Many people suffer from digestive distress – in fact, between 10 and 30 percent of the U.S. population struggles with Irritable Bowel Syndrome! Common IBS symptoms and gut ailments include excessive or foul-smelling gas, constipation and/or diarrhea, abdominal pain, belching, and heartburn. (1.)
Even healthy people experience occasional GI woes. But symptoms that interfere with someone’s quality of life can signal a deeper issue. An imbalance in beneficial vs. pathogenic gut bacteria is often the culprit behind digestive issues. There are several telltale signs that might manifest when it occurs.
WHAT IS THE GUT MICROBIOME?
“Gut health” is an extremely popular buzzword in the wellness community. Peruse any holistic living blog or health influencer’s Instagram page, and you’ll likely find several posts about this trendy topic. Sensationalism aside, what exactly does it all mean?
Over ten trillion microbes, or tiny organisms, have resided in our intestines since the beginning of time. Most of these bacteria are located in the colon, with only about 10,000 populating the small bowel. All human beings have about one-third of the same microbial profile, the remaining portion varying from person to person. (1.)
6 VITAL ROLES OF GUT MICROBES
Gut microbes play a crucial part in almost every bodily function. Most people are aware that our intestinal bacteria govern digestion. After each meal, the organisms extract and assimilate essential nutrients while turning the remnants into waste. A lesser-known is just how many other responsibilities these microscopic bugs have when it comes to maintaining our overall health. Their jobs include:
1 – Immune function:
Approximately 70% of our immune system is located in the gut. Intestinal bacteria communicate with immune cells and control how the body responds to infection.
2 – Cognition:
Research suggests the central nervous system, which is responsible for brain function and gut microbiome are intricately related.
3 – Blood sugar regulation:
An infant study showed that decreased microbial diversity points to type one diabetes. It also discovered that certain pathogenic bacteria became more populous just before diagnoses. Post-meal blood sugar varies widely across the population even after consuming the same food. This could be partially due to differences in gut bacteria.
4 – Mental health:
Most neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, are actually located in the digestive tract rather than the brain. The two organs communicate with one another via the gut-brain axis, meaning mental and gastrointestinal wellbeing are related. Not only does food we eat have an overarching effect on our mental health, but stress also impairs digestion.
5 – Heart health:
The gut microbiome plays an integral role in keeping HDL cholesterol and triglycerides at optimal levels. Certain strains of gut bacteria produce TMAO, a chemical in red meat that contributes to blocked arteries. An excess of TMAO can lead to catastrophic health events such as myocardial infarction or stroke. Conversely, other species such as Lactobacilli may lower LDL cholesterol.
6 – Weight management:
Many studies have link an association between obesity and an unfavorable balance of good and bad microbes. Mice implanted with an obesogenic microbiome gained more weight than those receiving bacteria from a lean mouses. That’s despite their consuming the same diet.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it outlines just how important the gut microbiome is for all aspects of health. Now that we have made that point clear, let’s talk about some of the worst things a person can do for their gut health.
6 OF THE WORST THINGS FOR OPTIMAL GUT HEALTH
1 – Only eating a handful of different foods.
Diversity in the gut microbiome is considered healthier than just having a few strains. This is because different species of bacteria have their own methods of protecting against harmful influences such as antibiotics.
2 – Excessive alcohol consumption.
Drinking too much alcohol is associated with gut dysbiosis. Beverages such as gin make beneficial bacteria less prevalent. However, red wine consumption (in moderation) proves useful in overall digestive health. This disparity is likely due to the polyphenols present in wine.
3 – Taking antibiotics.
Antibiotics are vital for conditions such as strep throat and urinary tract infections, but they can have detrimental effects on the microbiome. These powerful drugs eradicate both good and bad bacteria, and levels can remain suppressed for years. Taking antibiotics can temporarily increase the population of harmful bacteria such as
4 – Sedentary lifestyle
Regular movement has many systemic health benefits, including a positive effect on gut bacteria. The microbiomes of athletes harbor more butyrate-producing organisms, butyrate being a short-chain fatty acid crucial for overall health. People who exercise also have higher levels of Akkermansia, a microbe that helps regulate metabolism and prevent obesity.
