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Signs Your Gut is "Unhealthy," Say Specialists

Three signs of an unhealthy gut to pay attention to.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

The gut plays an important role in overall health and well-being, so when tummy troubles happen, that could be a sign of an unhealthy gut and a bigger issue to take note of.  60-70 million Americans live with a digestive disease, according to News in Health, which "causes uncomfortable symptoms like heartburn and indigestion. IBS is a group of symptoms that includes pain in the abdomen and changes in bowel habits. People with IBS may have constipation, diarrhea, or both. Many more people have other digestive problems, like bloating and stomach pain," the site states. There's many signs that indicate an unhealthy gut and Eat This, Not That! Health talked with Sean Marchese, MS, RN, a registered nurse at The Mesothelioma Center with a background in oncology clinical trials and over 15 years of direct patient care experience, who explained what symptoms to watch out for and what it means to have an unhealthy gut. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What Does It Mean to Have An Unhealthy Gut

gut bacteria microbiome

Marchese shares, "An unhealthy gut can refer to several problems in the abdomen. Sometimes behavior and lifestyle changes can improve or resolve an unhealthy gut. For example, if you're having frequent bouts of constipation or diarrhea and tend to eat the same foods frequently, you may need to investigate the types of food you eat and make some changes. If you're accumulating a lot of belly fat, your unhealthy gut could be more of a long-term problem that can improve with changes to diet and exercise." 


How An Unhealthy Gut Affects Your Overall Health

woman holding liver

According to Marchese,, "An unhealthy gut can cause apparent issues with digestive health, such as acid reflux, nausea, constipation, diarrhea or more severe issues such as inflammatory bowel syndrome. However, chronic or long-term damage can be more insidious and harder to reverse. Over time, inflammation from an unhealthy gut can also cause damage to sensitive organs, such as the liver and kidneys." 


Unintentional Weight Changes

Woman measuring her waist

"If your body is changing the way it stores fat, without you changing your diet or exercise habits, it's often a sign that your body is adjusting and compensating for some other issue," Marchese states. "Unintentional weight loss or gain could signify that your body isn't absorbing nutrients or that your diet is too unbalanced. If you have noticed accidental weight loss, it's essential to see your doctor since this is often a sign of more severe issues such as diabetes or cancer."

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Autoimmune Disorders

woman showing her skin itching behind , with allergy rash urticaria symptoms

Marchese emphasizes, "The gut microbiome has an important impact on the body's immune system. When the immune system isn't functioning correctly, it can begin to attack healthy parts of the body. Recent studies have shown that an unhealthy gut can cause systemic inflammation, similar to the autoimmune diseases rheumatoid arthritis and lupus." 

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Gastric Disturbances

woman drinking yogurt drink

Marchese says, "An increased frequency of gas pains, acid reflux or heartburn, nausea and bloating can indicate a potentially unhealthy gut. These issues could point to an imbalance of healthy gut bacteria, and your physician can prescribe probiotics that help resolve gastric issues. Additionally, yogurts and other foods with probiotics can reduce gas pains and bloat and improve digestion." 

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​​How The Gut and Brain Are Connected

Brain and encephalography in epilepsy patient during seizure attack

According to John Hopkins Medicine, "Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this "brain in your gut" is revolutionizing medicine's understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think. Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS). And it's not so little. The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum. Unlike the big brain in your skull, the ENS can't balance your checkbook or compose a love note. "Its main role is controlling digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient absorption to elimination," explains Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, whose research on the enteric nervous system has garnered international attention. "The enteric nervous system doesn't seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain—with profound results." The ENS may trigger big emotional shifts experienced by people coping with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional bowel problems such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, pain and stomach upset. "For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around," Pasricha says. Researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes. "These new findings may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety," Pasricha says. "That's important, because up to 30 to 40 percent of the population has functional bowel problems at some point." And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

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 about Heather