Over the last two decades, research into the gut, gut flora and diet has led to a much deeper understanding of the symbiotic nature of the human body. No biological system functions on its own: hormone regulation, immunity, weight, digestion, sleep, mental health and even skin health are all interconnected. And they are all connected to the gut.
It's become increasingly clear that the gut is not just a simplistic tube through which food passes, is absorbed and then excreted. Quite the opposite! Our intestinal lining is home to a thriving ecosystem of bacteria and other microorganisms which are actually crucial to our overall health (for better and for worse!). The beneficial bacteria are known as probiotics, and they are actively involved in many of our biological processes. Nevertheless, there are other bacteria which are harmful to the proper functioning of our bodies.
When our gut is in symbiosis, the balance between probiotics and harmful bacteria is optimal for the proper performance of all our biological functions. This includes, of course, nutrient absorption and digestion, but also immunity, mood regulation, hormonal regulation and sleep patterns, amongst other things.
A gut in dysbiosis, though, is one where the equilibrium has been thrown off in favour of the harmful bacteria. This can have wide-ranging effects on our overall health. Symptoms of an unhealthy gut are felt throughout many of our bodily functions.
What can lead to dysbiosis? As with most things, it all starts with our diet. Ingesting foods which benefit the growth of probiotics will help to maintain the optimal balance of your gut microbiome. However, eating products which encourage the proliferation of harmful bacteria will throw off most of your internal processes. But your gut flora can also be impacted by factors like stress levels, sleep deprivation and dehydration - all of which are hallmarks of standard modern lifestyles!
The key to a healthy gut, and therefore a healthy body and mind, consequently lies in our lifestyle choices. Remember the proverb? We all have two wolves howling at the door, one good and one evil, and we must choose which one to feed. Nevermind the wolves at the door; the most important choice is which bacteria you decide to feed!
Five Symptoms of an Unhealthy Gut...
How can you tell if you've been indulging the wrong bacteria? Believe me, if your gut is out of whack, you'll know.
1. Digestive Unpleasantness
Common issues such as gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea are all typical, once in a while. However, if they begin to occur with higher frequency and for more extended periods, it could be a sign of unhealthy gut microbiome. In a compromised, or dysbiotic, gut, the unbalanced bacteria populations will have more difficulty processing foods effectively. In particular, chronic gas is a sign that food is fermenting in your stomach, due to insufficient stomach acid or the bacteria imbalance.
2. Unintentional Weight Fluctuations
A dysbiotic gut compromises the body's ability to regulate nutrient absorption, blood sugar levels and body fats, resulting in weight fluctuations regardless of diet or exercise regime. Malabsorption, or the inability to absorb vital nutrients through the small intestine, can lead to weight loss and nutrient deficiency, while decreased insulin resistance or compromised hunger-regulating hormones, like leptin and ghrelin, often results in weight gain.
3. Pour Some Sugar On Me
Gut bacteria are the ones in charge of secreting hunger-regulating hormones, such as the aforementioned leptin and ghrelin. But bacteria are selfish: they tempt you to eat the foods they thrive on! High-sugar, high-fat and processed foods feed the harmful bacteria, which, as they grow and multiply, increase your cravings for these foods. It's one vicious cycle! So if you find yourself craving that sugar, chances are your gut's bacterial balance is skewed in favour of the harmful bacteria, and the only solution is to starve them out and cultivate your probiotics.
4. Singing the Blues and Dancing the Mood Swing
Seratonin, dopamine and vitamin D are all synthesised in the gut. These hormones, associated with positive emotions, are vital to mood regulation. Furthermore, the pathways for oxytocin and estrogen, two more hormones linked with mood regulation, are also controlled by your gut microbiome. It's easy to see why a gut in dysbiosis could have acute and intense repercussions on your emotions! Symptoms such as uncharacteristic moodiness, anxiety or depression could, therefore, be linked with compromised gut balance.
5. Immune Struggles
60-80% of our immune system resides in the gut. That in itself should convince you that gut balance is literally essential to your overall health! Cells in the gut secrete many of the antibodies which target pathogens, and your intestinal lining acts as a physical barrier impeding the absorption of harmful elements. The bacteria which call your gut home help to strengthen this physical barrier and support the gut's immune functions. A dysbiotic gut, therefore, results in increased permeability of the membrane, known as leaky gut, which allows the absorption of dangerous pathogens and is linked with various autoimmune conditions.
Food intolerances and related skin problems, such as eczema.
Sleep disturbances and insomnia, because serotonin is produced in the gut.
Bad breath, which could be linked to a sub-optimal gut environment.
... And Five Things You Can Do About It
Luckily, healing your gut is a fairly straightforward process - if you're willing to make the appropriate lifestyle changes to feed the good bacteria!
1. You Are What You Eat
To be more precise, you are what you absorb, which means that a healthy diet can boost the growth of probiotics in your gut. The general advice is to cut out processed, high-fat and high-sugar foods, and replace them with lean protein and plant-based foods rich in fibre, probiotics and prebiotics. You can also steer clear from inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, corn, soy and eggs.
2. Chill Out
Stress is a massive factor in gut dysbiosis because the fight-or-flight hormones cause the entire system to freeze over, reducing its efficiency. Stressful lifestyles can, therefore, lead to chronic gut imbalance and disfunction. Stress furthermore causes the intestinal membrane to become more permeable, affecting immune functions and nutrient regulation. Finding ways to reduce or manage stress levels can consequently go a long way to improving our gut health.
3. Sleep On It
Getting your 7-8h of quality sleep is even more critical to your wellbeing than you thought. As well as all the other unpleasant hangovers from sleep deprivation, a study found that just two days of sub-optimal sleep in young, healthy adults led to a decrease in good bacteria, reduced insulin resistance and resulted in a gut microbiome similar to that of obese individuals. The exact causal relationship isn't clear yet, but what is explicit is that sleep and gut health are related.
4. Hydration, hydration, hydration
We all know that drinking water is super important for most of our bodily functions. But, it's also highly beneficial to keeping the mucosal lining, well, mucose-y, and maintaining gut balance in favour of probiotics.
5. Something to Chew On
Chewing more and eating slowly could really give your body a helping hand when it comes to digestion and absorption. More chewing means your body needs to handle smaller and smaller chunks of food, which leads to fuller digestion and easier absorption!