October 02, 2021
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It’s been said that the gut is the body’s second brain – and when you have an unhealthy gut, it can take a toll on your entire body. In order to understand why this happens, it helps to first know how a properly functioning gut is supposed to operate.
Signs of good gut health
Your gastrointestinal tract starts with your mouth and ends with the anus. Its job is to take in food, digest it, absorb nutrients, and expel the remaining waste. But how do you know if it’s working?
“A healthy gut is usually functioning properly when you have a bowel movement one to two times daily that is well-formed and easy to pass,” says Rosia Parrish, ND, a naturopathic doctor based in Boulder, Colorado, who specializes in natural and complementary medicine. These daily bowel movements should be free of symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and loose stools. Other signs of a healthy gut include being free of rectal symptoms like hemorrhoids and abdominal symptoms such as gas, bloating, and abdominal pain.
In other words, the gut just works. “With a healthy functioning digestive system, you’re not reactive to foods or external inputs like stress or environmental factors,” says Dr. Parrish. “You also have less susceptibility to conditions such as skin disorders, autoimmune conditions, inflammatory responses, and other health concerns.”
Common signs of an unhealthy gut
On the flip side, according to Parrish, an unhealthy gut can be tied to various symptoms throughout the body, including:
If your stomach is frequently upset by symptoms such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain, these can be signs of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common condition that affects the large intestines. A review published in July 2018 in the journal F1000 Research suggested that imbalances in the gut bacteria, called dysbiosis, can play a role in the development of IBS for some people.
A study published in April 2017 in the journal Microbiome found that people with chronic fatigue syndrome may have imbalances in the gut microbiome, which consists of the bacteria, microorganisms, fungi, and viruses present in the gastrointestinal tract. Researchers also found that almost half of the people with fatigue also had IBS.
Eating too much sugar can lead to an abundance of “bad” bacteria in the gut and dysbiosis. Research published in August 2014 in the journal Bioessays suggested that one way to change your eating habits is by changing what is present in the microbiome.
Research has found differences in the gut microbiomes of lean and obese people. A study published in July 2016 in the journal Nutrition Today suggested that a Western-style diet high in fat and refined carbohydrates may promote intestinal bacteria that’s linked to obesity.
Research has also shown a link between an unhealthy gut and skin problems such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema. A review published in July 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology stated that the gut microbiome influences the skin through complex immune mechanisms and that probiotics and prebiotics may help balance the gut and thus prevent or treat these inflammatory skin issues.
Another review published in July 2018 in Frontiers in Microbiology found that an unhealthy gut can play a complex role in allergic conditions including respiratory allergies, food allergies, and skin allergies. Thus, the gut microbiome may influence nutrition, skin, and even the lungs.
A study published in August 2018 in the journal Clinical & Experimental Immunology stated that a particular gut bacteria, called Bacteroides fragilis, produces a protein that may trigger the onset of autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and multiple sclerosis.
There is a well-documented link between the gut and the brain, and the influence of the gut may also extend to your mood. A review published in September 2017 in the journal Clinics and Practice found that gut disturbances and inflammation in the central nervous system may be potential causes of anxiety and depression, and that probiotics may help treat these conditions.
A review published in February 2020 in The Journal of Headache and Pain found that while the link isn’t totally clear, the gut-brain connection may impact migraines as well. The review found that there is also a link between migraines and other conditions related to gut health, including IBS.
How to balance your gut health
If you experience any of these various symptoms, it’s best to get checked out by a doctor to determine if your symptoms are due to an unhealthy gut or other factors. From there, you may also want to visit a naturopathic doctor who specializes in gut health.
A naturopath may opt to put you on a specialized diet or perform tests to see if you have food triggers and sensitivities that might be causing an imbalance in your gut. “The very first step in healing the gut is to identify and remove the offending foods. If you stop eating the food that is affecting the lining of the intestines, this can give your gastrointestinal tract a break and give it a chance to heal,” says Parrish.
A naturopath can also help identify if you have bacterial overgrowth, yeast, or parasites that are affecting your gut health.
From there, a naturopath will likely recommend tailored foods and supplements that can help repair your gut, including probiotics, prebiotics, enzymes, glutamine, fish oil, and more.
Addressing your lifestyle habits can also help. “Balancing other aspects of health can restore your gut to optimal functioning,” says Parrish. “[For example,] it’s amazing how much stress plays a role in digestion, as well as sleep.”
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