Your gastrointestinal tract is lined with microbes collectively called the microbiome, which includes bacteria, fungi, and even viruses. Though it sounds gross and even unhealthy, gut bacteria perform many important functions in the body, including aiding the immune system, producing the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, making energy available to the body from the food we eat, and disposing of foreign substances and toxins, according to Lisa Fischer, MS, RDN, LDN, registered dietitian at the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, though we always have a mixture of good and bad bacteria, sometimes the bad guys get the upper hand, causing dysbiosis, or an imbalance in gut bacteria, which can play a role in a number of health conditions. These clear signs point to an imbalance that has the potential to make you sick. (Check out these pro tips for better gut health.)
Diarrhea, constipation, bloating, nausea, and heartburn are classic symptoms of problems in the gut. “Gastrointestinal discomfort—especially after eating carbohydrate-rich meals—can be the result of poor digestion and absorption of carbohydrates,” Fischer says. Reflux, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel disease, and colitis have all been linked to an imbalance in the microbiome. Try these home remedies for relief from diarrhea.
Craving foods, especially sweets and sugar, can mean you have an imbalance of gut bacteria. “If there’s an overgrowth of yeast in the system, which might happen after a course or two of antibiotics where you wipe out all the good bacteria, then that overgrowth of yeast can actually cause you to crave more sugar,” Fischer says.
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Certain types of gut bacteria can cause weight loss, especially when they grow too numerous in the small intestine, a condition called SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth). Too many microbes in the small intestines can interfere with absorption of vitamins, minerals, and fat. “If you’re not able to digest and absorb fat normally, you can actually see some weight loss,” Fischer says. Other types of bacteria have been linked to weight gain, as certain microbes are able to harvest more calories from foods than others.
Roughly 80 to 90 percent of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, social behavior, sleep, appetite, memory, and even libido, is produced in the gut. When less serotonin is produced, it can negatively impact mood. “Gut imbalances of the microbiome can trigger depressive symptoms,” says Todd LePine, MD, a board certified physician at the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. (Related: Check out this advice for overcoming depression naturally.)
Not having enough serotonin can lead to bouts of insomnia or difficulty getting to sleep, according to Fischer. And according to LePine, chronic fatigue and symptoms of fibromyalgia can be tied into gut bacteria imbalances as well. These are the 8 fibromyalgia symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.
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Skin rashes and eczema, a chronic condition characterized by inflamed and itchy red blotches on the skin, can develop when there is an imbalance in gut bacteria, according to Victoria Maizes, MD, executive director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and professor of medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
Imbalance in the microbiome plays a role in more than just GI symptoms. According to Dr. LePine, diseases affecting the immune system, known as autoimmune diseases, can also indicate an imbalance. “Rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis are tied in with imbalances in the gut bacteria,” he says. (Related: These are silent signs of multiple sclerosis you may overlook.)
Eating right is the first step in improving your microbiome. In fact, the types of foods we eat can change our gut bacteria in as little as 24 hours, according to Ali Keshavarzian, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Division of Digestive Disease and Nutrition at Rush University Medical Center. To feed your good bacteria and starve the less desirable bacteria, swap out processed foods, breads, and pastas for more plants, fruits, seeds, and nuts. And consider adding fermented foods into your diet, including yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, and kefir, which naturally contain probiotics, or healthy bacteria. It’s also a great idea to fill up on prebiotic foods, which actually feed the good bacteria. Try pistachios, bananas, garlic, onion, wheat, and oats, plus ancient grains such as quinoa, millet, or chia. Lastly, avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics. “Any time you take an antibiotic, you’re going to knock out a lot of the healthy bacteria,” says Dr. Maizes. If you must take antibiotics, consider taking a probiotic supplement to recreate a healthy bacterial community in your gut. (Ask your doctor these questions any time you’re prescribed an antibiotic.)