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5 Signs of an Unhealthy Gut and Evidence-Based Ways to Improve Gut Health

By Joanna Foley, RD

Medically Reviewed by Natalie Olsen, MS, RDN, LD, ACSM-EP

Published on October 11, 2022

The health of your gut impacts many parts of your body. That’s why it’s important to know what makes up a healthy gut, the signs of an unhealthy gut, and ways to improve gut health.

Written by
Joanna Foley, RD
Registered Dietitian
Joanna received a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from California State University and has been practicing as a Registered Dietitian for 8 years. Working in a variety of settings, her career began in a hospital setting where she worked as a clinical inpatient dietitian, supporting the care and healing of acutely ill patients.
Medically Reviewed by
Natalie Olsen, MS, RDN, LD, ACSM-EP
Registered Dietitian, Certified Exercise Physiologist
Natalie is a registered dietitian, functional medicine practitioner and certified exercise physiologist with over 15 years experience in the health and wellness industry and holds a Master's degree in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine through a collaborative program provided by the University of Western States and the Institute of Functional Medicine.

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5 Signs of an Unhealthy Gut and Evidence-Based Ways to Improve Gut Health
Photo credit: iStock.com/StefaNikolic

When you think about what the gut does, you may only think about digestion. Yet many people don’t realize that your gut is involved in much more than that.

Unfortunately, most Americans don’t eat a healthy diet.

In fact, it has been reported that only 10%–12% of Americans are eating the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. In addition, most eat too many less-healthy foods like refined grains and sugar. (1, 2)

These things can wreak havoc on your gut and ultimately cheat your health.

This article will help you spot signs of an unhealthy gut, and include ways to improve it so you can reap the many benefits for your health.

What Is Gut Health?

The term “gut” is another name for your digestive tract, also called the digestive system or GI tract. This intricate system involves many organs — beginning in your mouth and ending in your colon.

Your esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and intestines are also key players in this system. Thus, “gut health” refers to the health of this entire system as a whole, as well as the health of each individual part. (3)

Another system — known as the microbiome — is a key player in the health of your gut. The microbiome is the collection of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. (4)

Both helpful and harmful organisms are a part of the microbiome community — including parasites, viruses, fungi, and bacteria.

A healthy gut involves a proper balance of the microorganisms in your microbiome. This helps ensure that no harm is caused to your body.

However, in some cases, too many harmful organisms take over and there are not enough beneficial ones — such as good bacteria.

When this happens, a condition called dysbiosis develops. Dysbiosis is one of the causes of an unhealthy gut and can lead to many negative symptoms and gut disorders. (5)

Summary

Gut health refers to the health of your digestive tract. In order to have a healthy gut, you must have a balanced microbiome with the right amounts of helpful and harmful microorganisms.

Why Is Gut Health So Important?

Part of the reason why gut health is so important is because of the immense impact it has on the rest of your body.

Some of the many ways your gut affects your health include:

  • Influences Your Weight: Your microbiome influences how fat is stored in your body. It also impacts appetite by influencing certain hormones that trigger hunger and fullness. Therefore, changing the composition of your gut bacteria has the potential to help with weight management and the prevention of obesity. (6, 7, 8)

  • Impacts Your Energy Levels: Your gut bacteria play an important role in how your body converts food into energy. It influences how the body stores and uses energy. This may help explain why the composition of gut bacteria is different in lean and obese individuals. (9)

  • Plays a Role in the Balance of Hormones: In addition to hunger hormones, your gut also helps regulate other hormones — such as estrogen. This can influence things like fertility, conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis, some cancers, and more. Your gut also influences other metabolic processes and hormones — like insulin, which is important for blood sugar control. (10, 11)

  • Influences the Strength of Your Immune System: Many people don’t know that about 80% of your body’s immune cells are located in the tissues of your gut. Because of this, the health of your gut can impact how well your body is able to defend itself against illness. It can also influence how well you are able to recover when you do get sick. (12)

  • Affects Your Mood: Your gut produces about 95% of the neurotransmitter serotonin and aids in the production of dopamine and GABA. These are chemicals that influence your mood — including feelings of happiness, calmness, and overall emotional stability. Some research has found a link between an unhealthy gut and the development of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. (13, 14)

  • Impacts How You Digest and Absorb Nutrients: An unhealthy gut is likely to cause improper digestion. It may also cause you not to absorb nutrients the way that you should. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies and the development of many health conditions. (9)

Summary

Gut health impacts many areas of your body. These include digestion, immunity, hormones, weight, energy, mood, and more.

