The phrase “gut health” has been a buzzword as of late. It makes perfect sense that we wouldn’t want any part of our bodies to be unhealthy. But, when patients hear terms like “good bacteria,” “bad bacteria,” and “microbiome” tossed around, they probably don’t have a good grasp on what those terms—or what having a healthy gut—truly means. Yet, there are likely many patients with symptoms such as fatigue, gas, bloating, and depression that affect their quality of life, and they are searching for answers in a diagnosis, not realizing that these issues can be simply traced back to poor gut health. Read on to find out what gut health really means, why it is important, and how you can improve yours if you think it may be struggling.
What Is Gut Health, Anyway?
It’s estimated that there are between 300 and 500 different species of bacteria that live in our digestive tract, and the term “microbiome” refers specifically to these bacteria. When you hear the terms “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria,” it’s actually spot on—there are bacteria in your digestive system that are harmful, and there are beneficial bacteria. The trick is to practice the right habits and eat the right foods to have your microbiome in a perfect state of balance.
Having an unhealthy gut will lead to more than just diarrhea and a stomachache. All of our body systems are intrinsically interconnected, and the gut is a communicator with the brain and plays a significant role in immunity. It’s estimated that 70 percent of our immune cells reside in the gut, so if your gut is in a state of poor health, your immune system can be at risk. The next step is to tell if your gut is unhealthy or not, and there are a few symptoms to be aware of so you can monitor your gut health.
5 Signs of an Unhealthy Gut
Perhaps you just feel generally lousy a lot of the time, and it’s not something you’ve felt that you need to see your doctor about, but it is noticeable. A lot of symptoms of general malaise (fatigue, poor mood, mild GI upset) could be signs of an unhealthy gut. Some common signs of an unhealthy gut include:
- GI upset, stomach pain, or cramps. If you get frequent gastrointestinal upset after eating, in the form of stomach pain, cramps, gas, bloating, or other discomforts, this can be a sign of poor gut health. This is because your digestive system is having more trouble processing food and beverages and eliminating waste. A gut that is in balance would not be causing you regular discomfort.
- Feeling sluggish and fatigued or having poor sleep. As the gut is a strong communicator with the brain, poor gut health could be a factor here. If this symptom is combined with diarrhea and headache, it could also be leaky gut syndrome, which is a severe form of poor gut health, which leads to autoimmune conditions, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
- Having a depressed mood. While your gut isn’t solely responsible for having a depressed mood, it is mainly responsible for serotonin production. If the gut microbiome is not in balance and communicating with the brain correctly, this can certainly affect mood. Feeling down doesn’t necessarily mean you have poor gut health, but if you’re feeling down in conjunction with GI symptoms, it is worth mentioning to your healthcare provider.
- Being frequently sick. Good gut health is correlated with higher levels of immunity, and if you find that you catch nearly every cold or illness that comes around and your immunity is low, it can be a sign of poor gut health. The use (and overuse) of antibiotics disturb the gut microbiome, so if you’ve recently been prescribed them, it’s important to remember to take probiotics with them to keep the gut in balance.
- Sudden gains or losses in weight. If you’ve experienced recent unintended changes in weight, it can be due to poor gut health. Gains can be due to nutrients not being absorbed (you never feel full), while gains can be due to SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
If you experience sudden bowel changes involving rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, you should immediately talk to your healthcare professional immediately. These can also be signs of poor gut health and be symptoms of other diseases or disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and colon cancer.
How to Improve Gut Health
If you’re experiencing persistent symptoms such as GI upset, fatigue, and depressed mood, you should consult your physician. However, there are some ways you can improve gut health on your own as well, by changing certain habits and changing some aspects of your diet. Some tips on improving gut health include:
- Eat more fiber in your diet. You can do this by eating more foods that are rich in fiber or by taking a prebiotic fiber supplement. Foods that are rich in fiber include asparagus, bananas, garlic, onions, and whole grains.
- Eat fermented foods. These are excellent food sources of probiotics, which are great for gut health. These include sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and yogurt. You can also take probiotic supplements.
- Quit smoking and moderate alcohol consumption. Smoking and drinking in excess can contribute to acid reflux and heartburn and are poor choices for overall health, including gut health.
- Avoid antibiotics. Of course, there are times when you must take antibiotics but never take them unnecessarily, as they disrupt the gut flora. Antibiotics can’t distinguish between “good” and “bad” bacteria and kill all of the bacteria off. If you do take antibiotics, be sure to always take a probiotic with them.
- Try to reduce stress. Researchers believe that stress, even short-term stress, can upset the microbiome. Everyone, of course, leads busy lives, but it’s suggested that people get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat a balanced diet to help combat stress on the body, and take time out for themselves to help combat stress on the mind.
- Avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners. Sugar and artificial sweeteners may cause gut imbalance or gut dysbiosis, so it’s best to avoid large amounts of either.
It is always best, however, to speak with your physician before making any dietary changes. If you already have an autoimmune condition or a condition such as IBS, switching to certain foods may actually do more harm than good.
If you need more information about how to maintain a healthy gut, or you’d like to be seen by a physician, contact us at gi.md today. We offer full, comprehensive services for all of your gastrointestinal needs.