5 – Not sleeping enough.
Just like the brain, the gut also adheres to the circadian rhythm. Disrupting that biological clock by getting inadequate sleep can increase the prevalence of bacteria associated with weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and fat metabolism.
6 – Being overstressed.
Stress is impossible to avoid in the modern world, but developing strategies to manage it is crucial for maintaining a healthy gut. In rodent studies, excessive stress increases pathogenic bacteria while decreasing beneficial populations.
Each day, we all take actions that can influence our intestinal health either positively or negatively. Since most people eat upwards of three times per day, food choices are some of the most powerful decisions a person makes.
6 TELLTALE SIGNS YOUR GUT IS UNHEALTHY
1 – You have an upset stomach.
Symptoms such as excessive or foul-smelling gas, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea, heartburn, and belching may point towards a deeper issue. A healthy gut microbiome should not have extreme difficulty processing food.
2 – Your weight isn’t stable.
Experiencing weight loss or gain despite keeping the same dietary and exercise habits could be a sign that your gut health is subpar. Dysbiosis can lead to malabsorption, blood sugar dysregulation, and/or fat storage. Weight loss is a hallmark symptom of SIBO, or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. Gaining weight, on the other hand, can indicate insulin resistance or unrelenting hunger due to malabsorption.
3 – You’re having trouble falling asleep
The gut is the body’s primary producer of neurotransmitters such as serotonin that help regulate our circadian rhythm. It makes sense, then, that an unhealthy gut and sleep disturbances often go hand-in-hand. (2.)
4 – You’ve been struggling with skin issues.
Skin irritation is often a surface-level manifestation of deeper issues such as a gut imbalance. Poor diets and food allergies can contribute to “leaky gut,” or intestinal permeability. This condition involves certain proteins spilling out of the gastrointestinal tract and entering the bloodstream. Consequently, inflammation ensues and may cause skin disorders such as eczema.
5 – You have an autoimmune disorder
Roughly 70% of the immune system is housed in the gut, so it should come as no surprise that the two are closely related. An unfavorable imbalance of intestinal microbes can increase inflammation and negatively affect immune function. This may eventually result in a state of autoimmunity, characterized by the body attacking its own cells as if they were foreign bodies.
6 – You are intolerant to many foods.
Oftentimes, it’s not about the food. Intolerances differ from allergies in that they involve difficulty digesting certain foods rather than an immune response to them. Emerging research is suggesting that food intolerances may be caused by gut dysbiosis. This can result in poor digestion and unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and nausea.
It’s a vicious cycle because eating a diverse diet is crucial for maintaining a healthy microbiome, however doing so can exacerbate food intolerances. Rebalancing the gut is key to tolerating a vast array of foods and therefore promoting diverse and plentiful bacteria.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR GUT MICROBIOME
Impaired nutrient absorption is a probable complication of gut issues. Unfortunately, this means a specified intervention beyond simply eating prebiotic, probiotic, and anti-inflammatory foods will usually be required.
Healing and repairing the gut and its mucosal lining allows the food a person consumes to actually be digested and assimilated. Intestinal permeability causes nutrients to enter the bloodstream in a form the body cannot use. Gut healing is typically accomplished with the “4R Approach:”
- Remove: Eliminate, or reduce to the best of your ability, inflammatory foods, environmental toxins, allergens, and gut infections.
- Restore: Include as many nutrient-dense foods as possible, which are typically better tolerated after removing the aforementioned toxins. Supplemental digestive enzymes can further protect against malabsorption.
- Repopulate the gut with beneficial microbes using high-quality, high-dose probiotic supplements.
- Consume collagen peptides, which can be found in both powder form and liquid bone broth, to help rebuild the gut lining. (3.)
FINAL THOUGHTS ON GUT HEALTH
Since the gut microbiome plays a crucial role in so many internal processes, a vast array of seemingly unrelated symptoms may come about when an imbalance is present. These manifestations include but are not limited to, weight instability, insomnia, skin issues, autoimmune disorders, and food intolerances (in addition to the obvious GI distress.)
Oftentimes, working on gut healing miraculously improves the aforementioned conditions. This is yet another example of how all functions of the human body interconnect in a beautiful way.