What Are the Symptoms of an Unhealthy Gut? Signs To Look For

Poor Gut Health Affects Your Mood, Energy, Brain, Hormones, Skin, and More

Five different digestive system parts colored red in anatomical illustrations

Your gut health has a tremendous impact on your overall health. If you think that digestive symptoms are the only signs of an unhealthy gut, you are only partially right. Your gut health also affects your mood, energy, brain function, hormonal health, immune health, skin health, and much more. In fact, some people with gut problems don’t have obvious digestive issues. Instead, they struggle with symptoms and conditions that most people don’t associate with gut health.

In this article, we’ll help you explore if your health symptoms and conditions may be connected to your digestive system. Then, we’ll explain the fundamental steps you can take for a healthy gut and better overall health.

Meet Your Microbiota

Problems in the gut, and many symptoms outside the gut have their root in an unhealthy microbiota, the community of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. Your microbiota (sometimes called a microbiome) is a complex ecosystem that science is only beginning to understand.

What we do know is that your digestive tract contains roughly a thousand different species of bacteria. We live in symbiosis with these living microorganisms, meaning it’s a win-win relationship. They help us with important bodily processes, and we provide them with food and shelter. However, when bad bacteria take over, a parasitic relationship develops. In this case, bacteria thrive, but you don’t.

Changes in the microbiota have been observed in a vast array of diseases, health conditions, and symptoms. There are a few different changes in the microbiota that can affect your health:

  • Reduced diversity in the species of microorganisms
  • Imbalance of good and bad bacteria
  • Infection where bad bacteria take over
  • Bacterial overgrowth — when normal bacteria grows where it shouldn’t

What Are the Symptoms of an Unhealthy Gut?

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Unhealthy changes in your gut microbiota can have far-reaching effects on your health by causing inflammation, immune dysregulations, and poor nutrient absorption. These changes can cause a wide array of symptoms. Let’s take a closer look.

Inflammation—Signs and Symptoms

For many people, the digestive tract is the leading cause of inflammation in the body. When your gut microbiota is unbalanced, it becomes inflamed. This can cause inflammation throughout your entire body and lead to a wide variety of symptoms, including:

Immune System and Autoimmunity—Signs and Symptoms

The greatest density of immune cells in your body can be found in your small intestine [30 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Bacterial overgrowths or chronic inflammation in the small intestine can send the immune system into a constant state of hyperreactivity and immune reactions.

Research shows that those with IBS have overactive immune responses in the gut [31 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. A large body of research makes a strong association between autoimmune conditions and imbalances in the gut microbiota.

Here are some of the symptoms and conditions that can occur because of immune dysregulation that starts in the gut:

Poor Nutrient Absorption—Signs and Symptoms

Your gut health affects how well you absorb nutrients [51 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 52 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 53 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Poor digestion and nutrient absorption, or malabsorption, can lead to a number of symptoms:

Gut Symptoms

Let’s not forget that problems in the gut can cause digestive symptoms too. Bloating, abdominal pain, excessive belching and farting, constipation, loose stools, reflux, indigestion, and heartburn are obvious signs that all is not well in your digestive tract.

Experiencing any of these digestive symptoms on an ongoing basis strongly indicates an unhealthy gut.

Why Is Poor Gut Health So Common?

What are the symptoms of an unhealthy gut: Different types of microbiota

People living in Westernized societies tend to have less bacterial diversity in their gut compared to those living in non-Westernized societies [60 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 61 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Why are our microbiotas less diverse in more developed societies? As Westernized societies have become increasingly sterile and hygienic, we’ve become more disconnected from environmental sources of microbes — through contact with soil, animals, and nature. In contrast, a modern-day hunter-gatherer is in constant contact with all of these sources [62 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 63, 64 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Our decreased bacterial exposure starts at birth, with more C-sections and less breastfeeding [65 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Antibiotic use, antibacterial products, and higher sanitation standards have provided many benefits. However, there are negative impacts on the health and diversity of our gut microbiome [66 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Finally, our Western lifestyles of fast food (poor diet), stress, prescription medications, deskbound days, and sleepless nights take their toll on our gut health [67 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 68 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 69 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 70 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 71 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 72 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 73 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 74 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

How To Get Your Gut Health Back on Track

I developed the Great-in-8 Action Plan as a system for restoring good gut health. It’s a step-by-step approach that addresses the most fundamental issues first. Here’s an overview:

The Great-in-8 Action Plan

1. Reset — Improve your diet and lifestyle.

2. Support — Support your gut with probiotics and digestive enzymes/acid.

3. Remove — Remove/reduce unwanted gut bacteria with antimicrobial herbs.

4. Rebalance — Rebalance gut bacteria after treatment with antimicrobial herbs.

5. Reintroduce — Reintroduce the foods you removed.

6. Feed — Feed the good bacteria.

7. Wean — Wean yourself off the supplements in your plan.

8. Maintenance and fun — Maintain your improvements, and enjoy your newfound health.

What are the symptoms of an unhealthy gut: the steps to healing your gut

Anyone can get started with the Great-in-8 Action Plan at home to improve their digestive and non-digestive symptoms by improving their diet, addressing stress and lifestyle issues, and boosting beneficial bacteria through probiotic supplementation.

For some people, these first steps, described below, are enough to get gut health back on track. Those with more complex gut issues may need to take additional steps described in my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You.

Diet Options for Better Gut Health

Descriptions of the four principles of a healthy diet

Sugar, alcohol, and processed foods feed bad bacteria in the gut and increase inflammation. There are several anti-inflammatory diet options that can improve your digestive health. However, the most important strategy is to focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods and to listen to your body.

There are four important principles when it comes to healthy eating:

  1. Eat to control inflammation.
  2. Eat to control and balance blood sugar.
  3. Find your ideal intake of carbohydrates and prebiotics.
  4. Identify your food allergies and intolerances. (This relates to #1.)

I often recommend the Paleo diet to patients, as it can help you address all four dietary principles.

Lifestyle Options for Better Gut Health

Poor lifestyle habits can contribute significantly to poor gut health, for example:

Taking time to take care of yourself is important for your gut health. Strive for 7-8 hours of sleep per night, spend time in nature, enjoy hobbies and friendships, and move your body. Moderate exercise, such as walking and yoga are both known for their stress-busting benefits.

While medications have their place, they are often overused, for example:

You might be using medication to relieve what are the symptoms of an unhealthy gut while causing further damage to your gut health. For example, NSAIDs like Ibuprofen and Aleve temporarily calm inflammation but cause leaky gut and more inflammation in the long term. If this is the case for you, work to wean yourself off while taking other steps to heal your gut.

Probiotics for Better Gut Health

Another fundamental approach for better gut health is taking high-quality probiotic supplements.

Probiotics can help improve the balance of organisms in your gut, reduce overzealous immune system activity, and reduce the inflammation which many of us suffer from. The benefits of probiotics are clearly shown in hundreds of clinical studies and include:

Probiotic foods like kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha are healthy dietary choices that provide small doses of beneficial bacteria. However, for higher daily probiotic doses and therapeutic effects, probiotic supplements are the best choice.

Your Gut Holds the Key To Better Health

The health and diversity of the microorganisms in your digestive tract don’t just help with digesting food. They play a major role in your overall wellness.

Poor gut health can show up as digestive symptoms or as seemingly unrelated symptoms like fatigue, poor mood, insomnia, or brain fog. Poor gut health can also manifest as hormonal, inflammatory, or immune conditions.

There’s lots you can do to support better gut health. Start by eating a whole foods diet, getting enough sleep, managing stress, and taking probiotic supplements. If you need more help, schedule an appointment with our clinic.

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