Are you feeling tired? Bloated? Upset tummy? Do you experience brain fog, anxiety or depression, or headaches? Do you catch lots of colds or other infections?
If you answer “yes” to any of these, perhaps your gut health is the culprit.
It may come as a surprise to learn that the gut is the key to your overall health and wellbeing – without a healthy gut, the rest of your body just can’t perform at its best. Understanding the role of the gut in the health of the entire body is crucial, as well as knowing the signs of an unbalanced gut and what you can do to fix it.
What is gut health? Your gut is the tunnel between your mouth and your anus. Its role is to take in, break down and digest food, absorb vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, and expel waste from the body. A properly functioning gut will produce one or two regular, well-formed and easy-to-pass bowel movements per day, without discomfort. There will also be no bloating, abdominal pain, or excessive gas.
The health of the gut relies enormously on the microbiome. This is the colony of trillions of bacteria that lives in the body, with at least 80% of it located in the gut. These bacteria can weigh as much as two or more kilograms and are made up of both good and bad bacteria.
A balanced microbiome is primarily comprised of good bacteria – they are beneficial in that they control the harmful microscopic bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, and other microorganisms that can take up residence within the body. The microbiome, when it is balanced, will prevent the passage of these harmful microorganisms through the bowel wall and into the bloodstream and lymphatic system, where they can travel to other parts of the body and create havoc.
A healthy gut has a balanced microbiome. It results in a digestive system that is not inappropriately reactive to foods, stress, and other environmental factors.
The gut is described as the body’s “second brain”. An unbalanced microbiome can take a toll on everything from the function of your brain itself to your urinary tract, female gynaecological organs, oral health, immune function, and skin.
Signs of an Unbalanced Gut
An unbalanced gut can arise due to an array of causes, from poor dietary choices to inflammation, lack of sleep, certain medications, certain illnesses, and more.
An unbalanced microbiome compromises gut health and there are plenty of signs and symptoms that signify this. An overgrowth of bad gut bacteria can lead to issues including:
- Fatigue, and chronic fatigue syndrome
- Bloating, gas, constipation, abdominal pain, and/or diarrhoea
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Allergies (skin, food, and respiratory)
- Food cravings (especially sugar)
- Food intolerances
- Unintended fluctuations in weight
- Migraine headaches
- Eczema, psoriasis, acne, rosacea, dandruff, and other skin conditions
- Autoimmune conditions (e.g. multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis)
- Moodiness, irritability, difficulty focusing or concentrating
- Insomnia or excessive sleepiness
How to Support a Healthy Gut
Promoting and supporting healthy digestive function, a healthy microbiome, and a healthy gut is essential for living your best life and avoiding chronic illnesses.
Ways to improve your gut health include:
1. Improve your diet.
- Increase fibre intake
- Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and healthy fats
- Drink plenty of plain water
- Moderate consumption of meat, fat, sugar, and salt
- Increase intake of low-FODMAP foods
- A Mediterranean diet is recommended
- Say no to processed foods and sugary drinks
- Moderate alcohol
2. Reduce sugar and processed food intake.
Sugar and processed foods are the enemies of a healthy gut.
3. Identify food sensitivities.
Some of us are sensitive to certain foods- for example, lactose. If you have a sensitivity and consume these foods, the digestive tract will suffer and so will the healthy balance of gut bacteria. Work with your doctor or a naturopath to identify which foods may be causing you issues and eliminate them for a time, at least, to give your gut a chance to recover.
4. Take a probiotic.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that support a healthy microbiome and gut function. The right probiotic for you will depend on your symptoms (e.g. you may need a different strain of probiotic bacteria for IBS compared with needing to address women’s health issues or general immunity). Probiotics can be taken every day, but they should absolutely be taken as a priority during and straight after any course of antibiotics.
5. Take other appropriate supplements.
Other supplements which can help repair and support your gut include prebiotics, fish oil, glutamine, and others.
6. Minimise stress.
Stress plays a significant role in digestion, sleep patterns, and mood. Just as an unhealthy gut can affect the function of the brain, so too can mood, anxiety, depression, fear, anger, and other emotions directly impact your digestive tract and gut health.
You should also stop smoking, exercise regularly, and see your doctor for any unresolved or chronic symptoms. If you ever notice blood in your stools, changes in your typical bowel habits, or unintended weight loss, seeing your doctor as a priority is very important, regardless of your age.
Healing the gut will take some time and commitment, but the rewards to be reaped are enormous: greater vitality, improved happiness, better sleep quality, more radiant skin, and enhanced overall health and wellbeing.