How Gut Health & the Microbiome Went Mainstream
Microbes have been under the spotlight lately. And it’s not just viruses: over the past years, a renewed focus on our immune system, a slew of scientific discoveries, and the ongoing wellness trend boom have catalyzed the public’s attention onto the gut, and the trillions of bacteria residing in our digestive system.
Take for instance how search interest in probiotics, the harbingers of the gut health trend, have overtaken last decade’s favorite nutrient – antioxidants.
Audience interest, in turn, is fueling billions of dollars in R&D investments on the part of food & drink, pharmaceutical, biotech and even beauty companies. These players, along with venture-backed startups, are hoping to move beyond probiotic food supplements category into a next generation of gut-friendly medical, wellness and lifestyle products.
And as public awareness grows, the market matures: consumers exiting lockdowns after a global pandemic are following their gut: focusing on their immune system, on ways to maintain optimal health, and turning the topic of into a mainstream health and wellness concern.
In this two-part series on gut health, we used Pulsar TRAC to analyze over half a million posts from news, search data, forum and social data from Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, TikTok and doctor’s social network Sermo (among other data sources) between Feb 15th and May 31st 2021. We were joined in this by Kim Townend, a social strategist (and Pulsar poweruser).
Read on to learn more about:
- The conditions and symptoms dominating the gut health conversation
- The audience communities engaging with the topic online
- The influencers driving the Microbiome conversation on different platforms
- Some of the top questions people ask about the Mircobiome
Gut check: conditions, symptoms & the ‘Second Brain’
Even scientists don’t understand the full extent of how the gut and its microbiome interact with the rest of our body.
But it’s clear that the growth of the gut health trend is helping break the centuries-old duality between the mind and body as distinct entities. When talking about gut health, the majority of complaints about symptoms refer to what we tend to think of as psychological symptoms such as stress, anxiety and depression.
The mood, energy and psychological aspects of gut health are discussed both on the level of personal, lived-experience, and with a degree of abstraction. If the former tend to take place within anonymised spaces, then the second take place on platforms more closely linked with the poster’s identity, such as Twitter.
Diving into the specific medical conditions people discuss online, there is a degree of latitude over how different ones are discussed. This is in part related to the fact that many conditions, symptoms and diagnoses overlap with one another, so at any given moment, and depending on which audience they are interacting with, users may talk about IBD, Colitis, or Obesity.
The most discussed conditions in this period are as follows.
Irritable bowel complaints combine to make up almost 60% of total conversation. Across social, forum posts and even celebrity social accounts such as UK rapper Professor Green, the discourse is largely one of acceptance, sympathy and sharing advice around personal stories and struggles.
This advice is both proffered and asked for, with ‘help’ appearing almost 8000 times within the period and conversation studied.
The Human Microbiome
One thing is clear about the human Microbiome: we don’t fully understand it.
What we know is that there are trillions of microbes inhabiting our body, most of them calling our digestive system home.
And that’s reflected in the variety of different questions that have been entered into Google Search.
COVID-19 has helped to further entrench the importance of microbes in human existence in mainstream consciousness. The most visible articles within the microbiome conversation are long-form articles on living with germs in a post-pandemic society, such as this article from the New York Times.
Looking at the influencer network map for the conversation, however, indicates that while the subject is increasingly well digested by the wider public, those who are driving the most engaged conversations around the microbiome tend to hail from the scientific or medical community.
Like Dr. Hyman, a physician and popular author who is driving considerable amounts of engagement on Facebook and Science magazine, responsible for the most Twitter engagement, edging out an Oxford University academic.
While the conversation contains numerous different participants, across a variety of platforms, a unifying factor across all platforms is the presence of gatekeepers with established scientific or medical credentials.
Which communities are talking about gut health?
If the gut health conversation has grown, who has swelled its ranks?
Using Pulsar TRAC’s Communities feature, we can easily break down the different audience segments making up this conversation, and analyze their differing behavior, language, and attitudes around gut health.
