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Every day, your body takes food and turns it into the fuel that powers you through daily life. It’s a process so natural that it is easy to take for granted, which is what makes digestion issues so noticeable when they do occur. Many health professionals emphasize the importance of gut health, but what exactly does that mean? How do you know if your digestive processes are “normal”? Here are some ways to recognize problems with your gut — along with unhealthy dietary and lifestyle practices — and how you can take action.
Defining Gut Health and Its Importance
The gut is the balance of bacteria in and the function of your gastrointestinal (GI) system. The GI tract is made up of multiple organs that work together to digest food. This includes your esophagus, stomach, and large and small intestines. A healthy gut is capable of breaking down food, absorbing the necessary nutrients, and discarding waste without a lot of discomfort. A proper balance of good and bad bacteria within the GI tract (also known as the gut microbiome) is an important trait of good digestive health. This equilibrium helps keep the whole system running smoothly.
There are numerous bodily functions taking place in your GI tract that are essential to your general well-being. For instance, the gut is where vitamins and nutrients enter the bloodstream to be carried to the rest of your body. Additionally, the majority of your immune cells reside in the gut. Without these powerful cells, the body can’t fight off harmful bacteria as well as viruses, infections, and fungi. Therefore, maintaining a healthy microbiome is vitally important for proper sustenance and a strong immune system.
How Do I Know If I Have an Unbalanced Gut?
Our bodies are incredible and intuitive — if you are experiencing poor gut health, the body will produce obvious signals to let you know. Plus, symptoms of an unhealthy microbiome could not only help diagnose more serious conditions but also give you an indication of how to repair it. Here are some common signs:
- Upset stomach: Aside from the occasional heavy meal or food intolerance, regular digestive functions should go unnoticed. However, constant abdominal disturbances — such as aches, gas, bloating, acid reflux, and heartburn — are clues that your gut isn’t performing at its best. Irregular bowel movements, including constipation and diarrhea, are also signs that your body is not eliminating food waste as well as it should.
- Fluctuating weight: Because your gut plays such a critical role in nutrient absorption and blood sugar regulation, an imbalance could impact your body’s ability to maintain a healthy weight. If left unchecked, this can lead to excessive weight gain and even insulin resistance. Alternatively, unintentional weight loss may occur if there is an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, causing an inability to store fat.
- Increase in food sensitivities: When the gut lacks a balance of good to bad bacteria, it’s common to notice an intolerance to more foods. You may experience symptoms of an upset stomach when trying to digest certain items that did not bother you previously. Aside from known food allergies, this increase in the number of “trigger foods” can be an indicator of underlying gastrointestinal issues.
- Skin issues or irritation: Believe it or not, signs of an unhealthy gut can also manifest visually in the form of skin irritation. This includes conditions such as eczema, rashes, flaky skin on the scalp (dandruff), rosacea, and sometimes acne. Most often, a “leaky gut” is the result of poor diet and an inability to absorb certain proteins, which then find their way into the body and cause irritation.
- Poor sleep and fatigue: As mentioned, so many critical functions happen in our gut — including your body’s production of the hormone serotonin. This important chemical affects mood and sleep. If its creation is impaired by a damaged gut, it could lead to poor quality of sleep or even insomnia. Additionally, an unhealthy microbiome can impact your ability to sleep if you regularly experience an upset stomach during the night.
Ways to Improve Your Gut Health
Once you know how to identify a poor-functioning gut, you can make the appropriate lifestyle changes to repair and nurture it. The easiest place to start is by practicing better eating habits. A diet high in refined sugars and processed foods are detrimental to maintaining the proper number of good bacteria that your gut needs to function. A healthy gut is about balance: Reduce your consumption of refined carbohydrates, frozen and fast foods and focus on a plant-based, high-fiber diet. It could lead to better digestive health.
Additionally, foods that contain probiotics and prebiotics are a great way to maintain the proper equilibrium of bacteria. Prebiotics can be found in many fruits and vegetables — including apples, bananas, onions, leeks, asparagus, and artichokes — whereas probiotics are present in many fermented foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, miso, and kombucha.
Yes, the food you eat is important, but changing other unhealthy behaviors can also benefit your gut. For example, eat slower, chew your food thoroughly, and stay hydrated. Ensure better quality of sleep by avoiding meals or snacks right before bed and try to prioritize seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Regular exercise can also prompt better digestion and reduce high-stress levels, which impact your whole body — the gut, included.
Signs Your Gut Is Regaining Health
Repairing an unbalanced gut requires a commitment to diet and lifestyle changes, but once you start to feel the difference, you won’t want to go back. You may notice that food sensitivities are at a minimum and the accompanying bouts of digestive discomfort (gas, bloating, and heartburn) are few and far between. Those who experience acne and other skin issues related to poor gut health should see improvements. Plus, because your gut is so closely related to immune function, you should be better able to ward off infection. Other indicators of this improved quality of life include higher energy, better moods, and mental clarity.
Our gut impacts so much of our overall health that it is vital to recognize when there is a problem and determine what can be done to fix it. To learn more about all the aspects of proper digestion, check out our gut health guide.
Author bio: Kara Kash, RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian at Factor — a premium weekly meal delivery service that fuses world-class culinary dishes with the latest in nutrition science to produce fully prepared meals that are as delicious as they are nutritious.