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Signs Your Gut Microbiome is Making You Sick

GI explains how to help prevent an unhealthy gut and four common signs you have one. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

The gut is one of the most vital parts of our body because it has an impact on the overall well being of everything from cognitive health to the immune system and even mental health. While the gut is incredibly powerful, it can also be rather delicate. The gut microbiome consists of trillions of fungi, bacteria and microbes which helps control digestion and when something throws off the balance you'll likely feel it in various ways. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Dr. Chris Damman, MD MA  Clinical Associate Professor of Gastroenterology at the University of Washington who explains the importance of the gut microbiome, how to prevent an unhealthy gut and signs you have one. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Gut Microbiome and Why It's Important

gut bacteria microbiome

Dr. Damman tells us, "The gut microbiome could be thought of as our partner in health, and a community of microbial diplomats, teachers, and factory workers all in one. The diplomats help appease invading pathogens to keep us from getting sick, the teachers calibrate our immune system to prevent autoimmune or allergy overdrive, and the factory workers take undigested food like fiber and transform it into molecules for healthy growth. Some of these molecules are nutrients like B vitamins and amino acids that supplement our diet. Other metabolites like neurotransmitter precursors and short chain fatty acids (e.g. butyrate) simply aren't in our diet in appreciable amounts and are mostly obtained from our microbiome. All these molecules are critical for supplying our body, immune system, and brain with factors that regulate metabolism, inflammation, and cognition."


The Four M' and Four F's Can Help Prevent an Unhealthy Gut

happy woman hands on belly

Dr. Damman explains, "I focus on balancing the Four Lifestyle M's and Four Food F's as a comprehensive approach to maintaining a healthy microbiome. The lifestyle M's include molecules (food vs. toxins), movement (exercise vs. sedentarism), mind (sleep & mindfulness vs. insomnia & anxiety), and microbes (environmental microbiomes vs. pathogens). Cutting edge research supports the importance of maintaining balance in all of these areas to help promote a healthy microbiome and gut. Advice can be boiled down to eating foods that support our microbiome (see the four F's), exercise, rest, and spend time outdoors gardening and around pets! The Four Phonetic Food F's are particularly important for growing a healthy microbiome and these include Fibers, Phenols, Ferments, and good Fats. Fibrous foods include whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Phenols are the phytonutrients that give fruits and vegetables their color so in essence the recommendation is to eat the rainbow. Ferments are fermented foods which have been shown to improve gut microbiome diversity and decrease inflammation in the body. Good fats are omega-3's in particular that can be found in sources like avocados, nuts, and seeds."


Poor Gut Health Can Seriously Affect Your Mood

mature woman dealing with bad gut health, stomach pain on bed

According to Dr. Damman, "An unhealthy gut can lead to 'leakiness' in both the gut barrier and the blood brain barrier causing both body and neuroinflammation. Neuroinflammation has been tied to mood, sleep and energy disorders.  Additionally, the gut microbiome synthesizes precursors to neurotransmitters which impact the neurons in the gut and the communication highway called the vagus nerve connecting the gut to the brain. In fact, the gut has more neurons and neurotransmitters than the brain and some have likened it to "The Second Brain". There is a growing body of literature that connects gut health to brain health. Beyond correlation, interventional studies involving probiotics (e.g. Bifidobacterium), postbiotics (e.g. Butyrate), and prebiotics (e.g. Fiber such as Resistant Starch), shows that improving gut health can actually improve brain health."


Hard to Pass or Loose Stools

upset woman in toilet by diarrhea, constipation, hemorrhoids, piles

"This is perhaps the most obvious sign and may reflect an imbalance in the microbes in the gut," Dr. Damman emphasizes. "A diverse diet will support a diverse gut microbiome which in adults is correlated with gut health. We are learning that different people might have different optimized diets for gut and general health and that working with a health professional can be helpful for finding that optimum in each individual."


Food Cravings


Dr. Damman says, "In a twist of the macabre, we can think of ourselves in some ways as puppets at the whim of our microbial masters. This might be particularly true for our hunger and cravings which are under the influence of molecular signals from our microbiome that can turn on and off our 'ileocolonic brake'. Fiber and resistant starch in particular might be one of the better ways to turn on the brake and control cravings."


Skin Rashes and Allergies

Woman scratching arm indoors

Dr. Damman states, "The gut calibrates the immune system and through molecules like butyrate helps keep gut and skin barriers intact as well as the immune system appropriately calibrated. Infants that have higher levels of Bifidobacterium are less prone to asthma and allergies, and recent research has shown that providing butyrate can alleviate allergic rashes, at least in mice."


Anxious or Down Mood

Thoughtful girl sitting on sill embracing knees looking at window, sad depressed teenager spending time alone at home, young upset pensive woman feeling lonely or frustrated thinking about problems

Dr. Damman explains, "The gut truly is the 'second brain' and through the gut brain-connection can influence our emotions.  When our gut is happy our brain's happy and we're learning that consuming healthy foods or supplements high in certain types of fiber like resistant starch might be especially important for a healthy outlook on life."

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