The Gut Health Guide: How to Identify Problems & Improve Your Digestion

How healthy is your gut bacteria?

If you’re not sure, you’re not alone.

Gut health has become one of the most discussed topics in health and wellness. But despite the chatter, most people are still learning how to go about improving their digestive health.

Let’s start with the basics.

The Role of Gut Bacteria in Your Health

The gut microbiome is part of the digestive tract that consists of trillions of microbes, also known as microbiota. It is made up of several species of probiotic bacteria and other microorganisms that are mostly specific to each individual host. Rest assured, this bacteria is considered good bacteria! The good bacteria that line our small and large intestine help to protect our immune system and provide various other health benefits. Lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and stress levels can influence the composition and function of our gut microbiome!

The Gut Health Guide: How to Identify Problems & Improve Your DigestionGood bacteria and other microorganisms make up your microbiome.

You might be a little freaked out knowing that there is a giant colony of bacteria living in your intestines. But there’s no need to worry; these microorganisms are there to help! The good bacteria in your gut help maintain a balanced, long-term interaction with your body called symbiosis. They work to create a healthy and safe environment for the host (that’s you) so that the rest of your body can maintain proper function and ward off any foreign invaders.

When we don’t take care of our microbiome, bad bacteria, sometimes called pathogens, can find their way in. These pathogens can alter your flora and cause damage to your intestinal wall, decreasing overall immunity.

What Causes Poor Gut Health?

Poor Nutrition

Processed foods that contain chemical additives can negatively impact the environment your microbiota live in. Foods with refined sugar and starch, hydrogenated fats and laboratory-made flavor enhancers are difficult for our gut bacteria to break down, causing increased inflammation within the gut. Eating these types of foods limits bacterial diversity and growth. Poor diversity within the gut flora can make it more difficult to recover from illness and infection. [1][2]

Drinking Alcohol

Excessive alcohol intake interrupts the digestive process. It can cause dysbiosis, or a microbial imbalance, that can lead to gas, bloating, constipation, abdominal pain and more. Not all alcohol has negative impacts on the gut microbiome; however, overconsumption and certain types of alcohol can decrease the number of beneficial bacteria within your gut. [3][4][5]

The Gut Health Guide - Gut Health and Alcohol Drinking too much alcohol can negatively impact your digestion and overall gut health.

Anxiety & Stress

Ever heard of the gut-brain connection? New research is telling us that your mood can negatively or positively influence your gut health. Although human studies are limited, several mice studies have shown that increased anxiety and stress reduce beneficial bacteria within the gut and alter its composition. [6][7]

Autoimmune Conditions

Our friendly gut bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids through fermentation, which help to protect our immune system and prevent inflammation. However, the immune systems of those who suffer from autoimmune conditions mistakenly attack themselves, causing gut inflammation and diminished growth of beneficial gut bacteria. This can cause fatigue, difficulty concentrating, joint pain and skin rashes.

Blood Sugar Problems

Studies on the microbiota have found links between poor glycemic control and imbalanced gut flora. Individuals with type 2 diabetes may experience this disruption of beneficial bacteria due to shifts in certain metabolic hormones and decreased production of short-chain fatty acids. [8]

The Gut Health Guide - Antibiotics and Gut HealthAntibiotics can kill off good bacteria in your stomach.

Too Many Antibiotics

Medications, specifically antibiotics, have shown to cause negative side effects to a healthy gut. Antibiotics work to treat infections and diseases by killing bacteria and preventing them from multiplying. Although antibiotics can be life-saving, a single treatment can change the composition and diversity of probiotic strains, such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. Poor bacterial diversity has been associated with increased risk of eczema, asthma, allergies, breast cancer and bowel cancer. [9][10]

Signs & Symptoms of Poor Gut Health?

Indigestion

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder characterized by chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, indigestion and other GI symptoms. This can cause gut microbiome alterations and increase risk for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which leads to severe nutritional deficiencies. [11]

Weight Fluctuations

If you notice you are gaining or losing weight without changing your exercise routine or diet, you may need to get your gut health in check! Weight fluctuations may mean that you are experiencing malabsorption, or the inability of your body to break down food and nutrients.

Fatigue

Feeling tired all the time? Wondering why you can’t sleep at night? Well, most of the serotonin in your body, a hormone that affects sleep, is made in your gut! So If you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a while, your microbiome might be to blame!

The Gut Health Guide - Fatigue and gut healthPoor gut health can adversely impact your ability to get a good night’s sleep.

Skin Irritation

If you have ever noticed an eczema flare-up after a week of “cheat days”, it may be related to your gut health! Poor dietary choices can cause small gaps in the intestinal wall to loosen or open, allowing certain proteins that can irritate the skin to leak into your body.

Food Intolerances

When your body is intolerant to certain foods, it’s because it cannot break that food’s nutrients down or absorb them properly. This causes inflammation within your gut leading to undesirable symptoms such as gas, bloating, abdominal pain and nausea.

How Can I Improve My Gut Health & Digestion?

Eat a Balanced Diet

Proper nutrition is the key to a flourishing microbiome! Incorporating vegetables, fruits and fiber-filled whole grains into your diet will amplify the diversity of your flora. Healthy foods provide nutrients that feed the good bacteria in our guts to help them grow and function normally. Aim to eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day to protect your gut!

Supplements and fermented foods containing probiotics can improve your gut health.

Add Probiotics Foods & Supplements

Probiotics are the live bacterial cultures that line our intestinal wall! There are thousands of different types of probiotics that exist in our bodies. Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium are two of the most commonly known and researched probiotic strains available in probiotic supplements. As always, be sure to consult your doctor before taking any dietary supplements! Probiotic foods are usually fermented foods that include yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and tempeh.

Get Enough Prebiotics

Prebiotics, or fiber, are the foods that probiotics eat! Without prebiotic fiber, our probiotic bacteria cannot grow properly! Foods high in fiber, such as onions, bananas, apples, asparagus, artichokes and other complex carbohydrates can help you maintain a flourishing microbiome. Consuming anywhere from 25 to 38 grams of fiber per day is recommended for optimal gut health.

Stock Up on Polyphenols

Polyphenols are foods packed with antioxidants that help to decrease inflammation. Polyphenol foods are difficult to digest, so they get eaten up by the probiotic bacteria in your gut! This combats any prior gut inflammation and ensures that your flora is healthy. Foods rich in polyphenols include blueberries, dark leafy greens, green tea, coffee, red wine and even dark chocolate!

Foods that are rich in polyphenols, such as blueberries, can help reduce gut inflammation.

Exercise Regularly

It’s no secret that working out relieves stress and improves your overall health. So it comes as no surprise that physical activity improves your gut health, too! Regular exercise has shown to allow our gut microbes to produce ample amounts of short-chain fatty acids. Higher levels of short-chain fatty acids within your body help protect your immune system! [12][13]

Try an Elimination Diet

Elimination diets, like the FODMAP diet, help you find food sensitivities or intolerances that can negatively impact your gut. These diets require that you eliminate certain food groups, then add them back in over time in order to identify a trigger food or food group. Once a specific food group or food is identified as a trigger, you can exclude it from your diet so that you no longer experience symptoms! Be sure to follow up with a gastroenterologist and/or gastrointestinal dietitian before starting an elimination diet.

Sources:

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27110483
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15582912
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3362077/
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22552027
[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4313583/
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25028050
[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6363653/
[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19018661
[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685866/
[11] https://www.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/ajpgi.00338.2016
[12] https://www.hindawi.com/journals/omcl/2017/3831972/
[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22797568

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written by

Brenna Wallace

Brenna Wallace

MS, RDN, LDN

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