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How An Unhealthy Gut Affects Your Overall Health

What to know about an unhealthy gut, according to experts. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

If you struggle with digestive problems, you're not alone. "20 million Americans suffer from chronic digestive diseases [and] more Americans are hospitalized with digestive diseases than any other condition," according to the GI Alliance. Having an unhealthy gut isn't just uncomfortable, for some it's debilitating and can impact overall health in a crippling way. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with experts who explain exactly what an unhealthy gut is and how it can affect your daily life. 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

Dr. Chris Damman, Gastroenterologist and Chief Medical Officer/Chief Scientific Officer at UR Labs/Muniq shares, "An unhealthy gut involves both obvious and less obvious effects. On the obvious side heartburn abdominal discomfort and unhappy bowel movements can all result from an unhealthy gut. Because the gut is connected to the health of the whole body an unhealthy gut can also 'feel like' imbalanced metabolism inflammation in the body such as joints and muscles and unhappy moods. The imbalanced metabolism piece can be a particularly silent but insidious player in health as key metabolites from the gut microbes (e.g. butyrate) are critical for preventing weight gain, controlling blood glucose, regulating cholesterol and promoting cardiovascular health."


How the Gut and Brain are Connected

Human brain on a dark blue background

According to Dr. Damman, "The gut and brain are connected by at least three different information superhighways that include nerves, immune cells and molecules. Regarding nerves, the gut has more neurons than the brain. Some call it 'The Other Brain' and the two are connected via a nerve that runs in two directions called the vagus nerve. Immune cells and the substances they secrete also serve to connect the gut and brain. They are constantly on lookout for invaders and play a role in tightening the gut and brain protections and activating the brain's own immune cells. The molecules produced by the microbes also connect the gut and brain. For example, there are more neurotransmitters made in the gut than in the brain and precursors of these neurotransmitters are provided to the brain to help it function happily."


How an Unhealthy Gut Can Affect Your Overall Health

Overweight woman in tight clothes at home is trying to fit into tight jeans.

"Your gut has influence over many of the major functions of the body. In particular it is essential in the immune function of the body," says Sarah Anderson, a cardiology and functional medicine nurse practitioner with Peak Integrative Wellness.

Dr. Rene Armenta, board-certified bariatric and general surgeon for Renew Bariatrics states, "An unhealthy gut can mean a lot of things. It could mean that you're not digesting your food properly, leading to all sorts of problems like nutrient deficiencies and weight gain. It could also mean that you're susceptible to gastrointestinal infections or experiencing chronic inflammation. Whatever the case may be, if you have an unhealthy gut, it's important to take steps to improve your gut health."

Dr. Damman adds, "In some people the effect of an unhealthy gut to their daily life is obvious and palpable. These are people with strong interoception which is the conscious and unconscious sense of the inner health state of their body. In other people an unhealthy gut may be impacting them just as profoundly but they may not be aware of the effect. These are people with less interoception. One way to think about it is to imagine someone in your house baking bread. You may not realize just how delicious the bread smells until you step outside and back inside again. Likewise you may not realize just how good you can feel with a healthy gut until you step outside your normal health state and back inside again experiencing it anew for the first time!"

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What Causes an Unhealthy Gut?

stressed out woman

According to Dr. Damman, "An unhealthy gut is caused by imbalances in one or more of the four 'col-M's' of health: Molecules, Microbes, Movement and Mind. Molecules are the things we ingest like healthy and unhealthy foods. Microbes are the healthy and unhealthy microbes in our environment. Movement is healthy physical activity and unhealthy sedentary lifestyles. Mind is healthy sleep/calming thought patterns and unhealthy insomnia/stress. The more we learn about the gut, the more we learn there is a two way highly interconnected highway between ALL 4 col-M's and the gut as well as between the gut and ALL 4 col-M's!"

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What an Unhealthy Gut Feels Like

Woman sleeping on the couch in the living room.

Anderson explains, "Symptoms of an unhealthy gut are often symptoms of GI distress – gas, bloating, constipation, bad breath (halitosis), acid reflux, diarrhea, nausea, but they can also be more general symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, cravings, mood disturbances, acne, and aching joints. People often feel frustrated when they have an unhealthy gut. They may be trying to lose weight, and are having difficulty losing weight. They may struggle with mental health disorders and the medications prescribed don't work. They may struggle with recurrent UTI or vaginal yeast infections. They feel bad after eating certain foods or struggle with severe food cravings, particularly sugar and high carb foods." 

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How an Unhealthy Gut Can Affect Your Daily Life

woman consulting with her female doctor

Anderson emphasizes, "An unhealthy gut affects your daily life in that it truly affects all aspects of your day to day functioning. It affects how you feel generally, your emotions and emotional reserve, vitamin and neurotransmitter synthesis, your ability to think clearly and learn, and the quality of your sleep." 

Dr. Armenta adds, "An unhealthy gut can affect your daily life in several ways. For starters, it can make you feel bloated and uncomfortable. It can also lead to constipation, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal problems. And if you're also not getting the right nutrients from the food you eat, you may start feeling tired and sluggish."

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