What poor gut health looks like?
8 Sneaky Signs You’re Walking Around With Poor Gut Health
The health of your gut microbiome impacts your overall health in more ways than you realize.
Kirsten Nunez has been a health and fitness writer at Real Simple since 2021 and has been writing for nearly a decade.
Updated on January 30, 2023
Fact checked by
Isaac Winter is a fact-checker and writer for Real Simple, ensuring the accuracy of content published by rigorously researching content before publication and periodically when content needs to be updated. Highlights: Helped establish a food pantry in West Garfield Park as an AmeriCorps employee at Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center. Interviewed Heartland Alliance employees for oral history project conducted by the Lake Forest College History Department. Editorial Head of Lake Forest College’s literary magazine, Tusitala, for two years.
In recent years, gut health has become a hot topic in the wellness space. And considering how the state of your gut microbiome (i.e. the community of microorganisms living in your gut) connects to almost every part of the body—digestion is a key player for everything from mental health to immune function—it makes sense that folks are looking for everyday ways to optimize their gut health.
However, for that same reason, poor gut health can cause a wide range of symptoms, some of which don’t even involve the gut. It can be tricky to tell whether your gut health is thriving or floundering, or whether the seemingly random health complaints you’re having are actually related to the state of your gut. To make things even more confusing, these other mental and physical signs may not crop up at the same time as some of the more obvious digestive symptoms, making it difficult to link the two.
So, what are some mental and bodily clues that your gut health needs some TLC? Read on for some surprising signs and symptoms of sub-par gut health, according to the experts.
01 of 08
You’re more irritable than usual.
Many of us know what it’s like to experience a churning stomach due to stress and anxiety. But according to Aditya Sreenivasan, M.D., gastroenterologist at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital, it can work in the opposite direction too. Specifically, the gut can send signals to the brain when it’s in distress, he says. It does this using neurons, or nerve cells, that are in charge of sending signals throughout the body. In fact, there are more neurons in your GI tract than your brain (who knew?), so gut issues can certainly cause mood issues such as irritability and anxiety, Dr. Sreenivasan says.
02 of 08
You’re inexplicably exhausted.
If you can’t stop yawning or find you’re too fatigued to function normally day to day—even after getting the recommended amount of sleep night after night—an off-balance gut might be to blame. According to Dr. Sreenivasan, this can be partly related to the aforementioned mood issues, which can seriously mess with your shut-eye. What’s more, if your gut isn’t properly absorbing enough of the right nutrients, it can lead to malabsorption and negatively affect your energy levels, he says. You may also be experiencing some fatigue-related brain fog, mental heaviness, memory mishaps, and the like, which also often link back to gut imbalances. That said, it’s important to note that many unhealthy lifestyle habits can disrupt good sleep—so it’s worth fine-tuning your sleep hygiene (or checking in with your doctor) before chalking it up to the gut at first glance.
03 of 08
Your head hurts.
When gut issues interrupt your body’s ability to properly absorb nutrients, it can lead to pesky headaches, according to Dr. Sreenivasan. This may be related to the gut-brain connection and inflammation, according to The Journal of Headache and Pain. “Migraines are a little more complicated, but there’s an association between migraines and abdominal pain,” Dr. Sreenivasan explains further. The connection, called abdominal migraines, happens when you have migraines and abdominal pain at the same time (or sometimes, periodic abdominal pain in the absence of headaches). Additionally, hormonal imbalances that can trigger headaches and migraines may cause gut issues as well, he adds.
04 of 08
You’re constipated or bloated.
From microbial imbalances to general digestive dysfunction, poor gut health can cause constipation and bloating, says Johanna Salazar, M.S., RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Healing Nutrition. But how do you know whether this type of digestive woe is due to more chronic dysfunction within your gut, or simply a one-time blip due to something you ate?
“If you’re feeling bloated or constipated, take a look at what you ate and drank for the past 48 hours,” Salazar recommends. The too-full feeling could certainly be caused by something you ate or not drinking enough water. However, if the constipation and bloating continue for more than seven days, Salazar recommends reaching out to your doctor to get some answers.
05 of 08
You have bad breath.
Another surprising sign of poor gut health is bad breath. Here’s why it happens: If you’re not passing stool properly—like in the case of chronic or frequent constipation—it can cause a buildup of toxins in the body. This can result in bad breath, a top gut health clue that shouldn’t be ignored, Salazar says. With that in mind, if your breath smells off even with regular toothbrushing and oral care, it might be time to put down the mints and focus on your gut instead.
06 of 08
You’re irregular (for you).
“Regular” bowel movements are different for everyone, however, overall, “regular” can include anything from three bowel movements per day to one bowel movement every three days, according to Dr. Sreenivasan. Thus, if your frequency changes and causes symptoms or interfere with your daily life, consider it a more pressing sign that your gut health needs some help. For example, “a change in bowel habits, [like] suddenly going from daily bowel movements to three times per day or once every three days, is worth noting,” says Dr. Sreenivasan.
