Experts talk a lot about a healthy gut, but what is it exactly? And, more importantly, how can you ensure yours stays healthy? Today article covers everything about gut health: weird signs of an unhealthy gut, what happens if you have gut imbalances, and the secret to a healthy gut biome.
When we talk about the gut, it’s more than just the internal organs meant to digest food. In fact, in the last years researchers found that the gut’s role goes beyond nutrition and affects every part of our health, from our brain to your chances of getting diabetes and even cancer!
It’s the gut microbiome what makes it so important. In fact, when we talk about a “healthy gut” (or an unhealthy one), we’re referring to the microbiome.
Before diving into how your gut affects your health, it’s important to understand what makes it vital to our health: the gut microbiome.
Simply put, “microbiome” is a community of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, viruses and others) that live together and interact as a small ecosystem . All animals and natural ecosystems have microbiomes.
The term “microbiome” can refer either to the microorganism themselves, or the collective genetic materials of these communities.
As humans, we also have microbiomes. Contrary to popular belief, our bodies aren’t sterile. We have microbes in our skin, mouth, lungs, ovaries and other parts of our body.
Although as humans we have some common microbes, the exact composition and variety of the microbiome is unique to each individual. In fact, not even people living in the same home and doing the same activities will have an identical microbiome!
Researchers have been particularly interested in the gut microbiome. Studies have shown the quantity and variety of gut microbes play a key role in our health .
Humans have millions of microorganisms living in their gut at any given time. A normal person will have between 3000 and 5000 different species at any given time, and millions of individual microbes.
Shockingly, although some of those microbes are beneficial on their own, some are pathogens. We need both for a healthy gut.
Our gut health depends on the diversity and equilibrium between beneficial and pathogenic microbes. The more diverse your gut flora, the more it will positively impact your health.
In general, what you do every day affects the composition of your gut microbiome. Some of the most common factors that influence your gut health are:
The gut’s function goes beyond nutrient absorption. Researchers have spent decades trying to understand how the gut microbiome influences the rest of the body. Unfortunately, its composition is so diverse and complex that most of its inner workings are still obscure.
However, researchers have found that gut microbiome is in charge of several key processes:
This is one of the better-known functions of the gut flora. The bacteria and other microbes in the intestines help break down food through fermentation and enzymes. Gut microbiome also allows you to digest carbohydrates: several microorganisms ferment carbs and allows the intestinal cells to absorbs the byproducts.
We already mentioned a healthy gut depends on the balance between beneficial and pathogenic microorganism. However, if the pathogens numbers increase exponentially, this can cause health issues. In general, the “good” gut microbes will keep the rest in check.
Gut bacteria play an essential role in breaking down certain molecules and synthesize key vitamins. The gut microbiome synthesizes Vitamin K and Vitamin B, as well as helping your body absorb essential minerals like magnesium, iron and calcium.
Gut microbiome has a strong link to the central nervous system. Researchers call this the “gut-brain axis”. The millions of microorganisms in your gut create a complex neural network that both modulates the microbiome and sends signals to the rest of the body.
The so-called “gut-brain axis” refers to how biochemicals signals in the gut affect the central nervous system, including the brain.
In fact, the connection is so strong that researchers found that mental health issues cause changes in the gut flora, and vice-versa. That’s why many patients with irritable bowel symptom, as well as other digestive problems, are more prone to depression and anxiety .
On the other hand, people with autism, for example, also tend to have digestive problems; and people on antibiotics are more prone to having depressive episodes .
The microorganisms in your gut are responsible for the development and maintenance of your immune system. This process starts during pregnancy, and continues as babies nurse and until kids are 2 years of age. From then on, the gut helps regulate your immune response.
Unfortunately, this also means that when the microbiome is imbalanced, it has immune consequences. Researchers have discovered that the “wrong” mix of microbes can promote chronic inflammation, cause excessive immune reactions and even trigger autoimmune conditions.
While some drugs are absorbed through the upper parts of the gastrointestinal system, many others have to go through the gut. While some specific drugs (like antibiotics) directly affect the gut, others can be harder to absorb because of the gut microbiome. Certain chemicals are even completely inactivated.
Many signs of an unhealthy gut are related to gastrointestinal issues. However, there are other signs of an unhealthy gut that have little to do with your bowels. Here are some of the most common:
In 2017, researchers found that those with chronic fatigue could also have chronic imbalances in their gut microbiome . Many of the patients with diagnosed chronic fatigue also had undiagnosed irritable bowel syndrome.
2. Constant sickness
Being constantly sick could be a sign your immune system isn’t working properly. If flu season is always a nightmare, and you seem to catch every little bug, this could be due to an unhealthy gut biome.
3. Skin issues
A 2018 study [gut-skin] showed that common skin problems like acne, psoriasis and eczema have a direct link to an unhealthy gut. Immunity imbalances caused by an unhealthy gut can trigger immune response and increase your chances of having skin reactions.
