One of the most important factors that influence your overall health, is in fact, the microbes that live on and within you.
While your body includes about 22,000 human genes, it also hosts as many as 3.3 million microbial genes, 150 times more genes than our own genome. These critters, in return for lodging in your body, pay their rent by working in harmony with your body. They help you to digest your meals, make essential nutrients that you are unable to produce on your own, influence the expression of your DNA, and protect you from disease.
These microbes are fungi, bacteria, and other single-celled organisms. Some of these microbes reside on the skin, but most take up residence in your digestive tract.
Table of Contents:
- Unhealthy Bowel Movements
- Abnormal Bowel Transit Time
- Lack Of Energy
- Excessive Gas And Bloating
- Unhealthy Reactions To Food
- Sugar Cravings
- Susceptibility To Viruses And Infections
- Headaches And Migraines
- Unhealthy Reaction To Stress
- Congested, Problem-Prone Skin
- Brain Fog
- So What Can You Do About It?
- Recipe Spotlight: Easy Garlic Hummus
So as you can imagine, with all the functions they play, if these microbes are out of balance—if you have what we call dysbiosis—it can increase your risk of developing a host of chronic diseases such as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune disease, as well as neuropsychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Multiple factors can influence gut health including age, a poor diet, the use of antibiotics, stress, digestive conditions, toxins, and certain medications. To keep your digestive system feeling and functioning at its best, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of an unhealthy gut.
So if you’re wondering whether your digestive tract may be performing at its best, look for the following signs of an unhealthy gut, a gut that needs a little bit of TLC:
1. Unhealthy Bowel Movements
Monitoring your bowel movements is a good way to measure your gut health. While everyone’s body is different, most healthcare providers agree that having one to three bowel movements a day can be considered optimal.
Shape and consistency of bowel movements are also important indicators. Healthy bowel movements should be smooth, firm, and easy to pass. If you notice that your stools are hard, overly soft, or painful to pass, your gut health may need some working on. Straining occasionally while passing a stool isn’t cause for concern as it could be a sign of dehydration. But, if it happens frequently, this indicates constipation and an issue in the gut.
In fact, there’s a widely used tool called the Bristol Stool Scale which can help you determine whether your stools are healthy or not. Your poop may differ in shape, size, color, and even smell from day to day, based on what you eat or drink, whether you’re sick, or if you’re menstruating.
Of course, a once-in-a-while, not-so-healthy poop is no cause for concern. However, if abnormal bowel movements last longer than two weeks and is accompanied by other symptoms, you may want to consult with your healthcare practitioner.
If you take a look at the image, type 3 and 4 are ideal poop types—both smooth and like a sausage. Type 1 and 2 show signs of constipation, which may have many possible causes, such as food allergies and hypothyroidism. Type 5, 6, and 7 show signs of watery stools and diarrhea, which is often caused by infections or viruses, or food poisoning.
The color of your stool itself can also be telling. The ideal poop is brown with no yellow or red pigments. Red or black stools are a serious sign not to brush off. While it could just mean you ate beetroot yesterday, it could also point to internal bleeding. It is best to get checked immediately.
Green stools can indicate that although you may be eating lots of vegetables, you’re not absorbing the nutrients. Yellowish stools can be a sign of fat malabsorption or bile obstruction. If a stool floats in the toilet bowl, this could also mean fat malabsorption. Yellow stools could also be an indicator of intestinal inflammation or infection.
2. Abnormal Bowel Transit Time
You can also get an idea of the health of your bowel movements by doing a stool transit time test. Transit time is how long it takes from the time you ingest your food to when it comes out the other end. The ideal transit time is between 21 and 24 hours.
Use corn kernels or beetroot (you’ll be able to see the corn in your stool and beetroot will make your stools purple) and time how long it takes from when you eat it to when you notice it in your stools. If it’s less than 21 hours, you have fast transit time and if it’s more than 24 hours, you have slow transit time. This is also an indicator that your gut health may need some addressing.
3. Lack Of Energy
If you often need a daytime nap and you use caffeine as a crutch to get through each day, it’s a decent indicator that your digestive system is not working properly and enabling you to be able to absorb the nutrients needed for energy production.
Also, digesting food itself requires a lot of energy. If your digestive system is compromised, your body might send more stored energy to the stomach or intestines than other internal systems This can leave you feeling fatigued as your body tries to compensate for the imbalance.
In fact, many fatigue syndromes such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also show symptoms of digestive dysfunction. Patients with CFS are more likely to have a previous IBS diagnosis and experience digestive issues. If you experience fatigue along with symptoms of IBS, it could be linked to your digestive system.
4. Excessive Gas And Bloating
Passing some gas throughout the day is completely normal and, generally, isn’t a cause for concern. Releasing gas prevents it from building up in the digestive tract and it’s a normal part of the digestive process.
However, if you’re experiencing excessive gas that is uncomfortable and smelly, this is an indicator of an underlying problem. Food intolerances such as lactose intolerance or an overgrowth of bad bacteria are common causes of excessive gas. If this is an ongoing problem for you, you should contact your healthcare professional as it can also be an indication of infection, dysbiosis, or another digestive disorder.
5. Unhealthy Reactions To Food
If you often experience symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, or nausea after eating, this is a sign that you may be sensitive to certain foods and your gut isn’t functioning as it should. In fact, these reactions to foods can occur up to 72 hours after you ingest the food, so it can be difficult to identify the culprit.
In fact, one of the biggest signs of an unhealthy gut is if you often experience reactions to food. While anyone can fall victim to expired food, if you do experience abdominal pain, excessive bloating, nausea, constipation, or diarrhea after eating certain foods, it means your gut needs some love and attention.
