The microbiota within the gut plays a critical, yet often underplayed, role in human health and disease. Known as the gut microbiome, we typically have anywhere between 300 to 500 different bacterial species living in our digestive systems1. How healthy our gut is, depends on the diversity of the microbiota and the balance between good and bad bacteria.
The gut microbiome is essential in helping the digestive system break down food and extract nutrients for the body to use. Having the right balance of good bacteria helps prevent ‘bad’ bacteria from overgrowing. When this balance is disrupted, and bad bacteria multiply, you become more susceptible to conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s Disease2.
Beyond gastrointestinal disorders, research is also increasingly showing a link between the state of one’s gut health and autoimmune diseases, mood and mental health, obesity, skin conditions, allergies, endocrine disorders, and even some cancers3.
Signs of an unhealthy gut
We each have a unique gut microbiome and it is affected by both environmental factors and what we eat as we go through life. Taking antibiotics, having poor sleeping patterns, experiencing high stress levels, and poor diet can also alter the balance of microbiota and their ability to function. Here are some of the most common signs of poor gut health:
Gas and bloating
A healthy gut helps to process food and eliminate waste. The digestion and fermentation process naturally produces gas, but certain types of gut bacteria produce more gas than others. So when you have a surplus of the gas-producing bacteria, you’re more susceptible to excessive gas, and trapped gas, which causes uncomfortable bloating.
Irregular bowel movements
Chronic or acute diarrhea can be caused by a bacterial overgrowth or an infection of particular ‘bad’ bacteria like Clostridium difficle (commonly known as C. diff) in the gut. Chronic diarrhea can also result in the loss of good bacteria, causing further imbalance in the gut microbiome. On the other hand, functional constipation and IBS-C (irritable bowel syndrome with constipation) has been linked to bacterial imbalance in the gut, where certain types of bacteria are too low for healthy bowel function4.
Unlike allergies where the body has an immune system reaction to particular foods, food intolerance relates to the body having physical difficulty digesting certain foods. Not having the right healthy bacteria present in the gut can limit your body’s ability to effectively break down specific foods, resulting in cramping, nausea, bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
While inflammatory skin conditions like acne, psoriasis and eczema are typically treated topically, there is often a connection to an unhealthy gut. Similar to the gut-brain-axis, research has shown a bidirectional link between the gut and the skin – where gut health is linked to skin homeostasis5. Imbalances can cause inflammatory skin disorders. This makes diet particularly important in the holistic treatment of these conditions.
Weight gain and obesity
Gut bacteria can influence weight gain by affecting the way our bodies absorb nutrients, store fat and regulate blood sugar. Some studies have shown that the gut microbiome of overweight people is more likely to be less diverse – hindering metabolism and resulting in the urge to overeat due to poor nutrient absorption6.
A high-sugar diet and processed foods have been shown to decrease healthy bacteria in the gut. Particular bacteria such as yeast, thrive on sugar, and when there’s an overgrowth of yeast, it can lead to strong cravings for sugar. Fulfilling these cravings then leads to the continued overgrowth of yeast – keeping your gut in an unhealthy cycle of imbalance.
Research has strongly linked poor gut health and reduced bacterial diversity to chronic fatigue7. In addition, the hormone that affects mood and sleep rhythms, serotonin, is mostly produced in the gut. So gut health imbalances can negatively impact sleep patterns and quality of sleep – resulting in persistent tiredness.
How to improve gut health
Maintaining a healthy gut starts with a healthy diet. Processed foods and sugar create the perfect environment for the proliferation of bad bacteria, while healthy, complex carbohydrates and plant-based, fibre-rich foods help to feed good bacteria in the gut. It’s also recommended to eat healthy prebiotic foods such as artichoke, asparagus and flaxseeds to help good bacteria multiply in the gut.
Since we all have gut microbiomes as unique as our fingerprints, it’s important to identify and eliminate the specific ‘trigger’ foods that disrupt the balance in your gut. Continuing to eat foods that your body struggles to process, or that it has a reaction to can lead to inflammation that will perpetuate poor gut health. Trigger foods can be identified through sensitivity tests or by following an elimination diet and then slowly reintroducing common trigger foods and documenting any symptoms.
Other holistic interventions to improve gut health include regular exercise, managing stress, taking probiotics, and even intermittent fasting. Since it has such a strong influence on overall health, investing in improving your gut health is essential in unlocking optimal wellness.
Need to get your gut health back on track? We use a functional medicine approach for the holistic treatment of patients. We will work with you to fully understand the underlying causes of your symptoms and conditions, helping to create a personalised treatment programme and dietary guidelines. Make a booking for an online consultation here.
1, 3 Quigley, E.M.M. (2013) Gut Bacteria in Health and Disease. Gastroenterol Hepatol (NY) 9(9): 560–569. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3983973/
2, 4 Bull, M.J. and Plummer, N.T. (2014) Part 1: The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease. Integrative Medicine Journal. 13(6): 17–22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4566439/
5 Salem, I., Ramser, A., Isham, N. et al. The Gut Microbiome as a Major Regulator of the Gut-Skin Axis. Front Microbiol. 2018; 9: 1459. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6048199/
6 Turnbaugh PJ, Hamady M, Yatsunenko T, et al. A core gut microbiome in obese and lean twins. Nature. 2009;457(7228):480–484. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677729/
7 Giloteaux, L., Goodrich, J.K., Walters, W.A. et al. Reduced diversity and altered composition of the gut microbiome in individuals with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. Microbiome 4, 30 (2016).