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Subtle Signs Your Gut is "Unhealthy," According to an Expert

An unhealthy gut can be disruptive to daily life.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Gut health is important for so many reasons! First of all, when the gut is unhealthy it can lead to a variety of digestive symptoms such as heartburn, abdominal pain, bloating, excess gas, constipation, and diarrhea, just to name a few. These symptoms can be very disruptive to daily life and can get in the way of work, school, relationships, and even enjoying a normal meal. Another reason it's important to have a healthy gut is that the gut is connected to so many other body systems. For this reason, an unhealthy gut can also lead to problems with:

  • immune function (e.g. autoimmune disease or infections)
  • hormone issues like underactive thyroid (aka hypothyroidism or hashimoto's thyroiditis)
  • diabetes
  • skin issues like rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis
  • even chronic pain or fibromyalgia

Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss Already Had COVID? These Symptoms May "Never Go Away".


These Things Are Dangerous for Your Gut

Man eating pizza having a takeaway at home relaxing resting

Unfortunately, a typical American diet contains many foods that can be toxic to the gut and can reduce the health and diversity of the gut microbiome, which is a critical component of a healthy gut. Some of the foods that can be particularly unhealthy for the gut include: 

  • Greasy fried foods like french fries and chicken nuggets found in many fast food outlets
  • Sweets and candy, which are often loaded with high fructose corn syrup
  • Highly processed refined carbohydrates like white bread, bagels, and packaged snacks like cheese puffs or chips
  • Trans fats like those found in margarine or shortening
  • Alcohol, especially in excess 

Other health dangers to the gut include:

  • Smoking, which is a risk factor for stomach ulcers, Crohn's disease, and many cancers of the digestive tract
  • Overuse of antibiotics – both in humans for treating possible infections, and also antibiotics given to farm animals which make it into the food supply. They can harm the gut microbiome and even lead to gut infections such as c. difficile
  • Stress
  • Poor sleep
  • A sedentary lifestyle – exercise is associated with improved gut health and reduction in digestive symptoms for many different conditions.

Read on to learn five different symptoms of an unhealthy gut.



black man in chest pain

Heartburn can be felt as a burning sensation in the upper stomach area or just, or a feeling of acid rising up into the chest or throat. Can be a sign that excess acid is escaping from the stomach and irritating the esophagus. 


Bloating and Gas

Young woman suffers, writhes in abdominal pain lying on couch in living room at home interior

Bloating and gas — a feeling of abdominal distention or a belly filled with air. Sometimes people say they feel or look pregnant. Also may have excess belching or passing gas from below. Can be a sign of irritable bowel syndrome, food sensitivity, or an overgrowth of bacteria in the intestines. 


Altered Bowel Function

Door handle open to toilet can see toilet

Altered bowel function – can be experienced as diarrhea (loose or very frequent stools), constipation (hard/dry stool, straining to have a BM, or infrequent BMs), or sometimes just a sensation that BMs are "off," "different," or unsatisfying. 



Woman Suffering From Nausea

Nausea and/or vomiting — can be something that occurs very often, like nausea after all meals, or infrequent bouts of vomiting every few months. Also can occur with infections like food poisoning, norovirus, or other stomach bugs. 


Blood in the Stool

supermarket bathroom

It can be very mild, like streaks of blood on the toilet paper when wiping (which is usually from hemorrhoids or overwiping), or more severe with large amounts of bright red blood or even black tarry stool which can be a sign of bleeding in the upper digestive system (like the stomach). Blood in the stool is usually from something minor like constipation or hemorrhoids but can sometimes be a sign of a more serious condition like a tumor or an ulcer, so it should always be evaluated by a doctor. 


Watch for Other Signs of an Unhealthy Gut

Woman hands on his head felling headache dizzy sense of spinning dizziness with motion
  • Skin problems like rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis can sometimes be connected to problems with gut health. Other rashes can also be a sign of autoimmune gut conditions like celiac disease or Crohn's disease. 
  • Unintentional weight loss, particularly if more than 5-10 lbs
  • Low energy or brain fog
  • Joint pains, which can be connected to certain gut problems like inflammatory bowel disease


What Should You Do if You Notice Any of These Signs?

gut bacteria microbiome

Anyone with persistent symptoms that might be related to their gut should seek care with either their PCP or a gastroenterologist. Most of the symptoms above are benign and easily treated, but they should be evaluated nonetheless to find the root cause (which in some cases may require testing such as blood work, stool tests, or a colonoscopy) and make a plan for how to address the symptoms. 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.

Dr. Max Pitman is a gastroenterologist and medical director at Salvo Health.