Heartburn, indigestion, stomach cramps, gas, bad breath, bloating — all of these are signs your digestive system isn’t functioning as efficiently as it could be. But they’re not the only symptoms alerting you to possible gut health issues. There are also some seemingly unconnected red flags that could be related to belly and gut problems, too, and it’s worth paying attention.
“Gut bacteria play a vital role in regulation of many systems of the body, and this community of bacteria is really like an organ within our gut,” says Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “Variations in this community can reflect the state of our health.”
How do you know when that community is in revolt? Here are a few signs, along with some tips on what you can do.
A diet full of sugar, processed foods and unhealthy fats can cause bad bacteria to multiply in the gut, and when there’s also a lack of fiber, that can throw you out of balance and cause cravings, according to Maria Zamarripa, RD, who focuses on sugar cravings and functional health.
Eating sugary food can cause gut bacteria to become dependent on it, and disrupt the balance in the gut, leading to a condition called dysbiosis, says Zamarripa.
“You feed your gut bacteria every time you eat,” she notes. “When these sugar-loving bugs set up shop in your gut, you may experience more sugar cravings.”
In the past decade, there’s been considerable research about the role of gut health in regulating emotions like anger, anxiety, sadness and joy.
This is called the “gut-brain connection,” and Harvard Medical School reports that a troubled intestine can send signals to the brain and vice versa — anxiety can influence your gut bacteria.
If you’re dealing with other factors that negatively influence gut health like stress, insomnia and poor diet, this can trigger inflammation in the digestive system and create an ongoing cycle of dysbiosis, Harvard researchers note.
In other words, when your gut isn’t happy, most likely you won’t be, either. Signs this is happening include nervousness, trouble relaxing, being quick to anger, even procrastination and an increased risk of bad habits like smoking, drinking too much and overeating.
Like some other systems in your body, your gut has a circadian rhythm, and its function changes throughout the course of a day and during the night. When that rhythm is thrown off in some way — through stress or bad food, for example — it can change how the good bacteria operate.
A recent study found there’s an association between gut bacteria, sleep habits and how your brain operates. Gut health is often linked to brain function — it’s actually sometimes called your “second brain” because it contains so many neurotransmitters — so it’s not surprising to see that if your gut is off, your sleep could be, too.
The good news is a healthy gut gives you a better night of sleep because if your gut bacteria is functioning properly, it can regulate the release of cortisol and melatonin, the hormones responsible for wakefulness and sleepiness.
At a time when virus news seems to change hourly, any strategies for improving immune function should be front and center. One way to tell if your gut is off? Those low-level cold symptoms that never seem to fade completely.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine point out that a huge proportion of your immune system is actually in your gastrointestinal tract. Cells lining the gut are responsible for producing antibodies that fight off bacteria and viruses.
If you’re experiencing one or two of these — and especially if you’re struggling with all of them — it’s worth taking the time and effort to get your gut in shape. Zamarrippa recommends a few strategies that can help:
- Eat more vegetables, fruits and other fiber-rich foods. This encourages more microbial diversity. A low amount of diversity has been linked to insulin resistance, obesity and heart disease.
- Add prebiotic and probiotic foods. Prebiotics are foods your beneficial gut bacteria use to thrive and include onions, garlic, whole wheat, bananas and beans. For probiotics, consider fermented foods. Your gut loves fermented options like kimchi, sauerkraut, beet kvass, kombucha and pickles.
- Exercise. In addition to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, your gut loves a good workout. One study found exercise alone can change the composition of microbes in the gut, independent of diet or antibiotic use. Researchers found exercise increases the microbiome’s production of short-chain fatty acids, which have been linked to metabolic health, regulation of food intake and insulin sensitivity.
Even if you’re not seeing any symptoms of a less-than-happy gut, putting tactics like these into place can help prevent issues and put you in a good position to have stronger immunity, better sleep, more energy, less sugar cravings and better moods. Be good to your gut, and it’ll be good to you.