Updated: Jun 16
Bloating, fatigue, trouble sleeping, depression, anxiety, unintentional weight changes, skin irritations, and tons more, are all signs of an unhealthy gut microbiome. If you have symptoms like this, you're not alone. Nearly 70 million Americans struggle with digestive issues as a result of an unhealthy gut. So what IS a gut microbiome, what causes an unhealthy one, and how can you fix it?
The foods you eat and they way you live have a direct impact on your digestive system, and your digestive system in turn has a direct effect on your physical and mental well-being. Taking steps to improve your digestive health will not only make symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, constipation and abdominal pain cease, but will improve your energy levels, your mood, and can lessen your symptoms of anxiety and depression.
What is the Gut Microbiome and Why is it Important?
Your ‘gut microbiome’ is made up of the trillions of microorganisms that live in your small and large intestines. These microorganisms, mainly comprising of bacteria, are involved in functions critical to your health and wellbeing. These bacteria live in your digestive system and they play a key role in digesting food you eat, and they help with absorbing and synthesising nutrients too. Gut bugs are involved in many other important processes that extend beyond your gut, including your metabolism, body weight, and immune regulation, as well as your brain functions and mood. (1)
Taken from WebMD
These microbiomes are introduced during delivery of the birth canal and through the mother's breast milk. Exactly what microbiomes the infant is exposed to depends entirely on the species found in the mother (how cool!). (2) Later on, each person develops an entirely unique network of microbiomes due to stress, foods, and environmental exposures that can positively or negatively impact one's life. Let's dive into what can have a negative impact of gut health!
Lack of Prebiotics in the Diet: Prebiotics, not to get confused with Probiotics, are a type of fiber that your body cannot digest and therefore pass through into the lower intestine. Prebiotics act as food for your microbiota to promote growth and activity of healthy bacteria. Foods commonly found to have Prebiotics are lentils, chickpeas and beans, oats, bananas, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, garlic, leeks, onions and nuts.
Drinking Too Much Alcohol: Chronic consumption of alcohol can have devastating effects on not only your network of microbita, but on the entire body. Alcoholics are prone to dysbiosis, which is a disruption to the microbiota homeostasis caused by an imbalance in the microflora, changes in their functional composition and metabolic activities, or a shift in their local distribution. (Very devastating stuff here). The good news: one study found that red wine actually increases the abundance of bacteria known to promote gut health and decreases the number of harmful gut bacteria like Clostridium. (3)
Lack of Regular Physical Activity: One study compared the gut flora of 19 physically active women to 21 non-active women. Active women had a higher abundance of health-promoting bacteria, including Bifidobacterium and Akkermansia, suggesting that regular physical activity, even at low-to-moderate intensities, can be beneficial. Bifidobacteria digest dietary fiber, help prevent infection and produce vitamins and other important chemicals, while Akkermansia plays a role in metobolic health and the prevention of obesity. (3)
Stress: High stress levels can affect the gut by increasing sensitivity, reducing blood flow, decreasing the amount of good bacteria and increasing the amount of bad bacteria. See below for tips on how to deal with stress!
Taken from WebMD
How Does Your Gut Health Affect Your Mental Well-Being?
Although the research is relatively new, studies involving mice show that poor gut health leads to depression and anxiety. A few studies have shown that transferring gut microbiomes from depressed individuals into lab rats causes the rats to exhibit depressive-like behaviors. Similar studies show the same for anxiety. (5) This makes sense, knowing that 90% of the body's serotonin (the "feel good" chemical) is found in the cells lining your intestinal tract. (6) Put simply, if your serotonin receptors cannot function or grow like they're supposed to due to an overwhelming number of "bad" gut bacteria, symptoms of depression and anxiety can occur.
How to Improve Your Gut Health
Add Probiotics to Your Diet: Probiotics promote the growth of good bacteria in your gut. If you constantly struggle with bloating, constipation, and/or abdominal pain, taking a probiotic supplement will actually change your life. You can also find them in natural sources, like yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
Consume More Fiber: Fiber can prevent or relive constipation, encourage healthy gut microbiota, promote regular bowel movements, and reduce the time that waste spends in your body. It also helps with bloating!
Get Enough Quality Sleep: A study done in 2016 found that two nights of sleep deprivation altered gut flora and increased the bacteria associated with weight gain, obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and fat metabolism. (3)
Reduce Stress: If you haven't found the secret to happiness, let me enlighten you: being present. Being absolutely present and not in your head when doing whatever you're doing will lessen stress levels (if not destroy stress from your body completely), help you overcome past traumas, and incredibly diminish the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Most anxiety and depression-related symptoms come about from thinking about the past or the future - ask yourself in this moment, what RIGHT NOW (this very second) are you dealing with that is causing you your mental health. (The answer is nothing). Breath work, exercise, meditation, and yoga are all examples of getting you in the present.
Limit Processed Foods and Sugars: Some food additives can alter the composition of the microbiota and lead to gut inflammation, which may promote diverse forms of inflammatory diseases. Data from the NutriNet-Santé cohort study found that consumption of ultra-processed food was associated with an increased risk of mortality and depression. In Spain, findings from the SUN prospective cohort study suggest that for each additional serving of ultra-processed foods, all-cause mortality increased by 18%. (4)
The consequences of poor gut health are devastating to quality of life. Your gut effects everything you do, think, feel, and taste, and maintaining balance in your microbiota is essential to your health. Although scientists are still in the early stages of understanding the broad role microbiome's play in the body, it's clear that a healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, heart health, brain health, improved mood, healthy sleep, and effective digestion.