What is gut health, and why does it matter?
Up until a few decades ago, no one would’ve guessed that the “gut” — the collection of organs and structures that make up the digestive system, and the trillions of bacteria housed within — played such an important role in non-digestive processes. Among other things, an unhealthy gut can affect metabolism and immunity, all the way to supporting mental health and warding off chronic disease.
To say that the gut is one of the most important systems for overall health is not an understatement! Many people don’t know this, but the gut, sometimes called GI or gastrointestinal tract, is home to about 70% of your immune system. And it’s also responsible for producing about 90% of your body’s serotonin, also known as the “happy” neurotransmitter. In other words, a lot of the time, when your immune system is weak, or your mood seems off, it can actually be traced back to something happening in your gut.
What are the signs of an unhealthy gut?
An unhealthy gut can present as chronic bloating, gas, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and more. But there are subtler signs, some that you may have unknowingly experienced for years, that can also hint to an unbalanced GI tract. Here are 7 of the most common signs:
Your stomach is frequently upset
Everybody has stomach discomfort from time to time, but if you are constantly bloated, gassy, or experience frequent bouts of constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, or abdominal pain, it may be a sign that your gut microbiome is out of balance. Try swapping fried, sugary, and processed items with gut-friendly foods, or consider taking a probiotic.
You’re exhausted all the time
Studies have linked imbalances in the gut microbiome (also known as dysbiosis) to chronic fatigue. What’s more, a 2017 study published in Microbiome suggested that people with chronic fatigue typically have abnormal levels of specific bacteria in their guts. One hypothesis is that gut dysbiosis alters serotonin production, which in addition to regulating your mood, plays an important role in sleep-wake cycles.
You have new or worsening migraines
Nausea and vomiting are two hallmark signs of an impending migraine attack, indicating that there may be a link between these debilitating headaches and the gut. This is evident in young children with migraine and other neurological problems with or without head pain, which often manifest as gastrointestinal issues. Research also shows that adults with frequent stomach issues, like heartburn, constipation, and diarrhea, also report more headaches than those without GI problems.
Your skin is constantly irritated
Are you battling adult acne or other skin issues? Your gut bacteria may be to blame. Unhealthy bacteria in the gut can not only affect you internally but externally as well. If the gut is inflamed or irritated, proteins can “leak” from the gut and into the skin, which can cause irritation and itching. An unhealthy gut can also lead to skin disorders such as eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, rosacea, and many more.
You gained or lost weight unintentionally
Losing or gaining weight without making changes to your diet is a common sign of gut imbalances. Some bacterial strains that live in the gut (or lack thereof) may impair your body’s ability to process sugar and absorb nutrients, leading to food cravings and overeating. And changes in your hunger and eating habits can also lead to unintentional weight loss.
You’re cranky or depressed most of the time
Humans knew there was a connection between the gut and emotions even before science confirmed it. Consider the sayings “gut feeling” and “butterflies in the stomach.” They’ve been around for decades, if not centuries.
In animal studies, researchers have found that altering the number of specific bacteria in the gut can change brain chemistry and lead mice to become more or less anxious. There’s even evidence that those with IBS and other bowel problems seem to be more likely to develop anxiety and depression than people with healthy guts.
You get sick frequently
Since 70% of the immune system lives within the gut, it makes sense that having an imbalanced GI tract can make you more likely to get sick with viral and bacterial infections. New evidence even suggests that an unhealthy gut could be an indicator of severe COVID-19.
In a study of 100 patients hospitalized with COVID published earlier this year, their gut biomes were significantly less diverse than those from a control group as measured by stool samples. In COVID patients, the amount of certain beneficial bacteria associated with immune function were severely depleted, which, according to the authors of the study, could be a factor in the potentially lethal “cytokine storm.”
You crave sugary foods
Having an unhealthy gut usually means sugar cravings will show up in the form of sweets, bread, fruit, or dairy. Too much sugar consumption contributes to an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria in the gut, also known as dysbiosis, which also creates an inflammatory environment in the body.
Simple ways to improve gut health
- Take probiotics and eat fermented foods
- Eat prebiotic fiber
- Eat less sugar and sweeteners
- Reduce stress
- Avoid taking antibiotics unnecessarily
- Exercise regularly
- Stay well hydrated
- Get enough sleep
When your body doesn’t have enough good bacteria, bad bacteria can thrive leading to an unbalanced gut. An unhealthy gut can lead to mood swings, stomach aches, fatigue, unwanted weight gain, anger, depression, skin irritation, and other illnesses. A healthy gut can improve mood and immune system function, as well as support health in many ways.
Akeso Health Sciences
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