The gut is full of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, making up the gut microbiome. Gut bacteria play a pivotal role in converting food into energy, breaking down nutrients, and protecting the body against disease. In fact, the health of nearly all physical systems depends on a healthy gut, especially immune health and mental health.
To maintain healthy function, the gut requires a delicate balance between healthy and “pathogenic” bacteria and a wide diversity of bacteria. When the gut tilts off balance, so does everything else.
Here are the most common symptoms that signal a gut off balance, and what you can do to restore your gut health.
Gas, Bloating, and Other Stomach Issues
Feeling bloated after a meal is a normal effect of digestion, but if you suffer severe bloating, tightness in the stomach, and pain, it may be a signal that your gut is off balance.
Causes of bloating include:
- Foods like cabbage, beans & lentils
- Processed, sugary, spicy, or fatty foods
- Foods you may have an intolerance to
- Fizzy drinks
- Eating a large meal late at night
- Swallowing air when you eat
- Too much salt, which causes water retention
And sometimes a patient feeling bloated is actually suffering from weakness of abdominal wall muscles causing the contents to push outward the belly wall and cause a sensation of bloatedness and distention
Bloating may also be due to hormones, especially during your period. 3 in 4 women report abdominal bloating before and during their periods. Stress can also cause bloating, due to the communication between the nervous system and the gut.
Severe bloating may be a sign of several gastrointestinal diseases, including:
- IBS is a common digestive condition that manifests as stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea, and/or constipation.
- Functional dyspepsia is a term for an upset stomach with no obvious cause
- Visceral hypersensitivity, which means you may be experiencing normal levels of bloating and/or gas but have a lower threshold for pain in your abdomen so the bloating feels severe.
- Carbohydrate malabsorption is a specific difficulty in digestive certain carbs such as lactose, fructose, or carbs in wheat and beans.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is a condition in which the gut bacteria from the colon overflow into the small intestine and overwhelm the bacteria meant to balance them out.
Simple ways to reduce bloating:
- Regular exercise improves circulation and digestion
- Herbal teas like peppermint, chamomile, ginger, turmeric, and fennel aid digestion and helps process gas. Dandelion tea can also help with water retention
- Peppermint oil is a natural antispasmodic, relaxing intestinal muscles to ease gas and bloating
- Magnesium can help neutralize stomach acid and relax intestinal muscles
- Probiotics can help rebalance gut bacteria, digestion, and absorption
- Dehydration can cause bloating, so drink plenty of water
- Massaging your stomach from right to left can relax your muscles and ease discomfort
- Supplements like Curcumin have been found to ease stomach bloating
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals rather than three large meals a day
- Stress relief can be very beneficial for digestive issues as the stomach is very sensitive to ongoing stress.
Stress & Moodiness
A common sign of an unhealthy gut is experiencing heightened, ongoing stress and moodiness. This is due to the gut-brain axis, and the bidirectional communication between the enteric nervous system and gastrointestinal function.
When the gut is irritated, it sends signals to the brain which may affect motivation and cognition, or result in feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression. This is seen commonly in patients with IBS and IBD.
It works the other way around, too. Studies show that ongoing stress can reshape the composition of the gut microbiome. This is because excess levels of cortisol and other stress hormones cause widespread inflammation, throw off gut bacteria balance, and harm intestinal muscles. This in turn disrupts the metabolism of nutrients and the production of neurotransmitters, causing further symptoms of stress and depression.
The good news is by improving your gut health, you can also improve mental health in many cases. Not only that, but by investing in stress relief you may also be able to improve gut function.
Diet tips for gut and mind:
- Limit processed foods as much as possible, as food additives and preservatives disrupt healthy gut bacteria
- Limit red meat and lean towards lean poultry instead
- Integrate fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables as much as possible – organic is best
- Probiotics and fermented foods help maintain and promote healthy gut bacteria, but if you suffer from IBD you should seek the advice of a registered dietician first
Unintentional Weight Loss
Unintentional weight loss can be caused by a number of factors, including a stressful period in your life. Many lose weight during a divorce, after losing a job, or after the death of a loved one. But you may be losing weight because of an issue with malnutrition, a health condition, or due to the side effects of medication.
If you’ve experienced sudden unintentional weight loss it’s important to alert your doctor as it may stem from a potentially serious illness.
