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What's an Unhealthy Gut?

Updated: May 16, 2022

Have you ever been so nervous that you couldn’t eat? Do you get butterflies in your stomach when you have to speak to a group of people or go somewhere you’ve never been before? Do you find yourself running to the bathroom when you get stressed? As odd as it may sound, your gut is often referred to as your second brain.

The human gut has more than 100 million nerve cells that not only tell your body when to release hormones related to digestion, they actually communicate with your brain. Your gut health affects this communication. Gut health is strongly linked to the immune system, mood, mental health, autoimmune diseases, endocrine disorders, skin conditions, and cancer.

At one time, our digestive system was considered a relatively “simple” body system, comprised essentially of one long tube for our food to pass through, be absorbed, and then excreted. Your gut microbiome, the bacteria, fungi and other microbes living inside your intestines, plays a role in many aspects of your health.

Gut Microbiome

The term “gut microbiome” refers specifically to the microorganisms living in your intestines. A person has about 300 to 500 different species of bacteria in their digestive tract. While some microorganisms are harmful to our health, many are incredibly beneficial and even necessary to a healthy body. Deep in our digestive system, 39 trillion “bugs” are hard at work 'round the clock keeping us healthy. We have a rainforest inside us, so to speak.

The complex community of bacteria and other micro-organisms in our intestines break down food and churn out chemicals that keep your bowels regular, tune up immunity, help regulate body weight, blood sugar and blood fats, tamp down inflammation, influence your moods and may even play roles in thinking and memory.

Healthy Gut, Healthy You

Your microbiome can’t be seen, but sometimes it can be heard. You’ve likely had to stifle the excess gas they burp out when chomping on fiber from that bean burrito you had for lunch, for instance. Overall, a diverse microbiome is a good thing. Each of us has a unique microbiome. Some is from what we eat, some is genetics, some is the result of bad things we do to it.

Signs of an Unhealthy Gut

Upset Stomach Stomach disturbances like gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn can all be signs of an unhealthy gut. A balanced gut will have less difficulty processing food and eliminating waste.

A high-sugar diet

A diet high in processed foods and added sugars can decrease the amount of good bacteria in your gut. This imbalance can cause increased sugar cravings, which can damage your gut still further. High amounts of refined sugars, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, have been linked to increased inflammation in the body. Inflammation can be the precursor to a number of diseases and even cancers.

Unintentional weight changes Gaining or losing weight without making changes to your diet or exercise habits may be a sign of an unhealthy gut. An imbalanced gut can impair your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar, and store fat. Weight loss may be caused by small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) while weight gain may be caused by insulin resistance or the urge to overeat due to decreased nutrient absorption.

Sleep disturbances or constant fatigue An unhealthy gut may contribute to sleep disturbances such as insomnia or poor sleep, and therefore lead to chronic fatigue. The majority of the body’s serotonin, a hormone that affects mood and sleep, is produced in the gut. So gut damage can impair your ability to sleep well. Some sleep disturbances have also been linked to risk for fibromyalgia.

Skin irritation Skin conditions like eczema may be related to a damaged gut. Inflammation in the gut caused by a poor diet or food allergies may cause increased “leaking” of certain proteins out into the body, which can in turn irritate the skin and cause conditions such as eczema.

Autoimmune conditions Medical researchers are continually finding new evidence of the impact of the gut on the immune system. It’s thought that an unhealthy gut may increase systemic inflammation and alter the proper functioning of the immune system. This can lead to autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself rather than harmful invaders.

Food intolerances Food intolerances are the result of difficulty digesting certain foods (this is different than a food allergy, which is caused by an immune system reaction to certain foods). It’s thought that food intolerances may be caused by poor quality of bacteria in the gut. This can lead to difficulty digesting the trigger foods and unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and nausea. There is some evidence that food allergies may also be related to gut health.

Diet and Gut Health

Diet and gut health are very closely linked. Avoiding processed foods, high-fat foods, and foods high in refined sugars is extremely important to maintaining a healthy microbiome, as these foods destroy good bacteria and promote growth of damaging bacteria. There are also a number of foods you can eat that actively promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, contributing to your overall health. These foods include:

High-fiber foods

High-fiber foods such as legumes, beans, peas, oats, bananas, berries, asparagus, and leeks have shown a positive impact on gut health in numerous studies.

Garlic and onion

Garlic and onion may have some anti-cancer and immune system-enhancing properties based on various studies, which are closely tied to some of the

primary functions of the gut.

Fermented foods

Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, tempeh, miso, and kefir are great dietary sources of probiotics. While the quality of these foods may vary, their benefits on the gut microbiome are well studied.

In addition to eating a wide variety of good food, you can help maintain your gut health by:

  • cutting down stress

  • exercising

  • getting enough sleep

  • eating slowly (mindful eating)

  • stay hydrated

  • take a prebiotic or probiotic

Bottom Line

The human gut is more complex than previously thought and has a huge impact on whole-body health. A healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, heart health, brain health, improved mood, healthy sleep, and effective digestion, and it may help prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases. There are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to positively affect your gut health and your overall health as a result. Eat, sleep and be healthy!

About the authors:

Madur & Anitha Jagannath are certified Nutrition Consultants, in addition to their professions in technology and human resources. When Madur started feeling lethargic and slowing down, he started exercising regularly, became conscious of healthy eating habits and nutrition. He is an avid runner and does half-marathons often. At Voyage to Wellness, they attribute our reputation to the lasting customer relationships they have developed throughout the years. They believe in health & wellness and being fit, at all stages of people's lives.

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