07 of 08
You have new food sensitivities.
Gut issues can also trigger food sensitivities, Salazar says. One common example is a “leaky gut,” which refers to the permeability of the cells lining your intestine. BTW: The gut lining is supposed to be semi-permeable, as this allows nutrients and water from the food you eat to enter the bloodstream, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Sometimes, however, the gaps between cells become too large or loose, resulting in increased permeability. When this happens, large food particles and/or bacteria may enter the bloodstream, resulting in inflammation, Salazar explains. This may contribute to food sensitivities, which can manifest as G.I. symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea, as well as non-G.I. signs such as headaches, brain fog, and skin rashes, Salazar adds.
08 of 08
Your skin is acting up.
There are many possible triggers for skin inflammation symptoms, including allergies and stress—but an off-kilter gut might be at a play too. This is due to the link between the immune system and gut microbiome, which is essential for maintaining healthy skin, according to the journal Microorganisms. Essentially, if the gut microbiome is imbalanced, it can alter the body’s immune response, resulting in skin issues such as acne and dandruff. In a more general sense, “eating a lot of processed and salty foods can lead to puffiness and inflammation throughout your body, including the skin,” Dr. Sreenivasan says.
How to Start Improving Your Gut Health
Before trying to diagnose yourself and blame non-gut-related symptoms on your gut health, consider other symptoms you may be experiencing too, Salazar says. For example, look for clues like frequent gas or the shape of your stool. “A good stool should be ‘S’ shaped and easy to pass,” says Salazar. If these symptoms are present and you think your G.I. tract needs a hand, try adding more gut-friendly habits to your daily routine.
- Eat more fiber from plants. A great place to start is what you’re eating and drinking. One important strategy for keeping your gut healthy is consuming plenty of fiber, which is a vital nutrient for regular and comfortable digestion and present in most plant-based foods. Examples of high-fiber foods include vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.
- Eat less processed, high-sugar, and greasy/fried food. While you’re at it, start to limit ultra-processed foods that are typically low in fiber (in fact, the healthy fiber is often stripped from the ingredients used during processing). Excessively greasy and fatty foods can also lead to inflammation and upset stomach, so it may be worth cutting back on these foods for the sake of your gut. Finally, starting to consume fewer added sugars, since sugar actually helps feed the “bad” strains of gut bacteria, causing it to thrive and outnumber the healthy and helpful gut bacteria we do need.
- Adopt some general healthy lifestyle habits. Other natural ways to support gut health include drinking plenty of fluids, staying active, and getting at least seven hours of sleep per night. Practicing stress relief is also crucial, as the gut and mind are constantly communicating via the gut-brain axis mentioned earlier. Physical activity can lend a hand in this area, and don’t forget about meditation, yoga, and spending time in nature to relax the body and mind, Salazar says.
If your digestive woes persist in the midst of gut-healthy habits, chat with your primary care doctor. Depending on your symptoms, they might refer you to a gastroenterologist, who can order stool or blood tests to determine what’s going on. Your doctor might also have you consult a registered dietitian for personalized nutrition guidance, if needed.
10 Signs of an Unhealthy Gut and What to Do About It
How do you know your gut is in distress? Searching through the various studies and symptoms on the internet can feel really overwhelming — and leave you with more questions than answers.
It seems impossible that so many illnesses could be connected to gut health.
But it’s not as far-fetched as you might imagine.
We’re just beginning to learn how devastating an unhealthy gut can be to your whole body. Your gut is home to 500 million neurons ( yes, the same ones found in your brain! ) and 100 trillion strands of bacteria that form your microbiome.
IBS, GERD, and acid reflux are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to common illnesses rooted in the gut. In fact, gut health can now be connected to depression and anxiety , as well as inflammatory illnesses and autoimmune diseases.
Table of Contents:
- What factors contribute to your gut health?
- What are the symptoms of an unhealthy gut?
- Mental health issues
- Difficulty waking up and staying alert
- Frequent heartburn
- Food intolerances or sensitivities
- Brain fog
- Regular breakouts
- Hormone imbalance
- Weight fluctuation
- Chronic constipation
- Enhance your gut health
What Factors Contribute to Your Gut Health?
Basic factors that contribute to your gut health include genetics , diet , exercise , and your overall lifestyle . Other factors may consider environmental toxins, chronic stress, and even the diet and lifestyle your parents had before they had you. Yep, certain aspects of gut health can be passed down through the generations.
The good news is, you have more power over your gut health than you think — and just a few simple changes can help you reverse your symptoms and feel healthier.
What are the Symptoms of an Unhealthy Gut?
You may have heard that signs of bad gut health only include things like loose stool , gas , and diarrhea . While these are certainly symptoms you should investigate, they are not the only red flags you should be aware of.
