Often, we take for granted our body’s ability to turn the food we eat into fuel that gets us through the day. Digestion is a function as natural as breathing, and we don’t pay it much attention — until it feels as though it is not working quite right. So, how do you know your gut health isn’t as great as it should be? It’s important to recognize the signs of unhealthy digestion, diagnose the problem, and make diet and lifestyle adjustments to nurture your gut.
What is Gut Health?
The gastrointestinal tract includes the esophagus, stomach, and intestines, all of which work together to make up the digestive system. Gut health is your body’s ability to perform regular digestive functions, namely: breaking down food and absorbing nutrients; maintaining a healthy balance of the beneficial microorganisms in your gut (known as the “gut microbiome”), and effectively excreting waste.
The Importance of a Healthy Gut
The healthy bacteria in your gut help turn food into nutrients that can enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. This metabolic activity is a critical function, and it is therefore important to keep these good bacteria balanced.
However, your digestive system does more than just break down food. What many people may not realize is that a majority of our immune system resides in the gut. Those healthy bacteria — along with 70-80% of the body’s immune cells — fight off viruses, fungi, and other infectious agents, as well as keep the number of “bad” bacteria in check.
There are multiple diseases and conditions that are connected to the state of your gut microbiome. To avoid experiencing any of these ailments, it is important to monitor signs of an unhealthy gut, which may include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Insulin sensitivity or diabetes
- Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression
Overall, the health of your gut contributes greatly to proper immunity and brain function.
Signs of an Unhealthy Gut
You Have a Frequently Upset Stomach
Stomach pain, heartburn, bloating, nausea, excessive gas, and constipation or diarrhea can be signs of an unhealthy gut. However, if your gut is healthy and has a balanced microbiome, you likely won’t experience pain or discomfort as the digestive system runs its course.
You Notice an Intolerance to Certain Foods
Maybe you notice you have a hard time digesting gluten or dairy products. Specified intolerances — or an increase in “trigger foods” — can be a result of disproportionate bad to good bacteria present in the gut.
You Feel Fatigued or Experience Abnormalities in Your Sleep Schedule
One way or another, your gut can impact your ability to sleep well. Serotonin — the natural hormone that regulates our sleep and mood — is made in the gut, and any gut imbalance could negatively affect production. Additionally, experiencing frequent stomachaches and other intestinal pain can keep you from getting a good night’s sleep.
Your Weight Fluctuates Without Changes in Diet or Physical Activity
Gaining or losing weight unintentionally might be a sign that your gut is having trouble absorbing nutrients or regulating blood sugar. This can impact your body’s ability to store fat or, alternatively, burn it off effectively.
How Can I Improve Digestion and Repair My Gut?
Luckily, if you experience any of the above symptoms associated with poor gut health, there are a number of ways to aid your natural digestion processes and repair the gut. First, consult a doctor if you experience any stomach problems in order to get diagnosed for possible gastrointestinal diseases. If your digestive issues are largely due to diet and lifestyle choices, here are some ways you can tend to the gut:
Limiting the number of refined sugars and processed foods in your diet can help keep the appropriate balance of good and bad bacteria present in the gut. Adjust your eating habits to incorporate more plant-based foods, leaner proteins, and high-fiber dishes to encourage healthy digestion. Probiotics also support good gut health by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria. These can be found in foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha, or they could be taken as a dietary supplement.
Aside from making necessary changes to your diet, the following lifestyle changes might have a positive impact on gut health and digestion:
- Eat slowly, chew your food well, and hydrate
- Maintain low stress levels
- Prioritize getting enough sleep (7-8 hours per night)
- Exercise regularly
Your gut plays a big role in your overall health and well-being, so it is important to take great care of it. Follow these tips, and hopefully your gut with thank you!
Author bio: Kara Kash, RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian at Factor — a premium weekly meal delivery service that fuses world-class culinary dishes with the latest in nutrition science to produce fully prepared meals that are as delicious as they are nutritious.