What Are 5 Signs of an Unhealthy Gut?

As mentioned, having an imbalanced microbiome can lead to an unhealthy gut. This can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including:

1. Poor Digestion

This is perhaps the most easily recognizable sign.

Symptoms of poor digestion will vary from person to person but may include frequently having an upset stomach or experiencing heartburn, gas, and bloating.

Each of these things can be a sign that your gut is having difficulty digesting food and eliminating waste. (15)

2. Irregular Bowel Movements

Bowel habits also vary from person to person. If you’re someone who has never really been “regular,” this sign can be easy to overlook.

Most people should be having a bowel movement nearly every day.

If you’re frequently dealing with constipation (which may include hard, infrequent, or difficult-to-pass stools) or diarrhea (loose, frequent, or watery stools), these can be signs that something isn’t right.

Having normal bowel movements helps eliminate proper waste from your body and is important for a healthy gut and body. (16)

Progressive imbalances in the gut can lead to higher inflammation and more complex issues — like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis. (17, 18)

3. Skin Issues

Symptoms of skin problems may include things like acne, rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. Research has shown that each of these can be linked to problems with the gut. (19)

4. Food Intolerances or Sensitivities

Research has shown that disruptions or imbalances in the gut — such as dysbiosis or certain infections — can lead to the development of food sensitivities and intolerances. (20, 21)

Imbalances in the gut can cause food to be improperly digested, which can cause a reaction within your body.

5. Autoimmune Conditions and an Overall Weak Immune System

As mentioned, your gut plays a large role in your immune function. As a result, having an unhealthy gut can lead to a weakened immune system. (22)

Research has shown that it can also lead to the development of autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, psoriasis, and multiple sclerosis. (23, 24, 25)

Summary

Signs of an unhealthy gut may include poor digestion, irregular bowel movements, skin issues, food intolerances, and a weakened immune system.

Expert Tip: Keep in mind that while each of these signs can indicate an unhealthy gut, they can also be signs of other conditions. This is why it is important to seek medical advice from a healthcare professional and to never self-diagnose.

Tips on How to Heal Your Gut Naturally

If you suspect you may have an unhealthy gut, you probably want to do what you can to improve gut health.

Improving gut health can have major benefits — even if you are not currently experiencing any of the negative symptoms described above.

Here are five tips for how to heal your gut naturally:

1. Modify Your Diet

Since food and your digestive system go hand in hand, it probably makes sense that what you eat and drink would have one of the greatest impacts on the health of your gut.

Some foods and beverages will improve your gut health and should be added to your diet. On the other hand, some foods can wreak havoc on the health of your gut and should be limited or avoided.

Add Fermented Foods

These provide a natural source of probiotics — a type of live, beneficial bacteria. (26)

Probiotics help balance out harmful bacteria and may help prevent or treat dysbiosis. (27)

Examples of fermented foods and beverages include:

  • Greek yogurt with live and active cultures
  • Sauerkraut
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Kimchi
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha

Add High-Fiber Foods

Fiber is a type of nondigestible carbohydrate. It fuels your gut lining and serves as a prebiotic — which helps feed probiotics to help them do their job properly. (28, 29)

Like probiotics, fiber can help keep the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut where it should be.

High-fiber foods include:

  • Whole grains (like oats, quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat products)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Legumes (like beans and lentils)
  • Fruits and vegetables

Dig Deeper: High-Fiber Foods to Add to Your Diet Today

Add Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Inflammation is a root cause of many diseases — including gut issues. (30)

Eating foods that help fight against inflammation may help prevent or heal an inflamed gut and restore balance in the microbiome.

Examples of anti-inflammatory foods include: (31)

  • Fatty fish (like salmon, tuna, or sardines)
  • Nuts and seeds (like chia seeds, almonds, and walnuts)
  • Olive oil
  • Avocados
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Black coffee
  • Green tea
  • At least 70% dark chocolate
  • Many herbs and spices (like turmeric and ginger)

Dig Deeper: Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Benefits, Food Lists, Tips, and More

Avoid High-Sugar Foods

Eating too much added sugar — like high fructose corn syrup, sucrose (table sugar), and even artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame — can lead to the overgrowth of harmful bacteria, increase inflammation, and contribute to dysbiosis. (32, 33)

Examples of foods and beverages that include added sugars or artificial sweeteners include:

  • Desserts
  • Sweetened tea and coffee drinks
  • Sports drinks
  • Soda
  • Many condiments like ketchup and barbeque sauce
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Sweet bread
  • Many packaged snack foods

Avoid Highly Processed Foods

These foods often contain many additives like preservatives and artificial ingredients.