The gut is home to most of your immune system — plus it breaks down food, absorbs vitamins and other nutrients, and secretes waste. When it’s not working properly, the whole body is affected.
These less common signs of an unhealthy gut may give you some insight into what your gut is telling you.
1. Mental Health Issues (Depression and Anxiety)
Although we associate most “happy chemicals,” like serotonin and dopamine with the brain, they are produced in the gut as well. In fact, the gut produces a whopping 95% of our serotonin!
Neurotransmitters in the brain and gut regularly communicate with each other — connecting the two in what’s called the gut-brain axis. When the gut is in chronic distress, the brain is almost always affected.
This is why we see cases of depression and anxiety so often in people with gut issues.
2. Difficulty Waking Up and Staying Alert
You jolt out of REM sleep at the dreaded sound of your alarm clock. Groggily you mumble to yourself, “five more minutes” and proceed to snooze the clock at least seven more times.
When you finally make it to work, you’re running on two giant cups of caffeine and still can’t manage to decipher the spreadsheet your boss assigned last-minute.
Does this scenario sound familiar?
Serotonin is key to quality sleep, and if the gut isn’t creating enough, you may experience an exhausting sleep/wake cycle. Additionally, slow digestion takes energy from your body that could be used to crawl out of bed — or conquer that spreadsheet.
3. Frequent Heartburn
Sure, you might get heartburn after eating too many acidic foods ( even though chocolate is worth it ). This may not be cause for concern, but frequent bouts could be a sign that more is going on in your gut. If you experience this uncomfortable symptom more than once a week, it’s time to look deeper into your gut health.
4. Food Intolerances or Sensitivities
You can’t imagine life before tacos. Are they really that unhealthy? It doesn’t matter. You’ve eaten the same carnitas tacos every Tuesday for as long as you can remember — and all of the sudden, they’re causing uncomfortable cramps and bloating.
The 100 trillion strands of bacteria in your gut (aka, your microbiome), is responsible for protecting your gut lining, regulating your immune system, and helping to control digestion. When this microbiome lining breaks or weakens, your stomach and gut lining is vulnerable to wear and tear. ( The gut lining is only a single cell thick! )
If your gut wall begins to break down, it causes a condition called a leaky gut. Larger particles from your beloved tacos can then enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc on your immune system.
When leaky gut becomes an issue, foods you’ve enjoyed plenty in the past — especially those that increase inflammation, like gluten — may cause digestive distress.
5. Brain Fog
Do you ever find yourself staring at your computer screen wondering what in the world you just read? Maybe it’s already happened as you’ve been browsing this article ( no worries! ).
Forgetfulness and frequent bouts of brain fog may be linked to your gut. Not only are your gut and brain connected through neurological pathways, but your gut is in charge of sending nutrients and healthy fats to your brain. Without sufficient nutrients, you may find yourself struggling to remember words or keep your thoughts straight.
6. Regular Breakouts
If you suffer from unexplained acne that refuses to calm down no matter what expensive cream or treatment you try, it might be time to look at your gut. Acne has been associated with a gut disorder called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) . Leaky gut may also allow bacteria to travel outside of your gut, causing widespread inflammation and eventually seeking your skin as an exit point.
7. Hormone Imbalance
For women who suffer from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), Hashimoto’s, and menopause, hormone imbalance is nothing new. Usually, hormone imbalances are diagnosed through blood tests ordered by your doctor.
If you struggle with any of these diseases, you know that maintaining healthy estrogen levels plays an important role in your overall wellness. But did you know the gut is responsible for some estrogen production?
Taking care of your gut and nourishing your microbiome may help to ease symptoms of estrogen dominance.
8. Weight Fluctuation
Rapid weight gain or loss can be caused by a lot of different things. But if you think your gut is in distress, and you’re experiencing weight fluctuation, it might be worth looking more into. Since your gut influences how your body stores nutrients, it has a lot of influence over your weight.
9. Chronic Constipation
Unless severe, constipation rarely raises alarm. But maybe it should .
To maintain healthy digestion, you should be pooping at least once a day. If less frequent, your body could quickly become overloaded with toxins. Healthy BM’s are a sign of a healthy you — so make sure you’re eating plenty of fiber to help your motility stay frequent.
Inflammation is always a hot-button topic in the holistic health world. And, it makes sense. Inflammation-driven gut diseases like Crohn’s disease, Lyme disease , and ulcerative colitis, to name a few, are on the rise. If you experience inflammatory symptoms like regular headaches, fatigue, and decreased appetite without a direct cause, it could be linked to leaky gut .
Enhance Your Gut Health with Bodybio
Gut symptoms are not only uncomfortable, they can also be embarrassing. But there’s no reason to feel ashamed about your body. Your stomach and digestive tract are smarter than you think — they want to heal. And, they’re using symptoms to raise your awareness of the problem.
Now that you understand the symptoms of an unhealthy gut, learn how you can reverse those symptoms and restore your health with prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics .
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