Can Gut Health Influencers Actually Help Your IBS?

"Detox smoothies, fancy supplements, and yoga poses all sound like a divine promise to someone who feels like a bloated Teletubby 75% of the time."
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo:Getty Images

Ever since I started dealing with bad IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, my Instagram algorithm has started feeding me content of women showing off flat stomachs and stories of how they “healed” their gut.

They happily share tips for detox smoothies containing absurd amounts of kale, fancy supplements, and yoga poses that are supposed to help your gut health. It all sounds like a divine promise to someone who feels like a bloated Teletubby 75% of the time.

In recent years, the IBS treatment market has grown to a 3.4 billion dollar industry — and market research suggests it will reach 8.3 billion dollars by 2033. There’s big money to be made from people with a chronic condition that often leads to abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, diarrhoea, and other uncomfortable symptoms.

I was diagnosed with the disease in 2021 after seeing three different doctors and taking just about every intolerance test out there. I also saw a nutritionist who put me on a strict low-FODMAP diet cutting out any dairy, sugar, alcohol, and gluten for two months. Nothing helped.

You get to a point when you’re desperate to just live a normal life and be able to do things like seeing a colleague for lunch, having a beer after work, or going on a hike on the weekend. But all those activities set of anxious thoughts like Will this drink bloat me even more? What’s the thing on the menu that’s least likely to make me sick? What if I need the loo in the middle of that five-hour hike?

So when you’re targeted by Instagram content promising to “heal your gut” or help your IBS, you’re all ears. You know there’s a price tag to the fancy supplements influencers “love” and get paid to promote — but perhaps it will finally make the pain go away, so you pull out your credit card.

But then there’s the reality, and it’s that IBS symptoms vary greatly from person to person. A treatment or supplement that might work for someone else might not be the best fit for you and your triggers. For some people it’s certain foods like dairy or onions, for others it’s stress and anxiety. Everyone’s IBS is different.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all for IBS and you should have a great deal of scepticism for anybody that tells you ‘this is the solution for IBS’... that to me is an automatic red flag because people who say that don’t really understand IBS very well,” said Dr. William Chey, a gastroenterologist and Professor at the University of Michigan specialising in diseases such as IBS.

While IBS is one of the most common functional bowel disorders — a global prevalence study from 2020 found that 9.2% of people suffer from it — it still raises a lot of question marks for both doctors and patients. Many are just told to learn to live with their symptoms.

Even medical professionals who have dedicated their entire careers to IBS sometimes can’t find an effective treatment for certain patients. “To be able to understand this area and make evidence-based, medically responsible decisions, it takes a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge and wisdom,” said Chey.

In the age of social media, the “story” has become more important than the actual facts, with some taking advantage of people for their own self-interest and financial gain, he explained. “I would say, approach everything with a modicum of scepticism, do your homework, and don’t just trust people because they’re a quote-on-quote influencer,” he said.

Jessica Jenner, a 32-year-old woman from Kent who has struggled with IBS since 2018 thinks about the disease every hour of her life, she explained. “It absolutely takes over your thoughts and it’s so consuming. It’s horrible, really, because there’s nothing I can do to stop thinking about it apart from being at home watching TV or painting,” she said.

When Jenner opened Instagram a few weeks ago, the first thing that popped up in her feed was a video of a health influencer sharing yoga morning stretches for better gut health. While she’s tried too many different treatments to believe in a quick fix, she’s previously been tempted to buy expensive supplements promoted by “health” influencers. “I sort of have to stop myself…But I think people are smart enough now to go ‘Well, that’s probably not going to help me.’ So I sort of scroll through,” she said.

While these accounts might not specifically target people with medical conditions such as IBS, Jenner believes influencers should know that they have the responsibility to change the language around the advertising of these products and clearly communicate that they might not be suitable for people with a chronic condition such as IBS.

Chey and his colleagues have started receiving a lot of patients who have previously seen a variety of providers ranging from naturopaths to dieticians who have sold them large amounts of expensive supplements or testing that isn’t evidence-based, he explained. “And lo and behold, they have not gotten the result that they had hoped for despite spending hundreds, and in some cases thousands of dollars.”

Creating community

He also believes it’s important for patients to understand that IBS is a real condition and to “come out of the shadows and talk about this, because it’s really common, there are a lot of people affected by these symptoms, and they are embarrassing — but I think people can gain a lot of trust and confidence through community.”

Christine Olivo was diagnosed with IBS in 2007 and for the first ten years she felt really isolated, she explained. “I truly felt like the only one in my life that was dealing with it. And so back in 2017, I started a YouTube channel.”

She’s since moved to Instagram and created the account myibslife where she shares memes with ironic and funny messages such as “my face when bae says “hi beautiful” after fighting for my life in the bathroom for an hour”. The account counts on 66,000 followers and she frequently receives messages from people sharing updates on their own IBS and thanking her for making them feel less alone.

Olivo has managed to make myibslife “pretty much my full-time job.” However, she carefully considered the brands and products she collaborates with and mostly promotes low-FODMAP food products such as gluten-free crackers.

“I actually totally stay away from supplements. I get a lot of messages from people with their own probiotic products…but I don’t want to tell people to take a certain probiotic, I think that’s more of a doctor-thing to recommend,” she says.

She believes it’s important to remind followers to do their own research, to look at what’s actually in a supplement, and to read reviews before purchasing something. “Always try to remember that people on the internet are not medical professionals. Just because something worked for them doesn’t always mean it will work for you,” she said.