Gut Health: What You Need to Know

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil
July 12, 2021
4 mins

Gut health has been getting an increasing amount of attention for the past several years — in the medical community and beyond. A growing body of research suggests that there are strong links between the gut and many other bodily systems and conditions, including the immune system, overall mood, mental health, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer. So we’re taking a deep dive into gut health, answering questions about how to recognize an unhealthy gut and how to restore healthy gut functions. 

What Is Gut Health?

When we’re talking about our gut, we aren’t referring only to the stomach or the GI (gastrointestinal) tract, but also to the gut microbiome — which refers to the microorganisms living in your intestines. On average, a person has anywhere between 300 and 500 different species of microorganisms — about 100 trillion bacteria — living in their intestines, most of which are beneficial to our bodies. 

A healthy balance of good bacteria in your gut has a wide range of benefits, including aiding in a healthy immune system, improving symptoms of depression and anxiety, and regulating your metabolism. 

What Are Signs of an Unhealthy Gut?

When it comes to recognizing signs of an unhealthy gut, there are certain symptoms to look out for, such as:

Upset stomach — Symptoms of an upset stomach, including gas, bloating, heartburn, constipation, or diarrhea, may be signs of an unhealthy gut. 

Food intolerances — Different from food allergies, food intolerances — when eating a food causes an upset stomach — can be due to underlying gut issues. 

Unintentional weight changes — If your diet remains the same but you are noticing unintentional weight loss or gain, there may be a connection to gut health. 

Fatigue —When your gut is healthy, it is able to properly digest and store nutrients to fuel your body. If you are frequently feeling fatigued, gut conditions could be the culprit. 

Sleep disturbances —Some people unknowingly have sleep issues that are related to gut health, as heartburn and indigestion can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep.

Skin conditions — Not all skin conditions come from direct contact with an irritant. Some skin conditions, such as eczema, may be linked to an unhealthy or “leaky” gut.  

How Do I Maintain a Healthy Gut?

Creating a plan to increase your gut health is something you and your primary care provider should do together. Always talk to a doctor before adding supplements to your diet or making drastic changes in what you regularly eat. In general, there are some things you can do that may help improve your gut function. 

Change your diet — One of the simplest ways to change your gut health on your own is to change what you put into it. Foods that are highly processed, are high in sugar and fat, and contain large amounts of preservatives can contribute to many gut issues. However, eating a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and whole foods can improve your gut health (and overall health). Eating yogurt can also be good for the microbiome because yogurt contains live cultures — as can other common fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi.  

Look at how quickly you eat —When someone is really hungry, they may tend to eat food quickly, but eating too fast can lead to indigestion and other digestive discomfort. Eating slowly can help promote digestion and a healthy digestive system. 

Check for food intolerances — Continuing to eat food that you have an intolerance to can lead to digestive discomfort and gut health issues. If you notice symptoms such as bloating, nausea, diarrhea, or cramping after you eat, try keeping a food journal to see whether symptoms occur only after eating certain foods. This can help you determine what foods are causing problems. 

Stay calm and keep on — High levels of stress can impact many functions in the body, including gastrointestinal movement, which can lead to constipation and other digestive issues. Finding ways to keep stress levels low, such as mediation, yoga, and exercise, can help reduce stress-related gastrointestinal conditions. 

Try a supplement — For some people, taking a supplement, specifically a probiotic or prebiotic, can be beneficial in supporting gut health. This can be especially important if you have been prescribed an antibiotic (which can kill certain gut flora) or steroids or are using alcohol and caffeine in excess, as all of these can have an effect on the gut biome. 

However, it’s important to be diligent when choosing your supplement, as there is a growing market of choices, and not all of them are trustworthy. It’s also always wise to discuss new supplements with your healthcare provider, as some supplements may affect pre-existing health conditions or interact with certain medications. 

Here are some things to look for when choosing a supplement to support your gut health. 

Approval — Most supplements do not require FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval to be sold in stores, and even those that do receive approval do not go through the same strict testing as prescription medications. When possible, it’s important to purchase your supplements from a reputable supplier. 

Ingredients In addition to checking for any allergens, it’s important to check the label so you know you are putting healthy ingredients (in general and for you specifically) into your body. Things you may check for include:

     • Artificial colorings

     • Artificial preservatives

     • Eggs

     • Gluten

     • GMOs

     • Lactose

     • Peanuts

     • Shellfish

     • Soy

     • Wheat

Doses — In the case of supplements, more is not always better. In most cases, your body can break down and absorb only a certain amount of each supplement at a time. If you can, try and ensure that you aren’t buying a product that provides more than your daily requirement. 

Cost — When you’re buying a new supplement, it’s important to consider the cost versus potential benefits. Some manufacturers put a high price on a “supplement” that can easily be found in other sources — such as a food — for a much lower price (and with additional health benefits).

At the end of the day, you know yourself best, which is why you’ve got to go with your gut. And at Carbon Health, we value your experiences and the knowledge you have about your own health. Our providers are here to partner with you, by listening to your health concerns and helping you craft an ongoing healthcare plan that’s right for you. Book an appointment for an in-person or virtual visit today. 

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil

Aaron S. Weinberg, MD, MPhil, is Director of Program Development at Carbon Health and triple board-certified in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Internal Medicine.