7 Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Gut

Symptoms of a compromised digestive system go far beyond irritable bowel syndrome and its best friends; constipation, diarrhoea, gas and bloating. And if it’s true that all disease begins in the gut, what are the less obvious warning signs that yours is out of balance? Realising that poor gut health might be the root cause of a whole bunch of conditions you thought were unrelated can be a breakthrough moment for most people. Finally, something that ties it all together and that can actually be healed! No more long-term symptom management and learning to live with a lack of optimal health.

The Functional Medicine View

Functional medicine understands that all systems of the body are connected. Imbalance in one system, say the gut, can cause an imbalance in another, like your hormones. Given that the centre of it all is your digestive system, if your gut is healthy, then the rest of your body will likely be as well.

And when your gut is not healthy, it can cause more than just digestive issues like constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, gas or abdominal pain. An unhealthy gut can have a massive impact on other systems of the body, like the immune, nervous and reproductive systems to name a few. But what does this look like most commonly in clinical practice?

Well, a little like this… Here is a list of the most common warning signs of an unhealthy gut that I see in my clients. And the best part is that once they heal their gut, these issues really and truly begin to go away.

1. Autoimmunity

The link between autoimmunity and the gut goes beyond those autoimmune conditions with symptoms related specifically to the digestive system like Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis and Coeliac Disease. The latest research and scientific understanding points to the health of our gut lining as an essential element in the development of ALL autoimmune conditions. Yes, ALL autoimmune conditions. Dr. Alessio Fasano, a world-renowned gastroenterologist and expert in autoimmune disease describes autoimmunity as requiring three components to be present before someone develops an autoimmune disease. These are:
> Genetic predisposition: certain genes make individuals more or less susceptible to developing an autoimmune condition.
> Environmental trigger: an antigen or protein seen as a threat by the immune system that sets off the inflammatory cascade.
> Intestinal permeability (leaky gut): when the normally tight junctions of the intestinal wall become ‘leaky’, large compounds enter the bloodstream. These relate to the environmental trigger and can include food proteins, pathogens or toxins from our environment.

Without a leaky gut, the body is able to appropriately defend against the threat of these environmental triggers. And given you can’t do much about your genes or the environment we live in, the best chance you have to avoid an autoimmune condition is to ensure you have a healthy gut. And if you have an autoimmune condition, it’s not going away until you heal the intestinal hyperpermeability that started it all.

Oh, and the gut microbiome might also have an important role to play, as it seems to do with almost every chronic disease these days.


2. Mood Disorders such as Anxiety and Depression

While it makes sense that symptoms of IBS like diarrhoea and severe bloating could make you anxious or depressed, science has recently discovered the relationship goes much deeper than that. Yes, research now shows the importance of our gut bacteria in the development of brain symptoms and even shows that changes in the microbiome can induce depressive-like behaviours.

And no, it’s not ‘all in your head’, as many IBS sufferers have been told. The gut microbiota influences serotonin and dopamine production, with more than 90% of serotonin (our ‘feel-good neurotransmitter’) found in the gut. If there’s no ‘feel-good’ juices flowing, is it any surprise you’re feeling down? And given anti-depressants don’t offer a viable long-term solution, it’s promising to see that probiotics and prebiotics are starting to gain traction in the fight to find therapeutic solutions to the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

3. Weight Gain

This is a biggy (pardon the pun) and one that I experienced first hand during my struggle with digestive issues. It’s also why I wrote a whole post about it here. The short version is that our gut bacteria affect the way we store fat, how we balance blood glucose levels, and the hormones that make us feel hungry or full. And it doesn’t matter how much you exercise or how well you eat, you’re not losing the fat if your gut bacteria doesn’t want you to.

Getting my head around this took a long time, as I was well indoctrinated in the whole ‘calories in, calories out’ mindset. But seeing its effects first hand in myself and my clients, as well as in the scientific literature, there really is no denying our microbiome’s role in the size of our thighs… the wrong mix of bacteria can even set the stage for obesity from the moment you are born. Cutting edge stuff and a little bit mind-boggling.