6. Sugar Cravings
Do you always crave something sweet? Constant sugar cravings can be a sign of poor gut function as it is the main source of fuel for the bad bacteria in your gut.
Research indicates that the bacteria living in your gut can generate cravings for unhealthy foods, and can even have an effect on lowering your mood to try and make you give in. Consuming large amounts of sugar feeds the bacteria that flourish with it, creating a vicious cycle. This means that a heightened appetite for sugar can be a clear sign that gut health needs to be balanced.
7. Susceptibility To Viruses And Infections
The microbiome is a primary component of the immune system as 70%-80% resides within the gut! The microbiome is the controller of how the immune system operates and is the initial part of your arsenal to control offending invaders.
When the good bacteria in your gut are not properly nurtured and cared for, harmful bacteria and fungi take over. For example, the bacteria Lactobacillus helps to keep the immune system in check by promoting Th1 cell activity, increasing pro-inflammatory cytokines levels as well as decreasing anti-inflammatory cytokines levels. Therefore, if you have less Lactobacillus, this can make you more susceptible to the latest bug that’s going around.
8. Headaches And Migraines
Frequent headaches and migraines may be due to various digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and celiac disease.
Research shows that the gut and the brain communicate via a complex network of nerves. If there is an imbalance in the gut microbiome and there is an increase in harmful bacteria, the expression of certain brain receptors can also change.
Serotonin is one of the brain chemicals that have been implicated in the pathogenesis of migraines. The gut provides approximately 95% of total body serotonin. While research shows serotonin does not have the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, it is capable of locally activating afferent nerve endings that are connected directly to the central nervous system, possibly initiating migraine by this mechanism. It also plays a role in the narrowing of the arteries, reducing blood flow to the brain and initiating migraine.
9. Unhealthy Reaction To Stress
The brain and the gut are inextricably linked, thanks to the phenomenon known as the gut-brain axis, which is largely mediated by the vagus nerve.
If you’re stressed, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Certain bodily processes, such as the digestive function, are temporarily put on hold so your body can focus its energy on dealing with the stress at hand. Once the stressor has been extinguished, then your digestive function continues.
The way your digestive system responds to stress can reveal a lot about your gut health. Stress can also have an impact on the balance of microbiota in the digestive tract, increase inflammation, and have an effect on your body’s metabolic response to food.
10. Congested, Problem-Prone Skin
Recent research has found that the health of our gut is fundamental to having clear, glowing skin. Therefore, our skin can be a good reflection of what is going on inside our gut.
If the different digestive functions that are required for proper absorption are not working properly, we may become deficient in certain nutrients that are vital for healthy skin including zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin A. An imbalanced microbiome and a permeable gut barrier can also activate the immune system and lead to inflammation. It is now known that inflammation precedes pustule development in acne sufferers. Inflammation is also a major player in eczema and psoriasis.
Studies have shown that bad bacteria leaking through an impermeable gut wall can trigger an inflammatory response and significantly interfere with the effectiveness of insulin in managing your blood sugar levels. Insulin is one of the major underlying drivers in acne vulgaris.
If your skin is dry, inflamed, suffering from acne, or anything else out of the ordinary, it’s a sign that your gastrointestinal system is involved and needs to be addressed.
11. Brain Fog
Last but not least, gut health is closely tied to your ability to concentrate and stay mentally switched on. In fact, brain fog and the inability to focus is one of the primary symptoms of various digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.
Some of the common types of bacteria in the gut have a substance in their cell wall called Lipopolysaccharide (LPS). If your gut wall is compromised and LPS gets to your bloodstream, your immune system triggers a strong inflammatory response. Excess inflammation in the brain disrupts the natural balance of neurotransmitters leading to disturbances in cognition, focus and mood.
Also, many key vitamins and minerals are absorbed in the gut. A lot of these nutrients are critical for neurotransmitter production in the brain and a deficiency of these can contribute towards poor concentration, low mood, and brain fog.
Poor gut health can also have an impact on the quantity and quality of sleep, making it harder for you to focus and concentrate during the day.
So What Can You Do About It?
So how did your gut check turn out? If any items on this gut health checklist raise concerns for you, it’s likely your gastrointestinal system is in need of some TLC. Now that you’ve made a mental list in your head of signs that you may have an unhealthy gut, you may be wondering what your next steps are.
All of these signs are good indicators, but it’s important to test, and not just guess. In order to inform treatment, it’s best to determine exactly what’s going on in your gut and there are some great tests available to do this.
For example, a comprehensive stool analysis can quantify the levels of beneficial bacteria, measure inflammation in the gut, and detect the presence of pathogenic species of bacteria, yeast, and parasites. Damage to the gut lining compromises our capacity to absorb nutrients from the foods we eat.
Meanwhile, an organic acids test measures nutrient deficiencies, along with the presence of pathogenic species, that are associated with leaky gut. A complete microbiome mapping test can assess your microbiome from a single stool sample, with particular attention to microbes that cause disease or that disrupt normal microbial balance and contribute to perturbations in the gastrointestinal flora and contribute to illness.
Once you know what’s going on, don’t wait to get them sorted. Your gut and your moods will be so much happier for it!
Recipe Spotlight: Glazed Eggplant Miso
One of the biggest needle movers when it comes to improving your gut health is choosing the right food to eat. In fact, “eat the rainbow” is one of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear, as fruits and vegetables from each color can give you a variety of vitamins and nutrients that can help prevent disease.
For this recipe, you’ll find the eggplant—an often underappreciated vegetable—as the star of the show. A lot of people find it tricky to cook with. But when it’s done right, you’ll find a vegetable that can soak up so much flavors that will make “eating the rainbow” all the more fun for you. You’ll also find other gut-friendly ingredients like miso, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and more. Enjoy!