Our bodies contain at least as many bacterial cells as human cells, yet the role of the bacterial cells in our health remains poorly understood. What we do know is that there are bad bacteria that can lead to infections and other health issues, as well as good ones that keep the bad ones in check. If the bad bacteria in your body overgrow and there aren't enough good ones to balance them, your body reaches a state called dysbiosis, which is behind a number of health issues that scientists are only beginning to understand.
"Medicine is really in the infancy of understanding dysbiosis and what causal role it may play in symptoms and disease processes," Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Bustle. "Many diseases that range from inflammatory bowel disease to colon cancer to C.difficile infection have been linked to dysbiosis. The leading hypothesis is that the altered composition of microbes has a cascading impact on the immune system and can also facilitate infection with other microorganisms such as C.difficile."
Even though dysbiosis originates in the gut, people can have it without having any noticeable digestive symptoms. "Often times, many of the symptoms of gut dysbiosis do not manifest in the gut at all," Caitlin Thompson, neurobiology researcher and founder of Entheozen, tells Bustle. "Brain fog, depression, anxiety, insomnia, skin issues, fatigue, allergies, and autoimmunity are all driven by gut dysbiosis."
To avoid dysbiosis, it's a good idea to take probiotics and eat probiotic-rich foods, especially when you're on antibiotics, and avoid unnecessary antibiotic use, naturopathic doctor Alissia Zenhausern tells Bustle. If you're experiencing it, the best way to treat it is to treat the root issue, which can include diabetes, poor diet, obesity, leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and celiac disease.
Here are some signs that you could be experiencing dysbiosis, according to experts.
1. You've Taken Lots Of Antibiotics
Anything that changes your body's microbial composition can cause dysbiosis, but one of the most common offenders is antibiotic use, says Adalja. While they kill off bacteria that are causing infections, antibiotics also kill off your good bacteria, which can give bad bacteria the chance to take over. Again, avoid taking antibiotics that aren't necessary, and take a probiotic if you have to take them.
2. You're Experiencing Gas And/Or Bloating
Bad bacteria can create gaseous byproducts, so if there are too many of them in your system, this can lead you to experience gas or bloating, says Zenhausern.
3. You're Suffering From Brain Fog
"We now know there are multiple neuro-chemical and neuro-metabolic pathways between the central nervous system/brain and microbiome/digestive tract that send signals to one another, affecting our memory, thought patterns, and reasoning," Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com, tells Bustle. One University of Pennsylvania study even found that mice with less exposure to harmful bacteria had a lower risk for brain malformations linked to strokes and seizures.
4. Your Joints Hurt
"Certain bacteria within our digestive tracts contribute to deterioration of joints and tissue," says Axe. Establishing a healthy microbiome can help reduce joint pain and swelling.
5. You Have Depression And/Or Anxiety
Good bacteria in the gut produce neurotransmitters need to maintain a stable mood, so when they're lacking, you may experience a deficiency of chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, leading to mood disorders, says Axe.
"With a lot of newly emerging research highlighting the gut-brain connection, it appears that the brain is actually the most susceptible organ to being negatively affected by gut dysbiosis before other organ systems show symptoms," says Thompson. "This is because the microorganisms in our guts dictate a number of neurologically significant processes such as neurotransmitter production and balance, nutrient extraction, and neuroinflammation. It is even possible for bacteria to migrate up the vagal nerve from the gut into the brain."
The good news is, replenishing your microbiome seems to help. One study in Gastroenterology found that people who took a probiotic were more likely to see reductions in depression than those who took a placebo.
6. You Have Lots Of Allergies
"Certain beneficial bacteria lower inflammation, which lessens the severity of allergic reactions, food allergies, asthma or infections of the respiratory tract," Axe says. You can curb allergies by eating anti-inflammatory foods.
7. You Have Digestive Issues
Some people experience digestive problems like constipation or diarrhea due to inflammation and nutrient malabsorption caused by dysbiosis, says Thompson. Imbalances in the microbiome can cause your immune system to react even to healthy food so that your body gets rid of it as soon as possible with diarrhea. If dysbiosis is causing problems with nutrient absorption, your body also might try to hang onto food for as long as possible to extract the nutrients, leading to constipation.
A good probiotic — particularly one with Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Streptococcus — can help correct for dysbiosis, gastroenterologist Michael Bass, M.D. tells Bustle. Bass also recommends a Mediterranean diet to gradually repopulate the gut.