The sheer complexity of our gut and its overall importance to our health and well-being has become a leading topic of conversation in the medical community and has sparked a significant amount of research. Hundreds of studies over the past two decades reveal a direct correlation between gut health and the immune system, mood, mental health, autoimmune disease, endocrine disorders, skin conditions, and even cancer.
It has long been assumed our digestive system was a very simple bodily system--essentially, one long tube through which food passes, is absorbed by our bodies, and is excreted. Recent research, however, tells us that our digestive system is much more complex and it is interconnected with the rest of our bodily systems.
The term "microbiome" commonly refers to the collection of microorganisms that reside in your intestines. Collectively, there are over 150 trillion bacteria living in our guts. These bacteria make up between 1-3 percent of our body's mass (in a 200-pound adult, that is 2-6 pounds of bacteria) and over 500 different species have been isolated by scientists. While some of these bacteria are known to be harmful, many are incredibly beneficial and are absolutely critical to your overall health. Having a diverse population of these bacteria will, among many things, help enhance your immune system function, improve symptoms of depression, combat obesity, and provide numerous other benefits to your health.
There are many factors in our modern lives that affect the balance of our bacteria and hurt our gut microbiome. Some of these factors include: excessive amounts of stress, too little sleep, eating a diet full of highly processed, high-sugar foods, and even certain medications such as antibiotics and hormonal birth control. When our gut microbiome becomes damaged, other aspects our health begin to suffer such as the brain, heart, immune system, skin, weight, hormone levels, ability to absorb nutrients, and even the development of cancer.
There are a variety of ways that an unhealthy gut microbiome can present itself. These are the seven most common signs of an unhealthy gut microbiome:
1. An upset stomach
The most common sign of an unhealthy gut is digestive issues such as gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn. When the gut is out of balance, it will have more difficulty processing food and eliminating the waste products. The aforementioned side effects are the most commonly experienc
ed when one’s gut is unhealthy.
2. Sugar cravings
The standard American diet is high in added sugars and processed foods which can decrease the amount of healthy bacteria in the gut. This imbalance of bacteria will lead to an increase in sugar cravings, which will further damage your gut. One of the most commonly consumed sugars in the United States is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS has been linked to an increase in inflammation in the body and inflammation is tied to nearly all disease processes in the body and even cancers.
3. Unintentional weight fluctuations
The loss or gain of weight without changes to your diet and exercise routine may be a sign of an unhealthy gut. When the gut bacteria balance is off, it impairs your body's ability to break down food, absorb nutrients, maintain a healthy blood sugar level, and store fat. Unexpected weight loss can be a sign of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), while an increase in weight may be caused by insulin resistance or the urge to eat more due to decreased nutrient absorption.
4. Sleep disturbances or constant fatigue
An unhealthy gut may contribute to sleep disturbances such as insomnia or waking during the night, which can further lead to chronic fatigue syndrome. Serotonin, the hormone that directly affects your sleep and mood, is produced primarily in the gut. When the gut is unhealthy, it will decrease the production of serotonin and lead to sleep issues. Studies show that sleep disturbances can also increase your risk of Fibromyalgia.
5. Skin rashes and hives
Certain skin conditions, such as eczema, may be related to a damaged gut. Inflammation in the gut caused by poor dietary choices or food sensitivities/allergies may cause the gut lining to become “leaky.” When the gut lining becomes leaky, certain proteins cross into our bloodstream, which can, in turn, irritate the skin and cause conditions such as eczema and hives.
6. Autoimmune diseases
Extensive research continues to show the impact of the microbiome on our immune system as the two systems are interconnected. Studies reveal that an unhealthy gut will increase the amount of systemic inflammation and change the proper functioning of the immune system, causing it to go into overdrive. When the immune system is overreacting, it begins to not only attack foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses, but also attack our body--also known as an autoimmune condition. It is now believed that an unhealthy gut is the main contributor to autoimmune diseases.
7. Food intolerance's and allergies
Food intolerance's occur when our bodies have difficulty breaking down and digesting certain foods. Food allergies occur when our immune system reacts to different foods we eat. When we have an imbalance in gut bacteria, we cannot properly break down foods and, thus, our bodies have difficulty absorbing them. When improper digestion occurs, symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and nausea can occur. Emerging evidence suggests that food allergies are directly tied to the health of our gut and immune system.
If you suffer from any of the seven symptoms of an unhealthy gut, it may be time to take action. Maintaining a healthy gut contributes to better overall health and immune function. By making appropriate lifestyle and dietary changes, people can alter the diversity and number of microbes in their gut for the better. At Total Body Health Functional Medicine, we are dedicated to helping you find the root cause of your health concern and fixing it once and for all.