Until recently, the subject of gut health has been just shy of taboo in Western society and our collective unease with the topic has contributed to the high prevalence of gastrointestinal illness and disease we experience today. Just because someone doesn't experience any uncomfortable or embarrassing digestive issues doesn't mean they have a healthy gut.

A healthy gut digests and absorbs nutrients from food, contains a stable population of healthy bacteria, supports immune health, and contributes to our overall well-being. Since gut health affects so many systems in our bodies, the symptoms of an unhealthy gut can show up in unexpected places.

GI Distress

Gastrointestinal distress is the most obvious sign of an unhealthy gut and includes but is not limited to acid reflux, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, gas and bloating. These symptoms are often attributed to lifestyle choices and stress.

While there are no quick fixes, lifestyle changes such as eating small, healthy, frequent meals, getting a good night's sleep, gradually increasing fiber, staying well hydrated, finding healthy ways to manage stress, and adding exercise to your routine can reduce GI symptoms over time.

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Long-standing mental or physical fatigue in otherwise healthy people can often be traced back to an unhealthy gut microbiome because gut bacteria play a big role in energy metabolism.

Studies have found that people who report long-standing fatigue have a less diverse bacteria population in their GI tract. A healthy gut microbiome is achieved by reducing animal protein, eating a variety of plant-based foods, and consuming less nutrient-dense foods, such as those with lots of sugar, in moderation.

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Insomnia and gut health closely connected. Quality sleep supports a healthy gut just as much as a healthy gut supports quality sleep. Gut bacteria regulate sleep through the gut-brain axis, a network of pathways that allow the brain and gut to communicate.

Insomnia disrupts the internal clocks of our bacteria much the same way that it does our own circadian rhythm, and this impacts the structure and diversity of our microbiome.

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Food Intolerance

Food intolerances occur when a person has difficulty digesting certain foods; they affect 20% of the world's population.

There are various causes, including depletion of healthy gut bacteria and intestinal barrier dysfunction, also known as leaky gut, which is a concept under much research these days. Experts believe a so-called leaky gut allows toxins, viral or bacterial invaders, and partially digested food to seep out through openings in the intestinal lining and into the surrounding tissues.

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Food Cravings

Our well-being depends on a healthy, balanced gut flora, which is made up of friendly bacteria and other microbes. However, some of these microbes may overgrow at times, impairing gut function and causing symptoms. Some bad or pathogenic bacteria may also develop.

Gut bacteria influence and manipulate our food cravings by altering our mood, taste receptors, neural mechanisms, and hormones. Just like a healthy flora can encourage us to crave healthy foods, an unbalanced flora may encourage excessive food cravings.

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Weight Changes

The gut flora influences not only how food is metabolized but also how efficiently the energy from food is used or stored by the body.

Unhealthy gut bacteria play a role in obesity and obesity-related metabolic disorders. The composition and structure of our gut microbiome are influenced by our diets. The gut microbiome may also be improved with probiotic and prebiotic supplements.

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Skin Irritation

The relationship between gut health and skin irritation is not completely understood. However, researchers theorize that a gut-skin axis may allow communication between the gut and skin much like the gut-brain axis does.

Studies suggest that overpopulation of certain bacteria that cause leaky gut and inflammation correlate with skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, and rosacea.

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While not all migraines are triggered by poor gut health, migraines are a potential symptom of a disrupted gut microbiome. Studies have shown associations between gut health and migraine occurrence, but the exact nature of the connection is still being researched.

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Auto-Immune Conditions

Immune responses can be triggered when bacteria from the gut pass through the gastrointestinal lining, cause inflammation, and may even travel to other organs. In people with autoimmune disorders, the immune system attacks healthy tissue.

Chronic auto-immune disorders such as systemic lupus and autoimmune liver disease are notoriously difficult to treat, but new therapies that target the bacteria that trigger autoimmune reactions appear promising.

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Mood Changes

It may surprise you to know that 90% of the body's serotonin is produced in the gut. Serotonin carries messages throughout the body and helps regulate a variety of biological functions, including mood.

An unhealthy gut disrupts mood in the same way that it disrupts sleep, by communication through the vagus nerve and the gut-brain axis. Mood disorders are often treated with SSRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which frequently have gastrointestinal side effects.

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