4. Chronic allergies
The same study found that many patients with chronic allergies also showed gut imbalances. This isn’t surprising, given the key role of the gut in the regulation of the immune response.
5. Autoimmune diseases
The gut as a whole can modify the immune system. In fact, a study published in 2018  showed that specific bacteria (Bacteroides fragilis) could trigger the onset of several autoimmune conditions. These included multiple sclerosis, arthritis, lupus, asthma and colitis.
6. Chronic depression & other mood disorders
Researchers don’t fully understand the link, but your gut creates certain hormones & neurotransmitters that send signals to the brain. This affects how you respond to stress, your tendency to suffer from anxiety as well as other mood disorders like depression. In fact, a recent study showed that 1000+ people with depression had deficits of the same two bacterial species in their gut.
7. Sugar cravings
Is a mid-afternoon snack irresistible? Your gut could be responsible. The microorganisms in your gut tend to like certain types of food other than others. As such, if you have an overgrown population of yeast (that thrives on sugar) you’ll have almost irresistible sugar cravings.
8. Constant yeast infections
Your gut microbiome also affects the microorganisms living in the rest of your body. As such, chronic yeast infection (in the genitals, for example) can be a sign of imbalances in your gut flora.
9. Irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive issues
Digestive troubles is one of the most common signs of an unhealthy gut. While occasional issues are common and don’t necessarily indicate an imbalance, chronic conditions are usually related to your gut microbiome.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is one of the most common digestive problems, and as many as 45 million Americans have it. However, other common conditions such as diarrhea, chronic constipation and constant bloating can stem from an unhealthy gut microbiome.
10. Obesity & metabolic syndrome
Although the link between obesity and gut diversity is still unclear, extra weight can take a toll of your gut health. The gut plays an important role helping digest your food, as well as in the metabolization and production of certain nutritional compounds. An excessive number of certain bacteria can influence weight gain, and studies have shown obese people lack bacterial diversity in their gut.
Since the gut microbiome is strongly connected to both the neurological and immune system, it’s very important to keep it healthy.
However, our usual lifestyle doesn’t contribute to a healthy gut biome. In fact, the average American has less than 30% of the microbe variety than other human populations.
An unhealthy or imbalanced gut microbiome puts you at greater risk of different health issues:
Unsurprisingly, the key to a healthy gut biome lays in your food. While there are other lifestyle changes that will improve your gut microbiome, eating the right food will get you significantly closer.
Beneficial gut microorganisms thrive in soluble and insoluble fiber. To give them the food they need, try to add whole grains and a variety of fruits and vegetables to your diet.
2. Eat many fruit & vegetables (and try to stick to seasonal produce)
When it comes to healthy gut microbiome, variety is key. A limited diet, even one built around plant-based foods, will result in an unhealthy gut. Strive to have a balanced mix of fruits and vegetables and vary produce seasonally.
3. Choose polyphenols
Researchers have discovered that polyphenols, antioxidants common in wine, grapes, green tea and berries, boost the population of beneficial microorganisms in the gut. Small amounts of polyphenols on a daily basis will ensure your gut stays balanced and full of good microbes.
4. Eat fermented foods
People can also contribute to a diverse gut adding extra microorganism to your diet. Although all the food we eat has some microbes, fermented foods (like kimchi, kombucha and probiotic yogurt) have plenty of microorganisms that benefit your gut biome. On top of extra microbes, fermented foods provide a unique feeding ground that boosts population of beneficial bacteria already present in the gut. Get our Doctor formulated probiotic here.
5. Avoid artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners have been controversial in the research world. However, experts agree that they have harmful effects on gut flora. Sweeteners like aspartame, sorbitol, xylitol and others don’t have as many carbs and calories as regular sugar, but they promote the growth of “bad” bacteria in your gut. Although a healthy gut has both beneficial and pathogenic microorganisms, the beneficial microbes should outnumber the rest.
Stress and anxiety affect your gut. The connection between your gut microbiome and the neurological system goes both ways. This means that while your gut can influence your mood, your emotions also have an effect on your gastrointestinal track. That’s why many people with irritable bowel syndrome tend to include stress management techniques in their treatment.
7. Avoid self-medication (especially antibiotics)
In America, we tend to over-medicate and self-medicate a lot. This has triggered the appearance of so-called “super bugs”, or microorganisms resistant to many common antibiotics. On the other hand, excessive antibiotic use (especially when not prescribed by a medical professional) can decimate your gut’s microorganism population and prevent you from having a balanced and diverse microbiome.
A healthy gut means a healthier life. Without obsessing, it’s important to adopt small lifestyle changes to protect your gut from harm. Luckily, this means eating delicious, diverse foods and trying to avoid stress. Those are well-known elements of a happy, fulfilling lifestyle!
Do you do anything special to keep a healthy gut microbiome? Let us know in the comments below!