4. Fatigue

Everyone’s tired these days. And while we tend to put it down to our busy lifestyle, the health of our gut might be playing a bigger role than we originally thought. This is another topic close to my heart and one that I struggled with, even when I took time off work and did little else but eat, sleep and research. So no, it’s not always about our busy lifestyle.

I’ve written a whole post about adrenal fatigue and IBS here. Basically, it’s a vicious cycle of digestive issues causing adrenal fatigue and adrenal fatigue causing digestive issues. And once you have both, they can just keep making each other worse. The chronic stress caused by parasites, food sensitivities, bacterial overgrowths, pain, etc. can lead to eventual adrenal exhaustion - that is, your body isn’t making stress hormones like it should anymore. But even before it gets that bad, the high levels of cortisol and other hormones released as a result of stress, can suppress the immune system, inhibit digestion and even reduce the levels of beneficial bacteria in our gut. Leading to, you guessed it, digestive symptoms. And so the cycle continues.

An imbalance (dysbiosis) in gut bacteria can also cause excess fermentation of carbohydrates and the production of various gases, including hydrogen sulphide thought to cause dysfunction of the mitochondria – the energy producers within our cells. Another reason you might be extremely fatigued.

So if you’re falling asleep at your computer everyday at 3 p.m., it might be a lack of bacteria rather than a lack of bedtime that is to blame.

5. Skin Conditions

Beauty begins in the belly. We’ve all heard it a thousand times and it turns out, there’s actually science to back it up. Beyond the obvious case studies of clients cleaning up their diet and noticing amazing improvements in their complexion, studies have now been done on how our gut bacteria influences serious skin conditions.

This study showed that 54% of acne patients have significantly altered gut flora, while probiotics have also been shown to reduce skin symptoms. Eradication of SIBO in particular has been shown to induce an almost complete regression of cutaneous lesions in rosacea patients. And just as interesting, sufferers of psoriasis, another chronic inflammatory skin disease, have lower levels of intestinal bacteria similar to that seen in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Get your gut sorted to get the glow… I wish I had known that years ago before I spent thousands of dollars on expensive, chemicalised skin care products. We live and we learn, right.

6. Headaches / Migraines

Digestive issues can be a real headache - pardon the pun (again!). According to recent research, various gastrointestinal disorders including H. pylori infections and alterations in the microbiota (dysbiosis of gut bacteria) have been linked to the occurrence of migraines.

Current thinking suggests the most likely underlying mechanisms involve increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and chronic inflammation associated with GI disorders. And because migraines are more common in people with GI disorders than the general population, there’s no doubt that anyone suffering with regular headaches / migraines should be investigating the health of their gut.

7. Hay Fever and Sinus Complaints

The solution to seasonal allergic rhinitis, a.k.a. hay fever might have more to do with probiotics than it does with pollen. And it starts when we are kids, with reduced gut bacteria diversity associated with higher risk of hay fever in the first six years of life. But it doesn’t seem to get any better in adults, with low diversity in gut bacteria associated with seasonal pollen allergies.

Again, probiotics have been shown to help, even if the researchers in this study don’t quite know why yet. This published case report of a lady with IBS and a chronic sinus infection is pretty similar to what I see in clinical practice, with many clients not even realising the two are connected. But, clearing up sinus problems and even just the generally constant runny nose and stuffy head is a welcome side-effect of clearing the gut of pathogens and healing the gut lining.

Next steps… 

If you are struggling with any of the above symptoms or conditions and think that gut dysfunction could be the root cause, get in touch and let’s sort you out. Healing the gut is a journey. If you are ready to begin yours, please head to the Work With Us page to learn more about how we work online with clients in many countries to test for and treat the many root causes of IBS symptoms.

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7 Warnings Signs of an Unhealthy Gut