How Gut Health Dramatically Impacts Your Life (and Tips for Keeping It Balanced)
Jul 31st 2020
Gut health has become one of the newest frontiers in human biology. That’s why you’ve been hearing so much about gut imbalances, healthy bacteria, probiotics, prebiotics, leaky gut, and something called the gut microbiome (more on that later). The complexity of the human digestive system has taken scientists by surprise, and they’re working to uncover its secrets. In fact, your gut plays a major role in:
- The immune system
- Autoimmune diseases
- Mental health
- Endocrine disorders
- Skin conditions
Who knew? Although there’s a lot we don’t know, the latest research sheds light on the symptoms of an unhealthy gut and how to restore gut balance.
New Medical Discoveries, New Terms
All this new science has propelled unfamiliar and important terminology into the spotlight. Before we delve into the mysterious world of gut health, let’s unravel these gut-related words.
It’s your gastrointestinal tract or digestive system and includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum. When discussing gut health, the focus is usually on the intestines.
Gut flora (the good guys)
Also called gut microflora, intestinal flora, and “good bacteria,” gut flora are beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms that live in the intestines. They help to digest food and make vitamins like biotin and vitamin K.
It’s the term used to refer to the all the microorganisms living in your intestines, both the good and the bad. Your gut microbiome contains 300-500 different species of bacteria. Some can be harmful, but many of them are highly beneficial and essential for good health.
Occurs when the lining of the intestinal wall is damaged, making it easier for bacteria, toxins, partially digested food particles (proteins and fats), and waste to pass through the intestinal walls into the blood stream. It’s believed to be caused by chronic inflammation, food sensitivities, damage from chronic use of NSAIDs, some antibiotics, or excessive alcohol use. Many integrative and alternative medicine doctors believe it’s linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, thyroid problems, multiple sclerosis, Chron’s disease, celiac disease, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Essentially, they are gut flora (good bacteria) packaged in supplement form. They’re also found in yogurt, tempeh, sour kraut, and other fermented foods.
They are health plant fibers that promote the growth of gut flora in the intestines. The flora feed on these prebiotics, which means a good supply results in plentiful flora. You can find them in many fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
7 Signs Your Gut Needs Some TLC
When the amount of gut flora is diminished, it throws your entire microbiome off balance. Bad bacteria, harmful microorganisms, and even yeast begin running rampant in your intestines. If that weren’t bad enough, it keeps your digestive system from properly breaking down food, which means you’re not fully absorbing nutrients. It also leads to leaky gut (yikes!).
You might be wondering how to know if your gut is healthy, and it’s an important question. Here are some signs you might need to give your neglected gut some more attention.
1. Frequent tummy trouble.
If you experience frequent gas, bloating, constipation, heartburn, and diarrhea, something could be amiss in your gut. These symptoms suggest difficulty processing food and excreting waste, which leaves you with some serious discomfort. When your gut is balanced, these symptoms dissipate, and your digestive system runs more smoothly.
2. Craving lots of sugar and processed carbs.
Frequent cravings for sugar and simple carbs typically mean you’ve been eating too much of them. Your body is accustomed to this kind of fuel and starts demanding it. But processed foods and added sugars wreak havoc on your gut flora, slashing your good bacteria. This imbalance damages the gut and leads to inflammation, a forerunner of many diseases.
3. Poor sleep quality and constant fatigue.
You probably never imagined the root of your insomnia and other sleep issues were found in your gut – but it just might be the case. Your gut produces most of your body’s serotonin, a key mood and sleep hormone. So, when you have an unhealthy gut, it negatively affects serotonin production and eventually hinders sleep quality.
4. Developing skin irritations (eczema).
When gut inflammation (from food allergies or poor diet) causes a leaky gut, some of the proteins leaked into the blood stream can trigger skin irritations such as eczema. What you eat can seriously impact your skin, which is something most of us don’t realize.
5. Suffering from autoimmune conditions.
Research suggests that when your experience chronic gut imbalance, it can affect your immune system and increases your risk of developing autoimmune disorders like ulcerative colitis, Chron’s disease, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
6. Experiencing food intolerances.
If you have difficulty digesting certain foods, it’s considered a food intolerance. Sometimes it’s associated with more unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain. Poor quality gut bacteria can cause these digestive problems.
7. Gaining or losing weight unintentionally.
If you gain or lose weight without making any changes to your diet or lifestyle, an unhealthy gut could be the culprit. An imbalance in your gut microbiome can interfere with your body’s nutrient absorption, blood sugar regulation, and fat storage. Depending on the situation, you might lose weight due to an overgrowth of bad bacteria or overeat due to lacking nutrients.
