming bone broths.
Probiotics contain live bacteria that aim to improve the balance of “good” bacteria in the gut.
Claims surrounding probiotics include gut health promotion, alleviation of digestive discomfort symptoms (8) and improved mental health (12,13).
Research exploring the field of probiotics has expanded rapidly, with 20 315 papers containing the term “probiotic” being published by 2019, compared with 760 papers prior to 2001. Additionally, probiotic sales are expected to reach over $64 billion by 2023 (5).
It is clear that probiotics are popular amongst consumers, researchers, and manufacturers alike – but how much do we really know about their proposed health benefits?
Several studies have found positive improvements in various health outcomes with probiotic consumption.
However, it is important to note that the majority of this literature is in populations with existing health conditions.
The most promising evidence concerns conditions such as various bowel disorders, and antibiotic-associated and infectious diarrhoea (14).
There is some evidence to suggest probiotic consumption may improve immune, gastrointestinal and female reproductive health in healthy adults (14). Despite this promising evidence, it is important to acknowledge that the effect of probiotic consumption on human health is a relatively new and evolving field. Therefore, further research is needed before we fully understand how probiotics can improve our health.
Overall, probiotics show a promising means improving conditions such as infectious and antibiotic associated diarrhoea (14). However, the efficacy of probiotic consumption in the healthy population is questionable, and therefore should be taken with a grain of salt until more substantial research emerges.
Gut Health and Diet
It should come at no surprise that dietary habits strongly influence the gut microbiota (15).
Here are some evidence-based methods to improve gut health:
- Eat less animal proteins, saturated fat, sugar and salt as they may stimulate the growth of “bad” bacteria (15).
- Eat more plant-based proteins such as beans and lentils, as they may promote the growth of “good” bacteria and stimulate the production of beneficial metabolites (16,17).
- Eat plant based prebiotic foods including garlic, onion, chickpeas, cooled potato and artichoke. Prebiotics provide fuel to the healthy gut bacteria in the digestive tract.
- Eat a variety of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and legumes. Consuming a variety of plant foods may be beneficial in positively diversifying the gut microbiota (18). There is quite a lot of nutrition misinformation online promoting the dangers of lectins, especially for gut health. If you’re interested in learning more about this, read our article on Lectin Myths: Are They Harmful For Your Health
- at more of omega-3 fatty acids, as they may be beneficial in improving gut microbiota composition (15).
Gut health is an emerging field of research, and much is still unknown about the gut microbiota and its effect on health.
Consequently, navigating through the health claims of products and evidence can be incredibly confusing and overwhelming.
Many supplements such as collagen, bone broth and probiotics may claim to improve gut health, however there is little research to support these claims.
Are gut health supplements worth the money? Essentially, no.
Supplements may not be effective, therefore improving your diet can be a great way to improve your gut health. If you are unsure about how to improve gut health through diet, speaking with a dietitian can be a great place to start!
If you’re following a plant-based or vegan diet and want to make sure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs, take control and book in with one of our expert plant-based dietitians.
This blog was co-written by student dietitian by Jade Wrigley. You can connect with Jade on Linkedin.