March 2023



    In recent years, gut health has become a hot topic in the wellness space. And considering how the state of your gut microbiome (i.e., the community of microorganisms living in your gut) connects to almost every part of the body - digestion is a key player for everything from mental health to immune function - it makes sense that folks are looking for everyday ways to optimize their gut health.

    For that same reason, poor gut health can cause or contribute to a wide range of symptoms, some of which don’t even involve the gut. It can be tricky to tell whether your gut health is thriving or floundering, or whether the seemingly random health complaints you’re having are actually related to the state of your gut. To make things even more confusing, these other mental and physical signs may not crop up at the same time as some of the more obvious digestive symptoms, making it difficult to link the two.

    What are some mental and bodily clues that your gut health needs some TLC? Read on for some surprising signs and symptoms of sub-par gut health.

    You’re more irritable than usualMany of us know what it’s like to experience a churning stomach due to stress and anxiety. But it can work in the opposite direction too. Specifically, the gut can send signals to the brain when it’s in distress, he says. It does this using neurons, or nerve cells, that are in charge of sending signals throughout the body. In fact, there are more neurons in your GI tract than your brain (who knew?), so gut issues can certainly cause irritability and anxiety.

    You’re inexplicably exhaustedIf you can’t stop yawning or find you’re too fatigued to function normally day to day—even after getting the recommended amount of sleep night after night—an off-balance gut might be to blame. This can in part be related to the aforementioned mood issues, which can impede efforts to soundly sleep. What’s more, if your gut isn’t properly absorbing the right nutrients, malabsorption can negatively affect your energy levels. You may also be experiencing some fatigue-related brain fog, mental heaviness, memory mishaps, and the like, which often link back to gut imbalances. That said, it’s important to note that many unhealthy lifestyle habits can disrupt good sleep—so it’s worth fine-tuning your sleep hygiene (or checking in with your doctor) before chalking it up to the gut.

    Your head hurts. When gut issues interrupt your body’s ability to properly absorb nutrients, it can lead to pesky headaches. This may be related to the gut-brain connection and inflammation.  Migraines are a little more complicated, but there’s an association between migraines and abdominal pain. The connection, called abdominal migraines, happens when you have migraines and abdominal pain at the same time (or sometimes, periodic abdominal pain in the absence of headaches). Additionally, hormonal imbalances that can trigger headaches and migraines may cause gut issues as well.

    You’re constipated or bloated. From microbial imbalances to general digestive dysfunction, poor gut health can cause constipation and bloating.  But how do you know whether this type of digestive woe is due to more chronic dysfunction within your gut, or simply a one-time blip due to something you ate? 

    If you’re feeling bloated or constipated, take a look at what you ate and drank for the past 48 hours. The too-full feeling could certainly be caused by something you ate or not drinking enough water. However, if the constipation and bloating continue for more than seven days, reach out to your doctor to get some answers.

    You have bad breath. Another surprising sign of poor gut health is bad breath. Here’s why it happens: If you’re not passing stool properly—like in the case of chronic or frequent constipation—it can cause a buildup of toxins in the body. This can result in bad breath, a top gut health clue that shouldn’t be ignored. With that in mind, if your breath smells off even with regular toothbrushing and oral care, it might be time to put down the mints and focus on your gut.

    You’re irregular (for you)“Regular” bowel movements are different for everyone. “Regular” is a continuum from three bowel movements per day to one bowel movement every three days. If your frequency (what is normal for you) changes and causes symptoms or interferes with your daily life, this may be a sign that your gut health needs help. For example, a change in bowel habits, such as suddenly going from daily bowel movements to three times per day or once every three days, is worth noting.

    You have new food sensitivities. Gut issues can also trigger food sensitivities. One common example is a “leaky gut,” which refers to the permeability of the cells lining your intestine. BTW: The gut lining is supposed to be semi-permeable, as this allows nutrients and water from the food you eat to enter the bloodstream.  Sometimes the gaps between cells become too large or loose, resulting in increased permeability. When this happens, large food particles and/or bacteria may enter the bloodstream, resulting in inflammation. This may contribute to food sensitivities, which can manifest as G.I. symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea, as well as non-G.I. signs such as headaches, brain fog, and skin rashes.

    Your skin is acting up. There are many possible triggers for skin inflammation symptoms, including allergies and stress—but an off-kilter gut might be at play as well. This is due to the link between the immune system and gut microbiome, which is essential for maintaining healthy skin.  Essentially, if the gut microbiome is imbalanced, it can alter the body’s immune response, resulting in skin issues such as acne and dandruff. In a more general sense, eating a lot of processed and salty foods can lead to puffiness and inflammation throughout your body, including the skin.


    How to Start Improving Your Gut Health

    Before trying to diagnose yourself and blame non-gut-related symptoms on your gut health, consider other symptoms you may be experiencing too. For example, look for clues like frequent gas or the shape of your stool. A good stool should be ‘S’ shaped and easy to pass. If these symptoms are present and you think your GI tract needs a hand, try adding more gut-friendly habits to your daily routine.

    • Eat more fiber from plantsA great place to start is what you’re eating and drinking. One important strategy for keeping your gut healthy is consuming plenty of fiber, which is a vital nutrient for regular and comfortable digestion and present in most plant-based foods. Examples of high-fiber foods include vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.
    • Eat less processed, high-sugar, and greasy/fried foodWhile you’re at it, start to limit ultra-processed foods that are typically low in fiber (in fact, the healthy fiber is often stripped from the ingredients during processing). Excessively greasy and fatty foods can also lead to inflammation and upset stomach, so it may be worth cutting back on these foods. Finally, consume fewer added sweeteners, since they actually help ‘feed’ the bad strains of bacteria, causing them to thrive and outnumber the healthy and helpful gut bacteria we need.
    • Adopt some general healthy lifestyle habitsOther natural ways to support gut health include drinking plenty of fluids, staying active, and getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night. Practicing stress relief is also crucial, as the gut and mind are constantly communicating via the gut-brain axis. Physical activity can lend a hand in this area, and don’t forget about meditation, yoga, and spending time in nature to relax the body and mind.

    If your digestive woes persist despite gut-healthy habits, chat with your primary care physician. Depending on your symptoms, consider a consultation with a gastroenterologist, who can order stool or blood tests to determine the root cause. You might also consider consulting a registered dietitian for assistance.

    Kirsten Nunez