That uncomfortable feeling in your stomach may be a sign that you need to check in with your gut. Here are the top five signs of an unhealthy gut, and how to fix them.
You’ve heard it a hundred times before – “you need to trust your gut!”
And while ‘trusting’ your gut is certainly important when making tricky decisions…you want to make sure you are nourishing, and caring for that trusty gut of yours so that it doesn’t get out of sync.
What is Your ‘Gut’ Anyways?
Your gut, also known as your gastrointestinal (or ‘GI’) tract, is one of the most complex systems in your body. It’s also one of the most vital in keeping you healthy and energized.
Now. When you think of your gut, you probably think of the its primary job of breaking down and digesting food.
And while digestion is indeed one of the gut’s most important jobs, your gut is actually involved in a wide range of bodily functions beyond just digestion.
Did you know that your gut is actually involved in a wide range of bodily functions beyond just digestion?
From immune function1, to helping you get a good night’s sleep, to even brain function2– your gut plays an even bigger role in your health than you might think!
Because your gut is SO important in so many ways, it’s absolutely essential to keep your digestive system in top shape, and to be able to spot the signs of an unhealthy gut early so that you can address it.
This article will teach you how to identify and treat harmful gut symptoms early to prevent them from impacting your quality of life.
What is a ‘Microbiome’? And Why is it so Important?
The gut microbiome modulates the majority of functions the gut provides.
In your large intestine, trillions of beneficial microorganisms – bacteria to viruses and fungi – make up the microbiome.
So think of your microbiome as the trillions of microorganisms that live inside your gut, carrying out thousands of little tasks every second of every day.
These busy gut microflora are responsible for several critical functions in your body, including3:
- Digestion and nutrient absorption
- Body homeostasis and energy production
- Brain function
- Sleep/Circadian rhythm (see below)
- Immune function and preventing pathogenic infections
A diverse, flourishing microbiome helps ensure that these important tasks are carried out efficiently.
However, poor diet or lifestyle, medications, illness, or other factors can weaken your microflora and lead to various symptoms of bad gut health that can compromise your quality of life4.
5 Signs of an Unhealthy Gut
An unhealthy gut can produce symptoms beyond your everyday tummy-ache.
And as you’ve learned, since your gut is involved in so many different parts of your body, your gut may be to blame for various issues unrelated to digestion.
Luckily, there are some things you can do to remedy your gut, which we’ll learn after we go over these symptoms.
But let’s get the negatives out of the way first. Here are the top 5 signs of an unhealthy gut you should look out for:
1. Stomach discomfort
Stomach discomfort is a clear sign of an unhealthy gut, and one of the easiest symptoms to identify early.
Now. A bad piece of fish could put your system out of whack for an evening, but prolonged, or regular discomfort could be very well be a sign of an unhealthy gut.
Cramping, bloating, or irregular bowel movements could be symptoms of poor gut health.
Having difficulty breaking down the food you eat, absorbing nutrients, or expelling waste can cause these symptoms5.
Eating too fast, gastrointestinal inflammation, or the underproduction of digestive enzymes and bile can also be underlying causes5.
Stomach discomfort you might be experiencing can include:
If you are experiencing these issues regularly, it’s probably time to take some steps to improve your gut health.
2. Frequent Illnesses.
The gut microbiome controls critical immune system functions like staving off illness from invading pathogens.
So if notice that you are becoming sick more frequently than usual, an unhealthy gut might just be the culprit.
In a healthy microbiome, your good bacteria signal to your immune cells using special signals when they contact invading microorganisms6.
These signals trigger an adaptive immune response to fight the foreign ‘invaders’.
The stronger the microbiome, the faster this immune response can occur, which decreases your chances of becoming sick6.
In an unhealthy gut, the microbiome’s ability to alert the immune system decreases, which then increases your risk of infection7.
3. Difficulty sleeping
Your microflora is so important to cognitive function that it is sometimes called the ‘second brain’.
It is linked to your brain through what we call the ‘gut-brain axis’.
This two-way relationship between your gut and brain has a massive influence over almost all of the body’s physiological functions, of which sleep may be most important8.
It has been shown that your gut microbiome directly impacts the chemical triggers that create your body’s sleep-wake patterns.
Hormones like cortisol and nor-epinephrine are released at different times by your gut (via your brain) to promote the natural sleep cycles that lead to restful sleep8.
As you might expect, an inefficient gut microbiome can interfere with proper hormone function, and reduces your REM sleep.
The risks of developing sleep disorders goes up when your gut health is not up to par8.
It also works the other way around. Deficient REM sleep can reduce microbiome diversity, delay immune response, and increase inflammation in the intestines9.
4. Fatigue and lack of energy
A healthy microbiome promotes balance in your metabolism, and how your body produces energy10.
Metabolic homeostasis is important to provide just the right amount of energy for your mind and body.
When the microbes in your gut are imbalanced, your energy levels can quickly get out of sync, yielding inconsistent energy levels and other cognitive issues.