Conditions that may cause unintentional weight loss:
- A mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, or OCD
- IBS or coeliac disease
- Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- Overactive or underactive thyroid
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Eating disorder
- Heart failure
- Addison’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- A parasitic infection
- Drug abuse
- Swelling of the pancreas
Unintentional weight loss can also be caused by a nutritional deficiency. IBD patients often struggle to absorb enough nutrients, due to a limited diet, or absorption difficulties directly related to the condition. If you have either Crohn’s disease or ulcerative, it’s highly recommended to see a registered dietitian who will pinpoint and address any deficiency.
An unhealthy gut can cause skin issues due to the influence of intestinal bacteria over the entire body, even the skin which has a microbiome of its own. Researchers believe the skin and gut may communicate through several mechanisms, including the absorption of nutrients that have a direct influence on the skin or stimulate hormonal changes. The skin and gut may also communicate through the influence of gut bacteria on the immune system.
A disturbance in this gut-skin axis may result in breakouts, dry skin, psoriasis, eczema, or rosacea.
Simple tips to soothe gut-related skin issues:
- Eat a clean diet with as little processed food as possible
- Avoid alcohol and sugary drinks
- Invest in stress relief and improving sleep quality
- Get checked for allergies
- Exercise and time outdoors can help clear skin
- Invest in a good quality skincare routine
You can also try skin-supporting nutrients such as vitamins A, C, E, K2, B3, and B5. Minerals such as selenium, silica, zinc, and omega-3 fats can also improve skin issues.
Unhealthy bacteria in the gut can trigger the intestinal lining and immune system to release pro-inflammatory cytokines meant to fight any potential infection. This low-grade inflammation can cause feelings of exhaustion as the body shuts down and preserves energy, much like the effects of a cold or flu.
If the inflammation is long-lasting, it can cause a constant, vague feeling of exhaustion for months on end. This is because inflammatory cytokines can affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which coordinates the body’s response to stress and mood, and regulates our circadian rhythm through the release of cortisol. Flat levels of cortisol can lead to burnout and fatigue.
Many with fatigue also present some level of gut barrier permeability. In other words, Leaky Gut. This can cause nutritional deficiencies that lead to low energy levels and contribute to fatigue. You may want to see your dietician or nutritionist to check for deficiencies.
If you’re looking for a quick fix for fatigue, avoid red or processed meat as much as possible as they can alter the composition of the gut microbiome for the worse. Swap red meat out for plant-based food which strengthens the intestinal lining and boosts gut-protective bacteria. One study suggested that high-dose oral Thiamine vitamin can help reduce fatigue in IBD patients.
Gut health has a marked effect on sleep cycles and sleep quality. This is because the gut produces roughly 95% of our serotonin, which modulates sleep and is required to produce melatonin – the body’s main sleep hormone.
Melatonin levels should naturally rise as it gets darker to promote sleep. But if the gut is off balance, the supply and production of these hormones and neurotransmitters can lead to sleepless nights and irregular sleep patterns.
If you’re up all hours of the night, here are a few simple methods to improve sleep quality.
- Get plenty of sunlight and movement in the morning to sync your body’s clock with the sun cycle
- Slow down mental and physical activity as the sun sets
- Keep your bedroom cool (a lower body temperature promotes deep sleep)
- Eliminate blue light from computer screens and smartphones at night
- Eat meals and try to go to sleep at regular times to enhance sleep quality
- Don’t eat too close to bedtime, and keep meals small in the evening
- Limit sugar-rich foods, refined carbohydrates, fermented or smoked foods & plants from the nightshade family (these can contribute to insomnia)
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bedtime
- Embrace stress management tools like meditation, aromatherapy (lavender is especially calming), or breathing exercises
- Try some calming Yin yoga before sleep, which generally involves gentle stretching to balance your energy before bed
Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA), the body’s “chill out” neurotransmitter. GABA is mainly synthesized by gut bacteria, and therefore levels can be impacted by an imbalanced gut microbiome.
Apart from carb and sugar cravings, a GABA deficiency may also cause anxiety, nerves, irritability, restlessness, sleepiness, insomnia, low resilience to stress, phobias, and impulsive behaviors.
How to fight the cravings:
- Some believe dehydration can cause cravings, so drink plenty of water!
- Keep fruit around the house so when the cravings hit, you can substitute fruit for processed sugar
- Avoid artificial sweeteners and processed sweets as much as possible
- Avoid excess stress and try to improve your sleep quality
- Don’t be too strict on yourself. A treat here and there isn’t the end of the world. You still need to enjoy your life, just lean towards quality over quantity
When to see a Doctor
Our entire body appears dependent on a healthy, well-functioning gut and microbiome. But sometimes gut-health tips aren’t enough. If your symptoms are severe and persistent, it’s best to consult with your doctor or gastroenterologist to get to the root cause of your symptoms.