How to Make Your Gut Happy
Now that you’re convinced gut health matters, let’s look at how to keep our gut microbiome in balance. It all boils down to your diet, general health, and your own specific needs.
Rethink Your Diet and Diversify
Scientists don’t know exactly how or why gut flora is so important, but they believe variety is key. Those with gut-related diseases often have little diversity among their gut flora. If you’re concerned about gut health, this means two things for your diet:
- Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat groats, millet, steel-cut oatmeal, etc.). Eating this way ensures your gut flora have all the nutrition and prebiotics they need to flourish and keep bad bacteria and yeast at bay. Consider decreasing your meat intake or switching to a plant-based diet.
- Seriously reduce the amount of processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods. They murder your gut flora and throw your gut microbiome into disarray. Replace processed snacks with a whole food version, like an apple with peanut butter instead of peanut butter-filled pretzels. For more healthy eating tips, see our article, Expert Tips for Losing Weight After 40 and Why It Seems So Hard!
Beat Back Stress
Your gut flora are sensitive little creatures and are even affected by emotions. The gut-brain connection is real. If you’ve ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach or the tight grip of anxiety in your belly, then you’ve experienced this phenomenon. So it’s not difficult to imagine that negative emotions disrupt your gut microbiome. Studies suggest that psychological stressors actually reduce the population of important microorganisms in your intestines. This happens whether the stressors are short term or chronic. It’s a major reason why chronic stress leads to so many diseases.
Stress reduction is one of the most important things you can do for your gut health and overall health. Check out our article Stress Management for Seniors: Tips for Improving Health and Wellbeing for more information on managing stress.
If you don’t drink enough water, your body struggles to expel toxins and fails to properly lubricate the digestive tract. The result is an imbalance in your gut microbiome. Bad bacteria and microorganisms begin to flourish, and your digestive system clogs up. It feels as bad as it sounds. If you want to avoid specific diseases and gastrointestinal discomfort, aim for at least 64 ounces of water each day and clear to light yellow urine.
Get 7-8 Hours of Sleep
A lack of sleep triggers physical and psychological stress, which we know makes for an unhappy gut. Additionally, even partial sleep deprivation significantly decreases the amount of gut flora and changes the balance of microorganisms in a way that’s linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Sleep is powerful, and our bodies require adequate amounts of it – even for gut health.
You now have another reason to masticate your food adequately before swallowing – it improves gut health. No joke. Thorough chewing of food breaks down food particles to a size that’s more easily digested in your gut. More efficient digestion also means increased nutrient absorption, which ensures your gut receives the prebiotics and nutrition it needs to stay balanced and healthy.
Yeah, we know – they’re everywhere. There’s almost an infinite supply of probiotics available in every dosage and variety. Now many food products display labels that read, “Now with probiotics.” It’s true that they’re way over marketed, but it’s also true that they’re important for gut health. We’ve already discussed how sensitive your gut flora can be, and sometimes they need a boost. That’s where probiotic supplements come in. They infuse your system with fresh and healthy strains of good bacteria to enlarge your gut flora family. When circumstances kill of your supply, you can bring in some reinforcements with probiotic supplements.
Talk to your doctor for recommendations on brand and dosage. Not all over-the-counter probiotics contain the quality or potency to be effective.
Note: Be sure to discuss antibiotic use with your doctor. Many types seriously damage your gut flora and the effects can last for months. Only take an antibiotic when necessary and ask your health care provider about which probiotics to take during after your antibiotic usage.
Pinpoint Food Intolerances
If you have food intolerance symptoms like cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, rashes, nausea, fatigue, or acid reflux, it’s important to identify the offending foods or ingredients. There’s some evidence that suggests food intolerances lead to leaky gut and a host of related diseases, including autoimmune disorders.
It takes some time and patience, but you can try eliminating common trigger foods and reintroducing non-offenders by following an elimination diet for 4-8 weeks. If you are uncertain about a possible food trigger, wait several more weeks before reintroducing it. Some triggers, especially gluten, can take a while to leave the system. Typically, the longer the offending food has been out of your system, the stronger the reaction if reintroduced. Your body tends to adapt to the intolerance to some degree, which means symptoms are even more noticeable after a period of elimination.
Healthy Gut, Healthy Bladder
Many of the same tips for gut health also promote bladder health. As you continue down this path of proactive wellness, you might still need some bladder leakage support.
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