The human gut was once thought to be a simple system: food entered, nutrients were absorbed, and waste was excreted. But thanks to ongoing research, we now know that the gut "microbiome" is a complex, carefully balanced system that plays a role in regulating bodily processes ranging from immunity and infections to anxiety and sleep. As with any self-regulating biological system, the key to keeping the gut healthy is balance--in this case, between the trillions of "good" and "bad" bacteria that live in your GI tract.
Unfortunately, the habits and stresses of modern living can tip this delicate balance into a state of dysbiosis, leading to health issues that extend far beyond our digestive systems. If you’re concerned that your gut health has been compromised, here are seven symptoms to watch out for as you focus on restoring your natural balance.
If you've had a distended midsection after a big meal, you know the discomfort that bloating causes. And while a number of factors--including artificial sweeteners, carbonated beverages, or simply swallowing too much air when you eat—can cause bloating, one of the overlooked sources can be inflammation in your gut. One condition in particular, called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), occurs when the bacteria from your colon and large intestine spill over into your small intestine, contributing to that uncomfortable "balloon belly" feeling.
If bloating bothers you, avoiding sweeteners and sodas could certainly help, but consuming fermented foods or a probiotic supplement could also go a long way to relieving painful post-dinner gas.
Constipation and Diarrhea
Does your digestive health swing uncomfortably between bouts of constipation and diarrhea? You might have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects up to 5 million Canadians according to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation.
While treatment of IBS often aims to alleviate its contradictory symptoms rather than solve its root causes, a study published in the journal Gastroenterology found that sufferers of IBS also have alterations of certain bacterial groups in their gut, leading to an unbalanced microbiome. Researchers have pinpointed a number of culprits for these changes, including antibiotic use, infections, poor diet, and stress, the latter of which often goes hand-in-hand with IBS flare-ups.
Heartburn and Acid Reflux
Acid reflux, a painful condition in which your stomach acid overflows into your esophagus, can also cause chest pains known as heartburn. While the two most common treatments for reflux include acid-reducing medications known as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and avoidance of "trigger foods" like coffee, wine and anything high in dietary fat, new research is shining a light on the role of unbalanced gut bacteria in producing those painful reflux symptoms. Interestingly, some reflux medications have even been shown to further alter the gut's bacterial balance, creating an even more unhealthy gut microbiome.
Approximately 2.7 million Canadians suffer from migraines. In fact, a paper published in the journal Cephalalgia ranked them as the world's third most common disease after dental cavities and tension headaches.
Anyone who's endured a migraine knows it's a far more miserable experience than your average headache--not just because the pain is more intense, but also because they can also arrive with nausea, vomiting, and severe abdominal pain. But why do these severe headaches come packaged with digestive issues? Recent research published in Frontiers in Neurology has suggested that dysbiosis in the gut microbiome is a factor.
Additional research published in the Journal of Clinical Neurology suggests that people with poor gut health also have a heightened pain response, meaning those migraines could be all the more miserable when your bacteria are out of balance.
Persistent Coughs and Colds
If you asked someone to point to their immune system, they’d likely give you a strange look. But according to Dan Peterson, assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, they'd be mostly correct if they pointed to their GI tract, because a large part of your immune system lives in the gut.
Our understanding of the complex relationship between gut health and immunity is still unfolding, but one mechanism is the gut's role in determining the appropriate response to both harmful pathogens and non-toxic organisms entering your body. Essentially, an unbalanced gut can mean a misguided immune response, which could be why that case of the sniffles won't go away.
Other studies have shown that, from the time we're born, our gut bacteria "train" our immune system how to operate. This suggests that your microbiome doesn't just play a role in immunity--it actually teaches your body how not to get sick.
Have you ever had a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach? Have you been through a gut-wrenching ordeal? Maybe you've felt butterflies in your stomach during a stressful experience or had a gut feeling that something was wrong. There's a reason these idioms link negative emotions to your GI tract, and scientists have described it as the "gut-brain connection."
As with many other health issues, studies have shown that a lack of bacterial diversity and an overgrowth of "bad" bacteria in the gut can have implications for your mental state. Preliminary studies in neuropsychology have hinted at the possibility of microbiome imbalances as factors in psychological issues, such as anxiety. So the next time you reach for comfort food during a troubling time, opt for something fermented with beneficial bacteria. Restoring the balance in your gut just might help your mind achieve balance as well.
Coping with fatigue is a complicated, frustrating cycle. Rest doesn't cure it, and the condition saps sufferers of the energy required to exercise and make healthy choices. But research published in Microbiome has offered a ray of hope by establishing a connection between the disease and the gut microbiome. Specifically, researchers found that they could accurately predict chronic fatigue sufferers based on differences in the levels of six key gut bacteria. Whether these bacterial changes are the cause or result of chronic fatigue remains unclear, but the connection suggests that feelings of persistent lethargy could be rooted in the health of your gut.
Getting Back to Balance
If you suffer from any of the issues listed above, your first step should be to see a doctor. But even the right medications and treatments require support from a healthy gut, so you should also be looking to optimize your health by removing foods that might inflame your GI tract, minimizing sources of stress, and strengthening your digestion with fermented foods and the help of a probiotic supplement.
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Dorottya Nagy-SzakalBrent L. WilliamsNischay MishraXiaoyu CheBohyun LeeLucinda BatemanNancy G. KlimasAnthony L. KomaroffSusan LevineJose G. MontoyaDaniel L. PetersonDevi RamananKomal JainMeredith L. EddyMady HornigW. Ian Lipkin. Fecal metagenomic profiles in subgroups of patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. Microbiome. December 2017, 5:44