Your gut is home to more than the cheeseburger and cup of coffee you had for lunch. Your gut houses an intricate, complex system of bacteria that many experts consider an organ in itself. Your microbiome plays a vital role in digestion, health, and general wellbeing, but certain everyday factors, particularly in your diet, can cause imbalances in your gut bacteria that can have overarching effects on your health. Learn more about your gut bacteria and common signs that your gut bacteria are out of balance below.
Understanding Good and Bad Gut Bacteria
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria, representing about 1,000 different species and 5,000 strains of those species. Among these is a mix of both “good” and “bad” bacteria. While the “good” bacteria (often referred to as probiotics) help digestion, protect your immune system, and generally make your gut happy, the “bad” bacteria can contribute to infections and detract from your general health.
Staying healthy and keeping your gut happy means balancing the good and bad bacteria, but everyone’s microbiota is unique. So much so, no two people have an exact match akin to a fingerprint. Factors including age, environment, diet, genetics, and medication can affect your microbiome’s balance. The complexities of your microflora contribute to the difficulties of isolating specific beneficial bacteria. Some research suggests there may be an interplay between bacteria communities that ultimately explains good gut health.
Signs of Imbalanced Gut Bacteria
Although we may not be able to identify specific “good” bacteria, we do know that not all bacteria are created equal, and that too much bad bacteria can contribute to some obvious signs of ill health. Here are some of the most common signs of gut bacteria imbalances.
1. Digestive problems
Considering where gut bacteria live, it makes sense that they would most immediately affect your digestive health. Gut bacteria imbalances can lead to:
- Heartburn or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammatory bowel disease (which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
2. Nutrient deficiencies
Related to the above, if your body is having trouble digesting properly, it may naturally have problems absorbing enough vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from your diet. Your gut microbiota plays an integral role in your overall metabolism. Studies comparing germ-free and conventionally raised laboratory animals found that the latter require 30 percent fewer calories to maintain their body weight.
It’s not just nutrient absorption. Studies have actually found that gut microbes contribute to vitamin synthesis. For example, researchers estimate that nearly half of your daily vitamin K requirement is created by your gut bacteria.
3. Mental health
Your gut and your mental health are more closely linked than you might think. The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional link between your central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) and your enteric nervous system, a web of more than 500 million neurons spread throughout the digestive tract. Studies have found that gut bacteria can affect behavioral traits, and imbalances in your microbiota have been correlated with the presence of mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.
4. Chronic stress
Stress is a modern epidemic that affects nearly everyone. It can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, and it also feeds into physical health problems, including high blood pressure and gut health. Your gut bacteria are responsible for producing a variety of hormones that regulate mood, including serotonin, which is the chemical responsible for creating feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Healthy bacteria in the gut also help lower levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Considering the close connection between the gut and the mind based on the gut-brain axis, research has found that chronic stress can have a significant impact on your gut bacteria, and your gut bacteria can in turn affect your mood. It can be a bit of a vicious cycle.
5. Skin health
Skin conditions can be caused by a wide range of factors, and many of them are not related to your skin at all. Growing research suggests a connection between your gut and skin known as the gut-skin axis. The gut and the skin are related in both function and purpose. Both are necessary to maintaining homeostasis, and numerous cases show that gastrointestinal disorders are often accompanied by skin problems. Unbalanced gut bacteria may contribute to acne, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, and other skin conditions.
6. Autoimmune diseases
Normally your immune system protects you by attacking foreign bacteria, viruses, and other microbes that may pose a threat to your health, but sometimes your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs. This is known as an autoimmune disease and includes lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, type 1 diabetes, and psoriasis. While the exact cause of autoimmune diseases still requires further study, research has shown that imbalances in gut bacteria can potentially contribute to autoimmune diseases, even identifying a microbe known as E. gallinarum.
How to Balance Your Gut Bacteria
If you’re wondering how to get rid of bad gut bacteria entirely, you may want to rethink your approach. There’s still not a lot we know about the gut microbiome, and some research suggests that interactions between communities of “good” and “bad” bacteria are part of a healthy microflora. That means that getting rid of all your “bad” gut bacteria may not offer the benefits that you think it does.
Furthermore, some have suggested that if a person has leaky gut, that situation needs to be addressed prior to introducing probiotic supplements. When the barrier between the G.I. tract and the bloodstream is excessively permeable, probiotics could easily pass through the G.I. lining and be “attacked” as foreign substances by an overactive immune system. Healing a leaky gut is a critical first step, and bovine colostrum supplements have been shown to reduce G.I. permeability. Four to six weeks of colostrum supplementation is recommended prior to introducing probiotic supplements. Another benefit of colostrum is that it acts as a prebiotic to help encourage growth of beneficial bacteria present in the gut.
That said, here are some tips for rebalancing your gut flora if it is indeed learning towards imbalance.
1. Eat fermented and probiotic-rich foods.
Probiotic-rich foods contain a bounty of helpful bacteria that can help to repopulate your gut and provide balance. Most fermented foods tend to have probiotic cultures. Some probiotic foods that you should consider incorporating into your diet include:
2. Feed your good bacteria.
Along with adding more good bacteria to your gut, you can feed the existing bacteria to help them grow and thrive using prebiotics. Prebiotics are typically high in fiber, which is an indigestible carbohydrate. That “undigestible” bit is crucial as it means that the fiber can pass through your stomach relatively intact and travel to the lower intestine, where most of your gut bacteria reside. Some good prebiotics include:
- Green, leafy vegetables
3. Avoid certain foods.
If your gut is imbalanced, considering avoiding certain foods that may just make that imbalance worse. Most of the foods that are bad for your gut are also unhealthy in general, including:
- Highly processed foods
- Unhealthy fats and oils
4. Reconsider your medication.
Antibiotics are designed to eliminate bacteria. Unfortunately, it can’t discern between good and bad bacteria. If you find yourself suffering from signs of gut bacteria imbalance, talk to your doctor about alternative medications. You should also try to avoid non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) because these can irritate the gut lining.
Research on the gut and its effects on overall health are still ongoing, but following a healthy, diverse, high-fiber diet can go a long way. By listening to your gut, you will benefit your overall health and quite possibly, change your life for the better.