How to Know if Your Gut is Unhappy – and What to do About it?

‘All Disease Begins in the Gut’

Hippocrates (Father of modern medicine)

This statement was written 2000 years ago, but modern science is still making exciting discoveries about our gut and the impact it has upon our health.

The gut microbiome refers to the trillions of different microorganisms living in our gastrointestinal tract. An imbalance of these bacteria causes bad gut health and is being linked back to a range of health conditions including asthma, diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, migraines and depression.

If you’re wondering whether your gut is healthy or not, read on to find out some of the signs and symptoms. You may be inspired to take some simple steps towards making your gut happier.

Symptoms of an unhappy gut

Some of the most common conditions which you might experience if your gut is unhappy include:

  • Excessive gas
  • Bloating (some bloating after a large meal is healthy, but if you frequently experience it after regular size meals then it may be worth investigating)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhoea – this includes soft/loose/watery stools, having to open your bowels with urgency, and having to open bowels your bowels more often
  • Constipation – such as straining, hard stools, incomplete emptying of bowels and reduced frequency of opening bowels
  • Reflux or heartburn

There are also other symptoms and conditions may be directly or indirectly related to poor gut health, which include:

  • Insulin resistance (1)
  • Unintentional changes in body weight (1)
  • Inflammatory conditions (1)
  • Atherosclerosis (narrowing and stiffening of blood vessels related to build up of unhealthy cholesterol deposits) (1)
  • Depression (2)

These symptoms are largely related to the types of metabolites produced by your gut microbes. These metabolites can affect our health in a number of ways, including causing or reducing inflammation, affecting the chemicals in our brain, impacting our metabolism, and damaging our gut wall.  

Signs your gut is healthy 

The good news is there are also a range of gut related signs and symptoms that point towards a well-functioning gut:

  • Regular opening of bowels (everyone has their own healthy pattern, however if you are opening your bowels > 3 times a week you are unlikely to be constipated)
  • Well-formed stools that are easy to pass (see types 3-4 on the Bristol Stool chart below)
  • No abdominal pain, excessive bloating or gas after meals

Caring for your gut will also likely improve your wellbeing in other ways:

  • Help your immune system (4)
  • Prevent chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease (1)
  • Ward off depression and anxiety (5)

A healthy gut is diverse

Whilst we are getting to know the names of some beneficial species of gut bacteria, there is no one single profile or set of microbes that make up a healthy gut – the most important thing that we are learning is that they are diverse.

Research has found that people who have Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease (such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) have a lack of diversity in their gut bacteria.

In fact, it is thought that diversity in gut bacteria is a protective feature for when your gut is put under pressure, for example when you use antibiotics, have stresses in your diet or lifestyle or catch an infection (6). The ability of our gut to recover afterwards is a sign of good gut health (6).

Eating a variety of foods that are good for gut health is the best way to ensure our gut bacteria is diverse.

How to eat for gut health

The microbes in your large intestine are highly responsive to your diet. In fact, research has found that what you eat can change your gut microbiome within a week (7).

A healthy diet should consist of a balance of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, low fat dairy, good fats and lean meat, fish and chicken.

However, there are some food that help promote gut health – and some that should be avoided.

Promotes gut health Harms gut health
Prebiotic foods
– Uncooked oats
– Green bananas
– Artichoke
– Asparagus
– Lentils and legumes
– Cooked and cooled potatoes and rice
Low fibre diet
– Refined carbohydrates
– Lack of fruits vegetables and wholegrains
Probiotic foods
– Fermented dairy: yoghurt, kefir
– Fermented vegetables: Kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh
– Fermented tea: kombucha  
Look for words such as ‘live’, ‘active’, ‘raw’ or ‘unpasteurised’ on packaging to ensure that the manufacturing process hasn’t killed the probiotic strains.
High fat diets
– Saturated fat
– Trans fat
High diversity of plant-based foods Extreme restrictive diets
– Long term Low FODMAP diet
– Gluten-free diets without diagnosis of coeliac disease or gluten intolerance
– Elimination of wholegrains

Lifestyle factors that affect gut health

While food has a big impact on your gut health, there are also a number of lifestyle factors to watch out for. These include:

  • Smoking (1)
  • Frequent antibiotic use (1)
  • Certain medications, such as laxatives and proton pump inhibitors used to treat reflux (8)
  • Chronic stress (9)

You can also look after your gut by making sure you have:

  • Regular exercise
  • Adequate sleep
  • Plenty of water

Getting support for your gut health

There are no existing tests to tell you for sure if your gut microbiota is healthy or not as researchers haven’t yet pinpointed a single healthy gut profile.

However, if you are experiencing any symptoms it is important to seek medical care from a GP. It would also help to visit a dietitian who has experience in gut health. They will conduct a thorough nutrition assessment and provide you with support and evidenced-based advice based on your personal goals and needs.

For more information, ask your dietitian or GP.

 

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References

  1. Valdes AM, Walter J, Segal E, Spector TD. Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health. Bmj. 2018;361:k2179.
  2. Winter G, Hart RA, Charlesworth RP, Sharpley CF. Gut microbiome and depression: what we know and what we need to know. Reviews in the Neurosciences. 2018;29(6):629-43.
  3. Marchesi JR, Adams DH, Fava F, Hermes GD, Hirschfield GM, Hold G, et al. The gut microbiota and host health: a new clinical frontier. Gut. 2016;65(2):330-9.
  4. Bell V, Ferrao J, Pimentel L, Pintado M, Fernandes T. One Health, Fermented Foods, and Gut Microbiota. Foods. 2018;7(12).
  5. Dash S, Clarke G, Berk M, Jacka FN. The gut microbiome and diet in psychiatry: focus on depression. Current opinion in psychiatry. 2015;28(1):1-6.
  6. Lloyd-Price J, Abu-Ali G, Huttenhower C. The healthy human microbiome. Genome medicine. 2016;8(1):51.
  7. David LA, Maurice CF, Carmody RN, Gootenberg DB, Button JE, Wolfe BE, et al. Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome. Nature. 2014;505(7484):559.
  8. Jackson MA, Goodrich JK, Maxan M-E, Freedberg DE, Abrams JA, Poole AC, et al. Proton pump inhibitors alter the composition of the gut microbiota. Gut. 2016;65(5):749-56.
  9. Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek S. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011;62(6):591-9.
  10. Sánchez B, Delgado S, Blanco‐Míguez A, Lourenço A, Gueimonde M, Margolles A. Probiotics, gut microbiota, and their influence on host health and disease. Molecular nutrition & food research. 2017;61(1):1600240.

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