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How an "Unhealthy" Gut Impacts Your Health, According to Experts

Expert explains the causes of an unhealthy gut and how it affects your health. 
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

Having an unhealthy gut isn't just uncomfortable and painful, it can seriously impact your overall health in a negative way. Bad gut bacteria can cause depression, anxiety and can increase the risk of diabetes and obesity in addition to other health issues. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Miguel Freitas, Ph.D., VP of Health and Scientific Affairs at Danone North America who explained what causes an unhealthy gut, how to get good gut bacteria and how gut health affects the whole body. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

What Does it Mean to Have an Unhealthy Gut?

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Freitas says, "We all have our unique individual microbiome such as our fingerprints. There are some similarities, but our genetics and environment make up our microbiome. It's true certain challenges can drastically modify our microbiome temporarily (e.g. antibiotics), however, the microbiome in a healthy individual is very resilient. Overall, an unhealthy gut would be associated with low diversity of gut microbiota (a measure of different kinds of bacteria). Additionally, a recent study showed that Bifidobacteria are typically present in higher numbers in healthy vs. diseased individuals. So, a healthy microbiome could ultimately be a mix of diversity and levels of specific bacteria, which probably includes Bifidobacteria."

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2

How the Gut and Brain are Connected

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Freitas explains, "Experts call the gut our 'second brain' and for a very good reason. After the brain, our gut or digestive system hosts the largest number of neurons in the body. Physicians hear very often from patients that they never felt anxious until they started experiencing some issue with their gut. The potential brain health benefits of probiotics found in fermented dairy foods is starting to be unveiled as we better understand these gut-brain connections. Because our gut has its own nervous system, it can also generate many of the same chemicals or neurotransmitters that the brain generates including serotonin, which plays a key role in sleep, appetite, pain sensitivity, overall well-being, and is also known for stabilizing our mood and feelings of happiness. While the gut-brain connection has been recognized for many years, only recently, investigators are discovering the gut microbiota can also have an impact on brain function and human behavior. A double-blind, controlled, parallel study looked at the effect of consumption of a probiotic yogurt on brain regions involved in stress and emotion. This study found consumption of a specific probiotic yogurt twice a day for 4 weeks, in women, resulted in a muted response from the areas of the brain that control emotion and sensation, and in changes in the response of the brain to negative images. Research is ongoing to discover more about the connection between your gut and your brain, and how certain probiotics can impact that connection. The mind-gut connection and role of probiotics is one of the most exciting areas of research in the probiotics field today."

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3

​​How an Unhealthy Gut Affects Your Overall Health

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Freitas shares, "The gut microbiota represents a crucial interface between the world in which we live, the food we eat and our overall health. The more we can learn about the human microbiome, the more we can leverage it to help people better manage everything from digestive issues to mood and to improving different aspects of health or reducing the risk of developing certain diseases such as obesity and diabetes. The impact of the gut microbiome on human health is far-reaching, from benefits to our digestive and immune system to playing a key role as the core of our mind-body connection, which is why investments to better understand this unique ecosystem are so important. There are key windows of opportunity to beneficially impact the gut microbiome, such as in the few weeks and months of life, but with the older adult, and because of different challenges, maintaining a balanced diet and incorporating probiotics and prebiotics can also help manage some of these disturbances. The next-generation probiotics should be selected for their ability to complement gut microbiome deficiencies or unbalanced. In the (near) future, we can conceive that each of us will be able to consume bacteria or specific probiotics that can help improve health or detect risk factors for different disorders at the earliest possible moment, therefore reducing the risk of developing a particular disease." 

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4

How an Unhealthy Gut Impacts Daily Life

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"An unhealthy gut can affect your daily life, typically characterized by the appearance of minor digestive issues," says Freitas. "About 50% of the general Western population frequently experiences issues related to gut health like bloating, gas, rumbling, and/or discomfort, all of which are uncomfortable and can negatively impact the quality of life." 

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5

What Causes an Unhealthy Gut?

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Freitas states, "Our gut is a complex system at the interface between our own physiology and the food that we ingest. When we think about good gut health, most of us think about digestive health, but that's only part of the story. Your gut is home to countless bacteria known as your gut microbiome. Apart from specific gut-related diseases such as IBD or IBS, characteristic of an unhealthy gut and associated with different causes, diet and lifestyle factors play a big role in shaping gut health. We know a balanced diet, such as Flexitarian, the right amount of exercise and sleep all contribute to gut health. It is also possible to help support gut health with probiotics. Because the benefits of probiotics are strain-specific, make sure you pick one that has been scientifically shown to support gut health. Until recently, it's possible our gut could function perfectly well without the consumption of 'good' bacteria; however, several factors have combined in the last 70+ years that have upset the delicate balance of our internal microbiome, from the rise in c-sections and less breastfeeding, to antibiotic use, stress, poor diet and a more sanitized environment."

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Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more
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