It’s a common belief that digestive woes are the only symptoms of a stomach problem.
But did you know that the state of your gut health affects more than just your stomach? The study of proper gut health has been widely examined as of late with experts researching just how much gut health impacts not only how you look, but how you feel and function overall.
Let’s explore the importance of gut health, including what it is and the symptoms of poor gut health to look out for.
Importance of Gut Health
Your gut health plays a key role in your physical and mental health. But what is it?
Your gut’s “microbiome” determines the status of your gut health. This microbiome is made of trillions of microorganisms living within the intestines. These microorganisms include bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and they change based on diet, exercise, stress, antibiotic use, and other external factors.
A healthy gut microbiome supports a strong immune system, offers protection against disease, and lowers your risk for mood disorders such as depression or anxiety. In fact, studies show nearly 80 percent of immune cells live within the gut. This means that having poor gut health leaves you more vulnerable to not only common sicknesses, but chronic diseases such as heart disease, some cancers, diabetes, and more.
But how do you know if your gut health needs attention? Let’s talk about four little known symptoms of poor gut health and ways to address them.
4 Poor Gut Health Symptoms to Look Out For
Digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhea, nausea, gas, and bloating are only part of the equation when it comes to gut health. Your body may give off less obvious signs when its gut health is in trouble.
#1: Sleep Disturbances
Some studies show an imbalance of gut bacteria is linked to disrupted sleep and difficulty staying asleep. And while poor gut health may lead to poor sleep, the opposite appears to be true as well. Lack of sleep is harmful to gut microbiome and overall health.
Research is ongoing, but experts believe sleep and gut health impact each other in a cycle. If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your healthcare provider about root causes and focus on improving your gut health with a healthy diet, low stress, and exercise.
#2: Skin Problems
Have you ever noticed acne breakouts after a week of consuming high quantities of sugary treats, alcoholic beverages, or fried foods? There’s a reason why.
Skin problems like acne, eczema, and even psoriasis have frequently been linked with poor gut health. Some studies have demonstrated higher levels of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) in those with rosacea, a skin disorder that causes redness. There have been similar findings linking treatment for gastrointestinal disorders such as ulcerative colitis and Chron’s disease with psoriasis clearing medication, inextricably relating the two.
Scientists believe it’s due to the body wide inflammation that occurs with poor gut health. When your gut is irritated and inflamed, it sends stress signals to other body systems—and skin issues like acne breakouts, rosacea, or eczema can occur as a result.
#3: Food Intolerances
If you notice it’s suddenly difficult to digest certain foods, poor gut health could be the cause.
Different from a food allergy, food intolerances can cause unpleasant symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, gas, or bloating. Ongoing research points to poor quality of gut bacteria as one leading cause in the rise of such responses to food types. Many individuals who find themselves suddenly sensitive to dairy or gluten, for example, may have underlying gut health issues.
#4: Mood Disorders
If your mood is low and you’re suddenly plagued with symptoms of depression or anxiety, gut health may be at the root of your mental health status.
Some experts call the gut “a second brain” for this reason. Many of the “feel good” hormones that alter mood (serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, to name a few) reside in the gut. In fact, in a UCLA study, researchers gave a control group of women probiotic-rich foods for four weeks. At the end of the experiment, brain images showed significant differences in how the control group’s brains reacted during emotional tasks versus those who received no probiotics. This study, and many others in existence, point to the powerful connection between gut health and mental health.
What Patients Can Do for Optimum Gut Health
It can be eye opening to learn how much gut health impacts your mind, body, and mood. Fortunately, you can take steps to improve your gut microbiome in addition to working with your healthcare provider. Here are four ways to start:
#1: Eat foods that improve gut health.
Food choices can help or harm your gut bacteria. While sugar, alcohol, and fried, greasy foods harm your microbiome, nutritious foods help protect the good bacteria and strengthen your immune system.
Examples of foods to improve gut health include:
- Leafy greens. Leafy greens like kale, cabbage, spinach, and salad are fiber rich foods that support healthy digestion and contain vital nutrients such as vitamin K, vitamin C, and folate.
- Avocados are a superfood full of nutrients, such as potassium and fiber, both of which promote a healthy gut. Avocados are high in fat, so make sure to consume them in moderation.
- Fermented foods. Fermented foods, like kombucha or sauerkraut, are rich in healthy bacteria to support your gut and promote the growth of beneficial microbes.
- Raw garlic contains antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, which keep bacteria in the gut healthy. In addition, garlic is rich in inulin, a type of dietary fiber and prebiotic that supplies fuel to good bacteria in the gut.
#2: Consume probiotics and prebiotics
Probiotics (from pro and biota, meaning “for life”) contain live bacteria and support naturally occurring bacteria levels in the microbiome. Prebiotics are food for probiotics, allowing them to continue functioning. You can purchase high-quality probiotic and prebiotic supplements, or eat probiotic rich foods like yogurt and prebiotic-rich foods like nuts, fennel bulbs, onions, leeks, chicory root, ripe bananas, and Jerusalem artichokes.
Your microbiome benefits from frequent movement.
When you exercise, your body heats up, oxygen floods your brain and bloodstream, and blood flow increases. These mechanisms encourage your gut microbiome to flourish, according to research. Your gut health is continuously reacting and changing based on not only what you eat, but also how you move throughout the day.
You can boost your gut health with regular exercise. If you’re a beginner, pick a type of exercise you enjoy—whether it’s walking, running, swimming, or biking. Start with just 30 minutes per day and work your way up. Always consult your provider before beginning any strenuous exercise program.
#4: Reduce stress.
While poor gut health contributes to low mood, the opposite is true as well.
Some researchers believe one reason for the close relationship between high stress and poor gut health is that stress causes cravings for “highly palatable,” unhealthy foods. These foods, like chips and baked goods, for example, negatively impact gut health. Additionally, stress and mental health disorders may alter gut bacteria through stress hormones and inflammation. In turn, poor gut health causes negative effects on behavior and mood.
While you can’t control every stressor in life, you can control some aspects—and the way you respond to them. Starting with the basics of eating a healthy diet, prioritizing exercise, and getting the proper amount of sleep will go far in keeping stress levels low.
To further minimize stress, find healthy ways to cope. This might include seeking talk therapy, venting to a trusted loved one, meditating, or journaling your thoughts.
Poor Gut Health? PACT Gastroenterology Can Help!
If you notice signs of poor gut health, contact one of our trusted physicians at the PACT Gastroenterology Center. We’re a team devoted to providing sophisticated, state-of-the-art medical care in a warm and caring environment.
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DR. DANIEL LAVY, M.D, FACS IN ANSONIA & HAMDEN, CT
Dr. Lavy is a member of our PACT Surgical Specialist Group. To schedule an appointment, please call 203-281-7000 or request an appointment online.