The digestive system isn’t just a food processor—when it’s not in good health, the effects on the body can be wide-ranging. So it’s important to recognize when your gut health may not be quite up to par. “Our digestive health is really reflected in every body system,” says Shomir Banerjee, MD, a California-based family medicine physician with Paloma Health. “As a consequence, there are so many different ways our bodies tell us that we have an unhealthy gut.” Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
What Is An Unhealthy Gut?
The gut—the stomach and intestines—contains a complex system of bacteria and other microorganisms called the microbiome. In recent years, science has discovered more about how important the gut microbiome is to wide-ranging aspects of health, from immunity to the nervous system to mood. When medical experts refer to an unhealthy gut, they often mean that the gut microbiome is out of balance, which can cause uncomfortable symptoms. One culprit is a syndrome known as “leaky gut.”
What Is Leaky Gut?
“The expression ‘leaky gut’ is not a single medical diagnosis, but rather a broad term referring to an abnormal increase in gastrointestinal cell lining permeability,” says Subha Sundararajan, MD, a gastroenterologist and hepatologist at Red Bank Gastroenterology in New Jersey. “The integrity of your gastrointestinal lining is important for the overall function of your GI tract, as well as important for your immune system—the largest immune-system organ is actually the GI tract.”
“When our gut lining works properly, it forms a barrier that controls what actually gets absorbed into the bloodstream and into our bodies,” she explains. “Our tract is also filled with bacteria. When conditions that affect the barrier of the cell lining occur (such as inflammation, infection, an imbalance in bacteria, or ingestion of substances we are allergic to or cause a harmful reaction), this can lead to things, in effect, leaking through the gut into the bloodstream. This can alter the gut flora and cause a variety of symptoms.”
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The Signs You Have an Unhealthy Gut
The symptoms of an unhealthy gut can be specific to the digestive system or may be body-wide.
“Gut-specific symptoms are usually the most telling signs of an unhealthy gut,” says Banerjee. “For example, frequent abdominal cramping, bloating, irregular bowel movements, and gas can all be signs that your gut flora is out of balance.”
However, “everything from fatigue, depression or low mood, skin problems, sore muscles and joints, and even the presence of autoimmune conditions can all be signs that something is not well within the gut,” he adds.
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Who Is At Risk for An Unhealthy Gut?
“Anyone may be at risk of an unhealthy gut, but it is more common in people who make poor dietary choices, and also those with certain health conditions that affect the digestive system,” says Banerjee. “For example, people who have conditions that affect gut motility like IBS may be at greater risk for an overproliferation of harmful gut bacteria.”
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How to Treat an Unhealthy Gut
If you suspect your gut health is out of whack, it’s a good idea to see your doctor, who may recommend lifestyle changes or additional testing. Some lifestyle changes that can be helpful include:
Eating a healthy diet. “Eating wholesome foods that are nutrient-dense is essential for fueling your body, and your gut flora,” says Banerjee. “One of the best ways we can feed the good bacteria in our guts is by eating a diet rich in fiber. Our bodies cannot actually break down fiber, so we rely on bacteria to do that for us. Fiber is essential to help move digestive contents along, thereby preventing frustrating complications like constipation.*
Drinking plenty of water. “In our society that loves flavored and caffeinated drinks, many of us don’t get enough plain water every day,” says Banerjee. “We often get too much sugar through flavored beverages, which fuels unhealthy organisms. Water is vital because it hydrates our tissues and helps lubricate our intestines, so we can move stools along without restriction or discomfort.”
Reducing stress. “Many people notice they have more gut problems when they are stressed, such as abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and bloating,” says Banerjee. “Cortisol, the stress hormone, can affect how our digestive systems work. So, when cortisol levels are higher, it can throw off our digestive function. Additionally, when we are stressed, we often don’t make the best food choices, which can certainly disrupt a healthy gut flora as well.”
And to ensure your health don’t miss these 101 Health Habits You Didn’t Know Were Deadly.