Whether it’s irregular bathroom time or consistent bloating, our digestive system does its best to let us know when something in the neighborhood isn’t quite right. And, interestingly, even woes that seem completely unrelated to our digestion can be signs of gut health issues.
Is your gut trying to get your attention? Read on for the details on why poor gut health impacts so many areas of wellbeing, plus 15 indicators (some totally unexpected) of trouble.
How the Gut Affects Overall Health
The gut, also known as the gastrointestinal tract, plays a crucial role in the overall functioning of the body. It consists of various organs, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and small and large intestines, all of which help us digest food, absorb essential nutrients, and eliminate waste.
“When something’s out of whack in your gut, your whole system suffers,” explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Karen Cooney, M.A., C.N., C.H.H.C. “The gut can affect your overall well-being because it doesn’t just help you digest your food; it also produces and absorbs vitamins and minerals, houses the gut bacteria that make up your microbiome, and influences your risk for diseases such as heart disease, brain issues, immune problems, and more. Everything is connected to your gut.”
The gut’s ability to impact the whole body also stems from its complex and extensive network of nerves, immune cells, and hormonal signaling pathways. “The gut is often referred to as the second brain because it contains a large number of nerve cells and communicates bi-directionally with the brain through the ‘gut-brain axis,'” explains Dr. Joshua Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., doctor of naturopathic medicine and member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council. Research has found that this connection allows the gut to influence mood, cognition, appetite, and even behavior.
Furthermore, the gut houses a significant portion of the body’s immune system (about 70 percent, according to Cooney), making it a key player in immune responses and overall function. “The bacteria in your gut either activates or suppresses inflammation as a means of regulating the immune system,” she explains. “Some of this is gut wall-related; when the gut lining is compromised, potential pathogens can enter the bloodstream, which consequently activates inflammation.”
Signs of Poor Gut Health
Dysfunction in the gut can manifest in a wide variety of symptoms, some of which are more obviously tied to digestive health than others. While some of the following signs of gut health issues will come as no shock, others might surprise you.
1. Digestive problems
Perhaps the most obvious sign of gut issues here: Physical symptoms like bloating, upset stomach, heartburn, acid reflux, or stomach pains all clearly indicate that something is up with your system, says dietitian Emily Fultz, R.D.N., L.D.N.
2. Changes in bowel movements
Diarrhea or constipation (especially when chronic), as well as changes in stool consistency or color, can also indicate that something is off with your gut, Fultz notes.
3. Food intolerances
Research suggests that alterations in the gut microbiome may be involved in food intolerances. Furthermore, “leaky gut can cause the immune system to overproduce various antibodies, which may make some more susceptible to antigens in certain foods, especially gluten and dairy,” adds Axe.
4. Nutritional deficiencies
If the gut is not functioning optimally, it may have difficulty absorbing essential nutrients, leading to deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and other important compounds. For example, “leaky gut can cause malabsorption of vital minerals and nutrients, including zinc, iron, and vitamin B12,” says Axe.
5. Fatigue and low energy
Since gut health impacts nutrient absorption, a dysfunctional gut can lead to inadequate nutrient uptake, resulting in fatigue and low energy levels. (Healthy iron and vitamin B12 levels are both important for healthy energy production.)
6. Weight fluctuations
Research suggests that imbalances in the gut microbiota may affect metabolism and contribute to weight gain or difficulty losing weight. In fact, the authors behind one review published in Preventative Nutrition and Food Science found that “different modalities of obesity treatment have been shown to change the diversity and composition of the gut microbiome, which raises questions about the role these changes may play in weight loss.”
7. Mood issues
Remember what Dr. Axe was saying earlier about the gut-brain axis? Because of the complex relationship between the digestive system and the brain, symptoms like anxiety, depression, and mood swings may, in fact, be indicative that something is off with the gut. One piece of the puzzle here: “The gut produces neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, often referred to as feel-good’ chemicals, which are known to affect your mood,” Cooney shares. Given that, when the gut microbiome experiences imbalances, the production of these important chemicals—and your mental and emotional state—can pay the price.
8. Brain fog and poor concentration
That gut-brain connection influences more than mood. “Disruptions in gut health have been linked not only to anxiety and depression, but also to brain fog, poor concentration, and difficulty focusing,” says Fultz. Surprise, surprise, the gut microbiota seems to be the ticket here, with research suggesting a link between these itty-bitty critters and cognitive performance.
9. Headaches and migraines
Imbalances in gut bacteria and increased intestinal permeability (a.k.a. leaky gut), have been associated with a higher prevalence of headaches and migraines in research.
10. Skin conditions
In addition to the gut-brain axis, studies show there’s also a “skin-brain axis.” According to naturopathic doctor Dr. Olivia Rose, N.D., conditions such as acne, eczema, and rosacea have been associated with gut dysfunction, which makes sense considering they can be tied to a heightened inflammatory response. “Many of my patients notice that when they eat certain foods or are constipated, their skin conditions flare up,” Rose shares. Generally, the origins of these external issues aren’t external at all; instead, they’re manifestations of an internal imbalance.
11. Intense cravings
“An unhealthy gut microbiota composition can influence food cravings, leading to a preference for sugary, high-calorie foods,” says Rose. In fact, research published in Bioessays suggests that the microbes in our system drive our eating behavior by influencing satiety and reward pathways, producing mood-altering toxins, altering taste receptors, and even “hijacking” the vagus nerve, which is the neural axis between the brain and gut.
12. Autoimmune issues
A growing body of evidence links gut health to autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and celiac disease. Research suggests that both alterations to the gut microbiome as well as leaky gut can contribute to both the initiation and exacerbation of a whole host of autoimmune conditions.
13. Joint pain
Whether associated with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or not, inflammation in the gut can trigger an immune response that affects joints, potentially triggering or worsening joint pain. Experts suggest that, when gut health is compromised, inflammatory chemicals can travel to other parts of the body, often attacking joints in the process.
Dysbiosis of gut microbiota is thought to contribute to an increased risk of asthma, in some cases, according to Axe. In fact, research suggests that “gut dysbacteriosis might result in chronic inflammatory respiratory disorders, particularly asthma.”
15. Sleep disturbances
In case you thought there was anything left that your gut doesn’t influence, think again. Changes in gut bacteria and inflammation in the gut can also impact your sleep. Research has shown that, through the gut-brain axis, the gut microbiome also regulates sleep patterns in a number of ways.
“Preliminary evidence indicates that microorganisms and circadian genes can interact with each other,” write the authors of one Frontiers in Psychiatry paper. “The characteristics of the gastrointestinal microbiome and metabolism are related to the host’s sleep and circadian rhythm…and the gut microbiome and inflammation may be linked to sleep loss and circadian misalignment.”