9 Signs Your Digestive Issues May Indicate Larger Gut Problems
If you have a few bizarre symptoms going on, and aren't able to pin down exactly what's causing them, you may want to consider poor gut health as a possible contributing factor. Because even though it seems like it should be responsible for digestion and digestion alone, your gut actually plays a big role in your overall health. And if it isn't functioning well, it can create quite the ripple effect.
"Everyone should care about the health of their gut because it is the gateway to health," Dr. Laura C. Stix, H.BSc, CCHt, ND, a naturopathic doctor, tells Bustle. "Many health conditions have their origins in the gut. This makes sense because 70 to 80% of our immune system is in the gut, it produces nutrients, absorbs nutrients, [and] its microbiome has incredible genetic diversity outnumbering our own 100 to 1."
If something's amiss, it can show up in your skin, effect how you sleep, and even have an impact on how you feel emotionally. That's why gut health is always something to keep in mind, and work on improving as often as possible. That might include taking probiotics, drinking plenty of water, exercising, managing stress, eating fresh foods that improve gut health, as well as pointing out any new symptoms to a doctor — especially if you notice any of the signs of gut issues listed below.
1. You Have Bad Breath That Won't Go Away
If you've been dealing with bad breath — the kind that doesn't go away even after brushing your teeth — it could be a sign something's up with your gut.
"While [you'll] first want to rule out any oral health issues, if there doesn't seem to be a reason for the bad breath, then it's digestive in nature," Stix says. "A foul odor doesn't diagnose anything but is a cue that the microflora is disturbed," or something else may be amiss.
To improve the issue, Stix recommends taking digestive enzymes and/or probiotics, in order to even out your gut bacteria and improve your breath. Going to your doctor is also always a good idea so they can rule out any other potential causes, she says.
2. Your Joints Hurt
Surprisingly, "certain bacteria within our digestive tracts contribute to deterioration of joints and tissue," Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and author, tells Bustle. And that means, in some way, that gut health and joint health are tied together.
In fact, "research shows that a healthier gut environment helps lower the risk for joint pain, swelling, and trouble moving in people with osteoarthritis and inflamed joints," Axe says, which is all the more reason to do small things every day to improve gut health.
3. You're Experiencing Mood Changes
There's a strong connection between gut health and your mental health, due to something known as gut-brain connection. So if something's off with your gut, it really and truly can impact how you feel mentally and emotionally.
"Your diet affects your microbiome and neurotransmitter activity, and therefore how you feel, your ability to handle stress, and your energy levels," Axe says. "Poor gut health contributes to mood problems, and high amounts of stress also damage your gut and hormonal balance."
It may even be something to consider if you've been struggling with things like anxiety, depression, or excess stress, and it's always good to ask your doctor.
4. You Feel Uncomfortable & Bloated
While a small amount of bloating after eating is to be expected, it could be a sign of a problem if you're downright uncomfortable.
"Bloating is caused by gas production in the colon," Dr. Bryan Tran, DO, doctor of osteopathic medicine and owner of DrFormulas, tells Bustle. "Poorly absorbed food and digested food will make its way into the colon and be fermented by gut bacteria."
Gassiness can occur if you aren't digesting food properly, if you have a food sensitivity that's impacting your gut, or if your microbiome isn't balanced. So don't hesitate to reach out to a doctor for an evaluation.
5. You Can't Sleep
While you might not be thinking about gut health while tossing and turning at night, that very well may be what's causing your sleeplessness.
"Poor sleep quality can be caused by imbalanced gut microbiota, but also imbalanced gut microbiota can cause sleep problems — because your gut and brain are connected by a two-way street called the vagus nerve," Laura Kunces, PhD, RD, a registered dietitian, and director of clinical research and medical affairs at Thorne, tells Bustle.
By improving gut health, you may be able to get better sleep. As Kunces says, "In the gut, tryptophan (the amino acid associated with sleep) can be converted to melatonin to help regulate the sleep-wake cycle when your gut biome is optimized."
6. You're Constipated
Constipation means you aren't having frequent enough bowel movements — as in you're going less than three times per week — and/or that it's difficult for you to go to the bathroom. And that can and should serve as a sign that your gut isn't operating to its fullest potential.
"The most common cause is insufficient fiber," Tran says. "Fiber is undigestible by the body. It remains in the stools and helps keep them soft and easier to pass." To help things run smoothly, Tran suggest eating more foods rich in fiber, fresh fruit, and vegetables, and choosing whole grains as often as possible.
7. You Have Diarrhea
"Diarrhea is a big giveaway that something is not right with your digestive system," Tran says. So if this is something you're struggling with on a regular basis, try not to ignore it.
There may be a quick explanation. For example, "if you recently took antibiotics then the most likely cause is antibiotic associated diarrhea (AAD)," Tran says. "Antibiotics can kill off your normal gut microbes that keep away bad bacteria."
Taking a probiotic can help get things back on track, and "a more diverse formula will help restore the normally diverse microflora of your gut," Tran says. But if these bowel changes came out of nowhere and aren't going away, you may want to let your doctor know.
8. You Struggle With Acid Reflux
It if seems like you can't eat without getting acid reflux or indigestion, poor gut health may be to blame. "Indigestion is poor digestion that is best described as food that is 'stuck' in the stomach," Tran says. "Acid reflux is a condition that involves regurgitation of stomach acid up the esophagus."
Since neither are fun to deal with, improving gut health should be a goal. "Things you can do to support digestion include: walking after eating, not laying down after eating, eating smaller meals more often, and thoroughly chewing your food," Tran says. "Digestive enzymes supplements can also help."
9. Your Skin Keeps Breaking Out
Acne can come from many different sources, including hormonal changes and even lifestyle habits. But it may be worth considering your gut, especially if acne won't go away.
"There is such a thing as a gut-skin axis — both acting as barriers to protect your blood stream, tissues, and organs, your gut lining, and skin communicate regularly," Kunces says. "Research suggests an altered gut microbiome is a direct contributor to acne, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis."
Many times, improving gut health can mean improving symptoms associated with these conditions. For example, "a diet to reduce inflammation and provide pre- and probiotics can help to minimize negative pathway effects by bacteria that have gone rogue," Kunces says.
So always keep your insides in mind. If any of these things sound familiar, there's a good chance poor gut health is playing a role. And by taking steps to improve it, you may be able to have fewer symptoms — and feel better overall.