As a result, your physical and mental health could fall out of rhythm and negatively impact your daily vigor2.
Other fatigue-related unhealthy gut symptoms you may be experiencing could include3:
- Moodiness and irritability
- Frequent headaches
- Poor judgment and decision-making
- Muscle weakness and soreness
- Increased hunger
So if you’re feeling ‘off’ mentally, you may have room to improve your gut health.
5. Skin Irritation and Breakouts
Similar to the gut-brain connection, there is also a two-way relationship between your skin and your gut. This relationship is known as the gut-skin axis11. The link plays a role in regulating various skin conditions, from acne to severe skin irritation, like eczema11.
A weak gut microbiome can affect essential functions at the skin level – from vitamin production to immune function11.
6 Ways to Heal An Unhealthy Gut.
Knowing the most common signs of an unhealthy gut is your first step.
Understanding effective ways to heal your gut is the second.
If you are experiencing signs of bad gut health, you’ll want to begin by seeking care from your primary care physician.
They have the most comprehensive understanding of your individual health standing, and are most qualified to determine what is causing the distress in your gut, and then recommend the most appropriate treatment plan.
In addition to the advice of your primary care practitioner, there are also several good ‘gut health habits’ that you can use to improve the health of your gut every day.
To restore and protect your gut health, incorporate these 6 strategies into your daily routine:
1. Put your microbiome first
Prioritizing your microbiome should be your first step to addressing the signs of your unhealthy gut.
The most effective way to reinvigorate your intestinal ecosystem is a microbiome-fortifying diet. Foods you should be prioritizing are:
Prebiotics – a type of fiber that boosts the growth of microbiota by feeding good gut bacteria12. These are commonly known as ‘high-fiber foods’ and can include:
- Oats and whole wheat (we have a fantastic high-protein overnight oats recipe here)
Probiotics – foods contain live strains of beneficial bacteria. Consuming probiotics adds to your gut microbiome, improving diversity and strength13. Probiotics you can consider adding to your diet are:
- Pickles and pickled vegetables
- Probiotic supplements
2. Eat to Nourish Your Digestive System
The best way to eat to nourish your digestive system – beyond your microbiome – is to diversify your diet. Eating a wide range of nutrient-packed foods can support digestion and enhance nutrient absorption14.
Foods that can provide you the most benefit to your digestive system are:
- Colorful fruits and healthy vegetables
- Phytonutrient-containing foods, specifically polyphenols15
- Lean and/or plant-based proteins
- Also, reducing your intake of processed and high sugar foods
3. Address Your Stress.
High-stress levels of mental, physical, and chemical stress are not only hard on your body and mind- they are hard on your gut, too.
Anxiety, poor diet, inflammation, illness, or misuse of medication and antibiotics can all stress your gut and disrupt the microbiome16.
Try lowering your stress levels with these easy habits:
- Engage in relaxing practices, like meditation or yoga (see our guide ‘what to eat before meditation‘ to fuel your session!)
- Increase your daily exposure to bright, natural light
- Keep a regular sleep schedule throughout the week
- Make time for activities that bring you happiness every day
- Consider a natural stress-relief supplement
4. Keep Hydrated.
It sounds obvious, but staying hydrated is as essential for your digestion as it is for your other various body functions17.
The reason being that water makes up a primary part of your intestinal mucosal lining where microbes reside in the large intestine17.
Drinking enough water also has been found to balance the population of beneficial bacteria and positive microbial activity within the gut.
5. Limit Your Intake of Artificial Sweeteners.
Some studies have found that artificial sweeteners like aspartame18 can harm the microbiome by increasing the growth of pathogenic bacterial strains in the gut.
This overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria can increase your risk of illness and disease.
6. Get Outside and MOVE.
Moving your body is always a great idea for your overall health, but did you know that it can stimulate gut health too?
It’s true. Getting exercise in nature can expose you to a greater number of beneficial microbes you are exposed to indoors19.
Because of this, exposure to microbes in nature can diversify and strengthen your microbiome.
Engaging in activities that you enjoy in the outdoors can also:
- decrease your stress levels
- strengthen your immune system
- reduce illness risk
So be sure to go and enjoy the outdoors for at least 20-30 minutes every day. Your gut will thank you for it.
Start Prioritizing Your Gut Health Today.
Checking in regularly with your gut is an integral part of maintaining good health.
The complex ecosystem within your intestines is vital for how many of your body systems function, so addressing signs of bad gut health as soon as possible is very important.
To keep your digestive system in top shape, focus on healthy habits that address symptoms of a weakened gut. The most important of which is prioritizing the wellbeing of your gut microbiome through diet14. You can also fortify your microbiome with a high-quality probiotic supplement.
Handling the signs of an unhealthy gut right away can make sure you live your life without uncomfortable digestive symptoms getting in the way.
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- The 5 Signs of an Unhealthy Gut – And How to Fix Them - September 13, 2021