Our digestive tract contains about 300 to 500 different species of bacteria — some harmful, and some necessary for a healthy body. We term these bacteria collectively as gut microbiomes. Many doctors who specialise in gut health agree that having a wide variety of good bacteria can provide benefits like enhance your immune system and improve symptoms of depression. Several studies done in the past two decades also demonstrate the link between gut health, autoimmune diseases, cancer and more. Simply put, if you have a bad gut, it can take a toll on your entire body.
These days, I’ve been noticing a trend in young people having gut problems, especially among the working class. I credit this to stress, lack of sleep and eating too much processed food; these facets of modern life can damage our gut microbiome.
How can you tell if you have an unhealthy gut? Here are some telltale signs.
1. Stomach discomfort and unhealthy bowel movements
It’s normal to get an upset stomach sometimes, but if you frequently get bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea and abdominal pain, it can be a sign of an unhealthy gut and possibly irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Studies show that imbalances in the gut bacteria, or dysbiosis, can cause some people to develop IBS.
A healthy, functioning digestive system should allow for daily bowel movements that’s well-formed and easy to pass. These bowel movements should not be overly hard or loose.
2. Constant fatigue
Majority of the body’s serotonin, a hormone that regulates mood and sleep, is produced in the gut. So it’s no wonder why an unhealthy gut can lead to sleep disturbances and affect your quality of sleep, leading to chronic fatigue. A 2017 study found that those with chronic fatigue syndrome had imbalances in their gut microbiome, and almost half of them had IBS too.
3. A diet high in sugar and constant cravings
Is your diet high in added sugars and processed food? Eating too much of such food can lower the amount of good bacteria in your gut. This balance between good and bad bacteria can cause you to get sugar cravings, which when fulfilled, can damage your gut further. Refined sugar, especially high-fructose corn syrup, has been linked to inflammation in the body. Inflammation can be the precursor to diseases like cancers.
To add on, a diet high in fat and refined carbohydrates may promote intestinal bacteria, which has been linked to obesity.
4. Unintentional weight fluctuations
Experiencing weight loss or gain without making changes to your diet or lifestyle may signal an unhealthy gut. This is because an imbalanced gut can affect your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, store fat and regulate blood sugar. Weight gain may be caused by insulin resistance, which puts you predisposed for diabetes. Weight loss, on the other hand, may be caused by bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine.
5. Allergies and irritation
Research shows a link between an unhealthy gut and skin problems like eczema, acne and psoriasis. It’s believed that the gut microbiome affects the skin through immune mechanisms and prebiotics, which in turn irritate the skin and lead to inflammatory skin issues.
6. Autoimmune conditions
It’s found that a particular gut bacteria, known as Bacteroides fragilis, produces a protein that triggers the onset of autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Even without this bacteria, an unhealthy gut can increase systemic inflammation within the body and alter how the immune system functions.
7. Food intolerances
Food intolerances are when you have difficulty digesting certain food and experience symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea and headaches. It’s thought that an unhealthy gut filled with poor quality of bacteria can cause difficulty in digesting certain food, which thereby leads you to develop food intolerances.
Ways you can improve your gut health
1. Lower your stress levels
Chronic stress is hard on your body, including your gut. Take it easy and do more of the things that help you relax. For myself personally, I enjoy going for walks and playing football.
2. Get sufficient sleep
Late nights and lack of sleep can seriously impact your gut health, which further lead to more sleep issues. To stop this vicious cycle, try to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep a night. If you have trouble sleeping, I suggest doing some light stretches before bed or consider taking melatonin supplements.
3. Change your diet and drink plenty of water
Try reducing the amount of processed and high-fat food and consuming more whole foods like vegetables and lean protein. You’ll find that this impacts your gut tremendously. Staying hydrated is also one of the simplest ways to promote a healthy gut. When you drink plenty of water, the good bacteria in your gut balances out and the mucosal lining of your intestines benefits too.
4. Chew slowly
Chewing your food slowly and thoroughly can absorb and digest nutrients better, which help reduce indigestion and maintain a healthy gut.
I hope this article has helped you recognise the signs of an unhealthy gut and inspired you to make better dietary decisions, especially with the Chinese New Year festivities coming up. Stay healthy!
- Nagy-Szakal, D., Williams, B. L., Mishra, N., Che, X., Lee, B., Bateman, L., Klimas, N. G., Komaroff, A. L., Levine, S., Montoya, J. G., Peterson, D. L., Ramanan, D., Jain, K., Eddy, M. L., Hornig, M., & Lipkin, W. I. (2017). Fecal metagenomic profiles in subgroups of patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. Microbiome, 5(1), 44. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40168-017-0261-y
- Pascal, M., Perez-Gordo, M., Caballero, T., Escribese, M. M., Lopez Longo, M. N., Luengo, O., Manso, L., Matheu, V., Seoane, E., Zamorano, M., Labrador, M., & Mayorga, C. (2018). Microbiome and Allergic Diseases. Frontiers in immunology, 9, 1584. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2018.01584