By now, you’ve likely heard about probiotics, the good bacteria that live in your gut and provide numerous health benefits. Their job largely involves keeping “bad” gut bacteria at bay, which helps keep your gut health balanced and you healthy and happy.
“Optimal gut health means optimal body and mind functionality,” explains Shelby Keys, RD, a senior bariatric dietitian at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA. The problem, says Richard Firshein, DO, a board-certified family medicine physician and founder of The Firshein Center for Integrative Medicine in New York City, is that
anything and everything can throw your gut health out of balance.
And it’s not just what you eat; how often you travel, what medications you take, and even how much your boss stresses you out can foster an environment that allows bad bacteria to take over. That can lead to a whole slew of symptoms and signs that your gut needs a reboot. Here’s how to tell if that’s what’s happening.
How to tell if your gut health is out of whack
Your stomach feels… off
Bloating, distension, indigestion, acid reflux, pain, cramping, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, gas (shall we continue?) are all symptoms of poor gut health, says Emily Haller, RDN, a registered dietitian in the division of gastroenterology at Michigan Medicine.
“We are not, by nature, gas-forming, so bacteria and yeast are responsible for most of the gas you produce,” says Firshein. Bad bacteria tend to produce more gas, so digestion issues are a pretty good signal that your gut doesn’t have enough of the good kind.
Your weight has changed
Your gut and brain communicate with each other constantly, explains Key, specifically in relation to hunger and satiation cues like changes in appetite, cravings, and how full you feel. All of these can affect weight gain or loss, so if you’ve dropped or put on some pounds unexpectedly and seemingly without explanation, it might be due to gut health issues.
You’ve picked up a skin condition
“One of the gut’s primary roles is promoting health and generating immune responses, so it’s thought that an unhealthy gut may alter proper functioning of the immune system,” says Keys. That means a dysfunctional intestinal barrier could result in inflammation that manifests in your external barrier, a.k.a. your skin. The result: skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis, to name a few.
You feel stressed, sad, tired, anxious — generally crappy
Your gut microbiome produces mood-enhancing chemicals, such as GABA, dopamine, and serotonin, explains Firshein. If the balance of bacteria is off, mood-related symptoms could crop up.
Feeling completely spent? “If your immune system has to fight imbalanced gut flora, it may be overburdened,” says Firshein. “This may actually make you feel sick or experience symptoms of an overactive immune system, which mimic flu-like symptoms.”
Fortunately, just as there are many things that can throw off your gut health, there are plenty of things you can do to get it back on track. Here are some easy interventions you can try to get those good bacteria thriving again.
How to Fix It
Consider probiotic-rich foods and supplements
On top of fiber, foods rich in probiotics might help alleviate symptoms related to gut health by providing more of the good stuff, says Haller. These include things like kefir and kombucha, among others.
However, in order to reap the greatest benefit from probiotics, a trusted supplement like Culturelle* might help. It contains LGG, the most studied probiotic strain in the world. To look up research on LGG (and any other strain), as well as dosing information and more, Haller recommends the US Probiotic Guide.
Fill up on fiber
“Fiber helps with regularity as it provides prebiotics that are good for the microbes that live in our large intestine,” explains Haller. Get your fiber from oats, quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat, millet, buckwheat, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils. You can also find it in supplements like Culturelle’s Digestive Health product, which contains 200mg of Inulin, fiber from chicory root.
All backed up? Try kiwifruit and prunes, specifically, suggests Haller. Both have been shown to help with constipation and will work to keep you regular.
Cut back on sugar (and fake sugar)
Highly processed, sugary foods (your candy and cakes) encourage the production of bad bacteria, says Firshein. In large amounts, sugar alcohols, or polyols, found in sugar-free products can also cause GI distress, as they’re poorly absorbed in the intestine, explains Haller. To spot sugar alcohols on nutrition labels, look for the suffix “-ol.” e.g., sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol.
But remember: “The gut microbiome is vast, diverse, and unique. No single gut is the same,” says Keys. That means if you find certain foods irritating (nuts, dairy, milk, soy, corn, and wheat are biggies), scrap ‘em to see if you feel better without.
Sink your stress levels
Since your gut and your brain are intricately connected and in constant communication, keeping your mind calm through meditation, yoga, a long run, or whatever activity does it for you can help keep your gut calm too. Sleep also regulates hormones that play a large role in mood, which can, in turn, aid gut health.
Eat small, spread-out meals
“Eating sooner than every one-and-a-half to two hours can interfere with the body’s cleansing waves known as peristalsis,” says Keys. “Preventing these cleansing waves can lead to an overgrowth of bacteria in the gut.”
Big meals, especially at night, can also trigger symptoms of acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), says Haller. Your best bet: balanced, small- to moderate-sized meals spread evenly throughout the day.
Limit the booze
“Too much alcohol can worsen acid reflux or heartburn, increase bloating and distension, and, in excess, is pro-inflammatory,” says Haller. Cutting back can reduce gut inflammation, she notes.
Logging fewer than 1,000 steps a day? Letting your gym membership sit unused? You could be stopping yourself up unintentionally. Low levels of physical activity can contribute to weight gain (which can worsen GI issues) and constipation, notes Haller.
Consult a professional
If lifestyle interventions don’t cut it, Haller says it’s important to seek professional help for your gut from your primary care physician or a gastroenterologist. “It’s important to be evaluated, as there are various conditions like celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastroparesis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and colon cancer that can cause various GI symptoms.”
If it turns out there is something more serious going on, with a diagnosis, you’ll be better equipped to treat your symptoms appropriately.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Culturelle® is a trademark of DSM.