Research has found that eating high amounts of ultra-processed foods can change the gut microbiome and lead to inflammation(34)

This can lead to disease.

Common highly processed foods include:

  • Fast foods
  • Convenience foods
  • Pre-packaged snacks
  • Many desserts and more

Examples of additives that may disrupt gut health include: (35)

  • Food colorants
  • Emulsifiers
  • Flavor enhancers like monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Dig Deeper: Processed Foods: Health Risks, Foods to Avoid, and More

Avoid Excessive Amounts of Alcohol

Chronic alcohol consumption can increase the amount of harmful bacteria in your gut — possibly leading to dysbiosis. (36)

It can also cause intestinal inflammation — which can lead to many types of disease. (36)

2. Manage Your Stress Levels

Stress can wreak havoc on many aspects of your health, including your gut. Stress can reshape the composition of your microbiome through stress hormones and inflammation. (37)

This can contribute to dysbiosis and a “leaky gut” — a condition that allows partially digested food, bacteria, and toxins to seep into the bloodstream and produce inflammation. (38)

How to manage your stress levels is unique to you but may include things like:

  • Asking for help
  • Setting more boundaries
  • Taking time to relax each day
  • Prioritizing more sleep

Dig Deeper: Evidence-Based Ways to Relief Stress and Anxiety

3. Remove Triggers

These may include foods you are sensitive to or that frequently cause negative gut symptoms — like bloating. (39)

Keeping a food diary and paying close attention to what you eat and what symptoms arise as a result can help you begin to identify triggers. You can then begin to remove suspected triggers and notice any improvements that may occur as a result.

Lactose and gluten are examples of some common food triggers.

It is helpful to work with a dietitian when doing an elimination diet to ensure you are still getting appropriate nutrients.

4. Slow Down When Eating

Eating slowly and paying attention to your food can help improve digestion. (40)

It can also help your body naturally produce more digestive enzymes — further helping with the breakdown of food and absorption of nutrients.

When you eat more slowly, you are also less likely to overeat — another common cause of poor digestion and can lead to an unhealthy gut.

5. Consider Gut-Supportive Supplements

Examples of supplements that may help improve the health of your gut include:

Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Postbiotics

Just as you can get these from food, you can also take these as a supplement(41)

Although a healthy diet is crucial for balancing gut health, supplements typically contain much larger amounts of the organisms — which may serve a greater benefit for some.

You are probably familiar with pre and pro-biotics, but postbiotics are just as important.

An example of postbiotics are short-chain fatty acids — like butyrate. These are produced in the colon by the fermentation of fiber, but can also be taken as a supplement. (42, 43)

Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes help with the breakdown of food to help with proper digestion. (44)

Glutamine

Research has confirmed that L-glutamine — an amino acid — supports the health of your microbiome. (45)

It also supports the integrity of your gut lining — which can help reduce inflammation and support an overall healthy gut.

Summary

Some ways to help heal your gut naturally include modifying your diet to include more of things like fiber and probiotics and less of things like sugar and processed foods. It can also include managing your stress, removing triggers, slowing down when eating, and taking gut-supportive supplements.

When to Seek Professional Help

In some cases, signs of an unhealthy gut can be signs of a serious disorder. Other times, the issue may not be as severe.

If you have persistent signs of an unhealthy gut that cannot be relieved by any of the above tips, it is important to seek professional help immediately.

In addition, if you have any potentially more serious symptoms — such as blood in your stool or drastic unexplained weight changes — you should seek medical support as soon as possible.

It is important to never self-diagnose when it comes to gut issues.

The Bottom Line

Your gut (gastrointestinal tract) is a complex system that impacts many parts of your body.

It is essential to have the proper balance of microorganisms in your gut to create a healthy microbiome. This is the foundation of a healthy gut.

Some ways the gut can impact your health include affecting things like your:

  • Weight
  • Mood
  • Hormones
  • Energy levels
  • Digestion

Signs of an unhealthy gut include having symptoms of:

  • Poor digestion
  • Irregular bowel movements
  • Food intolerances
  • Skin issues
  • A weak immune system

There are many ways to help heal your gut naturally. These include:

  • Modifying your diet
  • Removing triggers
  • Managing stress
  • Eating more slowly
  • Taking certain supplements

Ultimately, it can be said that the health of your gut plays a role in your overall health. That’s why it’s important to do what you can to support a healthy gut every day.

Working with a trained healthcare professional, such as a dietitian, can help uncover possible root causes of any gut issues and guide you in healing your gut naturally.

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