The first takeaway from this analysis is that this is a distinctly progressive conversation, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Greta Thunberg as the most influential voices.
Diving into the most significant groups, we see Progressive Comedy Fans, so named for their affinity for comedians, progressive politics and… comedians with progressive politics. Unsurprisingly, this group has viewing habits that revolve around shows such as The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight high.
Keyword analysis, meanwhile, shows a particular interest in probiotics within this audience segment.
a lot of the times we think we’re anxious or depressed when we really just need probiotics, a better diet, more movement and therapy.
— holistic mami✨ (@LeArielleSimone) May 28, 2021
The next largest segment are the Healthy-Eating Nutrition Buffs, the community which is likely most tightly associated with the gut health trend in the public’s eye. A majority female group who has high affinity for Whole Foods, organic food, and celebrity medical professionals like Dr Hyman, and Dr Mercola, an alternative medicine advocate who is one of the loudest voices in the anti-vaccine movement.
In terms of content that they themselves share, Blogspot and Podserve emerge as two of the most prominent externally linked sites by this segment – in part due to rampant self-promotion as alternative living micro-influencers look to establish themselves as figures in the space.
These stand in stark counterpoint to Conservative Finance Followers, who’s online affinity is split between Republican administrators, prominent Conservative celebrities and business publications like the Wall Street Journal. Within this community, we see advocacy and expressions of support, but also the microbiome’s incorporation into a Covid-sceptic argument.
Our skin is home to millions of bacteria, fungi and viruses that compose the skin microbiota. Similar to those in our gut, skin microorganisms have essential roles in the protection against invading pathogens, the education of our immune system.
Hand sanitizer destroys this
— Mars Nobody (@Nobodybutme17) May 15, 2021
As well as some more unconventional deployments of gut bacteria – this one from Stars and Stripes, the daily of the US Armed Forces.
The use of gut bacteria to make missile propellant is a “larger proof of concept” for the Army’s expansion of biological manufacturing capabilities.https://t.co/cKRss5AIK6
— Stars and Stripes (@starsandstripes) May 12, 2021
So, do these different communities talk about gut health in the same way?
Not at all.
Straight away, we see that Progressive Comedy Fans, the largest community, are more likely to talk about IBS, the most common condition.
Healthy-eating nutrition buffs, meanwhile, dominate the Covid-Gut Health link, in a conversation led by anti-vaccine physician Dr. Mercola:
Can an unhealthy gut affect your risk of COVID-19? Find out here: https://t.co/THZJnqodEg
— Dr. Joseph Mercola (@mercola) March 6, 2021
Conservative Finance Followers over-index for mentions of both Colitis and IBD, although even the predominant messages of advice and empowerment are not entirely free from the pervasive vaccine issue.
I have Crohns and Lupus and CDC isn’t completely sure how effective the vaccine is with people like me. They recommend it!
— Deborah L Danuski, USN, Ret. (@DDanuski) May 31, 2021
Overall, in the public conversation, the gender split within the conversation is almost exactly 50-50.
As we often say – the public and medical professionals talk about the same topics differently. Doctor’s network Sermo, on the other hand (exclusively available on Pulsar) features more instances of healthcare professionals talking about male patients than it does female.
In terms of conversation & community, however, there is a pronounced emphasis on the female experience. From forum threads to Instagram lifestyle posts, there is no shortage of advice around gut complaints appearing as a symptom, or in tandem with, female health issues.
Often these are written out of some dissatisfaction with the diagnosis or treatment offered, or not offered in some cases, by healthcare professionals.
This ends Part 1 of our investigation of Gut Health. We’ll be publishing Part 2, which focuses on the lifestyle changes individuals and communities make to improve gut health, in the near future. You can make sure you hear about it by either signing up to our newsletter on our blog page or else following us on Twitter.
If you have an appetite for more insights or would like to take a look at this dataset, discover how Pulsar helps unlock insight by booking a demo with one of our specialists.