Many of the microorganisms in your gut are helpful. These “good” bacteria can ward off infection, help you digest food and keep your gut healthy.
However, problems arise when there are too many so-called “bad” bacteria. Normally, these problematic bacteria are kept in check by the good bacteria. However, if your gut becomes imbalanced (meaning there’s too much of the bad bacteria), it can cause inflammation.
Bad bacteria can also break down the lining of your gut, leaking toxins into your bloodstream. In fact, gut health imbalances can affect everything from the effectiveness of diabetes medication to cancer cell growth and anxiety.
Here’s how to tell if you gut is out of balance, and ways to strengthen your digestive health.
Signs of an unhealthy gut
Bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation are common signs of an imbalanced gut. Signs also include inflammation and immune disruption, which can show up in other ways, such as:
- Migraines and headaches
- Eczema, acne or skin rashes
- Chronic fatigue
- Joint pain or arthritis
- Cravings for sugar or carbs
- Unintentional weight changes
- Food intolerances or food allergies
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease or heartburn
How to improve gut health
1. Eat fermented foods. Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, kefir and kombucha, contain good bacteria that help rebalance your gut. Naturally fermented foods containing live cultures pack the biggest benefit.
2. Focus on fiber. Fiber aids elimination and feeds the beneficial microorganisms in your colon and gastrointestinal tract. Skip processed foods like lunch meat, ice cream and white bread that contain added sugar, fat and salt. Instead, opt for whole food sources of fiber, like legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, vegetables and fruit.
3. Get tested for food allergies. Research has linked bad gut bacteria to food allergies. Your doctor can perform a blood test to determine if you have food allergies that need to be addressed. A breath test can be performed to identify food intolerances to fermentable carbohydrates (FODMAPS), such as milk (lactose), beans, certain vegetables, fruits, grains and sweeteners.
4. Avoid unnecessary antibiotics. Antibiotics disrupt your gut biome, killing off the good bacteria along with the bad. A gut-friendly diet or probiotic supplement can help repopulate your digestive tract after a course of antibiotics.
Practicing good hygiene is the best way to avoid bacterial conditions like bacterial pneumonia, bacterial meningitis or eye infections that require antibiotics. You should also avoid taking antibiotics for a cold, flu, bronchitis or another viral infection, because antibiotics don’t effectively treat viral infections. Do not continue taking antibiotics after you have finished the course prescribed by your doctor, and never take leftover antibiotics for another illness.
5. Implement healthy habits. Stress has a direct impact on your gut. So much so that the stomach is sometimes called the second brain. Stress can increase diarrhea, and contribute to inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal diseases. Practicing mindfulness, getting plenty of sleep and exercising are smart ways to keep your stress in check. When your mind is balanced, it helps your gut be balanced, too.