In recent years, gut health has become a hot topic in the wellness space. And given how the state of your gut microbiome (that is, the community of microorganisms living in your gut) is connected to almost every part of the body—digestion is a key factor in everything from mental health to immune function—it makes sense people to look for daily ways to optimize gut health.
By the same token, however, poor gut health can cause a wide range of symptoms, some of which don’t even involve the gut. It can be hard to tell if your gut health is booming or faltering, or if the seemingly random health complaints you have are actually related to the condition of your gut. To make matters even more confusing, these other mental and physical signs may not appear at the same time as some of the more obvious digestive symptoms, making it difficult to connect the two.
So what are some mental and physical clues that your gut health needs some TLC? Read on for some surprising signs and symptoms of poor gut health, according to experts.
You’re more irritable than usual.
Many of us know what it feels like to have our stomachs tighten due to stress and anxiety. But according to Aditya Sreenivasan, MD, a gastroenterologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, it can also work in the opposite direction. Specifically, the gut can send signals to the brain when it’s in trouble, he says. It does this with the help of neurons, or nerve cells, which are responsible for sending signals throughout the body. In fact, there are more neurons in your GI tract than in your brain (who knew?), so gut problems can certainly cause mood problems like irritability and anxiety, says Dr. Srinivasan.
You are inexplicably exhausted.
If you can’t stop yawning or find that you’re too tired to function normally day to day—even after getting the recommended amount of sleep night after night—it could be due to an imbalanced gut. According to Dr. Srinivasan, this may be partly related to the aforementioned mood issues, which can seriously prevent you from getting some shut-eye. What’s more, if your gut isn’t properly absorbing enough of the right nutrients, it can lead to malabsorption and negatively impact your energy levels, he says. You may also experience brain fog associated with fatigue, mental heaviness, memory problems, and the like, which are also often linked back to gut imbalance. However, it’s important to note that many unhealthy lifestyle habits can disrupt good sleep – so it’s worth fine-tuning your sleep hygiene (or consulting your doctor) before throwing it in the gut at first glance.
Your head hurts.
When gut problems interrupt your body’s ability to properly absorb nutrients, it can lead to a nagging headache, according to Dr. Srinivasan. This may be related to the gut-brain connection and inflammation, according to The Journal of Headache and Pain. “Migraine is a little more complicated, but there is a link between migraine and abdominal pain,” Dr. Srinivasan explains. A combination called abdominal migraine occurs when you have a migraine and abdominal pain at the same time (or sometimes intermittent abdominal pain in the absence of a headache). In addition, hormonal imbalances that can trigger headaches and migraines can also cause gut problems, he adds.
You are constipated or bloated.
From microbial imbalance to general digestive dysfunction, poor gut health can cause constipation and bloating, says Johanna Salazar, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Healing Nutrition. But how do you know if these types of digestive issues are due to a more chronic dysfunction in your gut, or just a one-time hit from something you ate?
“If you’re feeling bloated or constipated, look at what you’ve eaten and drunk in the last 48 hours,” recommends Salazar. Feeling too full can certainly be caused by something you ate or not drinking enough water. However, if constipation and bloating persist for more than seven days, Salazar recommends contacting your doctor to get some answers.
You have bad breath.
Another surprising sign of poor gut health is bad breath. Here’s why it happens: If you don’t pass stools properly—as in the case of chronic or frequent constipation—it can cause toxins to build up in the body. This can lead to bad breath, a key indicator of gut health that shouldn’t be ignored, Salazar says. That being said, if your breath smells bad even with regular brushing and oral care, it might be time to ditch the peppermint and focus on your gut instead.
You are irregular (for you).
“Regular” bowel movements are different for everyone, but in general, “regular” can include anything from three bowel movements a day to one bowel movement every three days, according to Dr. Srinivasan. Thus, if your frequency changes and causes symptoms or interferes with your daily life, consider this a more urgent sign that your gut health needs help. For example, “a change in bowel habits, [like] The sudden shift from daily bowel movements to three times a day or once every three days is worth noting,” says Dr. Srinivasan.
You have new food sensitivities.
Gut issues can also cause food sensitivities, Salazar says. One common example is “leaky gut,” which refers to the permeability of the cells lining your intestines. BTW: The gut lining is supposed to be semipermeable, as this allows nutrients and water from the food you eat to enter the bloodstream, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Sometimes, however, the gaps between the cells become too large or loose, resulting in increased permeability. When this happens, large particles of food and/or bacteria can enter the bloodstream, leading to inflammation, Salazar explains. This can contribute to food sensitivities, which can manifest as gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea, as well as non-gastrointestinal signs like headaches, brain fog, and skin rashes, Salazar adds. .
Your skin behaves.
There are many possible triggers for skin inflammation symptoms, including allergies and stress, but an irregular gut can also play a role. This is due to the connection between the immune system and the gut microbiome, which is essential for maintaining healthy skin, according to the journal. Microorganisms. Essentially, if the gut microbiome is imbalanced, it can alter the body’s immune response, leading to skin problems like acne and dandruff. More generally, “eating a lot of processed and salty foods can lead to puffiness and inflammation throughout your body, including your skin,” says Dr. Srinivasan.
How to start improving your gut health
Before you try to diagnose yourself and blame your gut health for non-gut-related symptoms, consider other symptoms you may also be experiencing, Salazar says. For example, look for clues like frequent gas or the shape of your stool. “A good stool should be S-shaped and easy to pass,” says Salazar. If these symptoms are present and you think your gastrointestinal tract needs help, try adding more gut-friendly habits to your daily routine.
- Eat more fiber from plants. A great place to start is what you eat and drink. One important strategy for keeping your gut healthy is eating plenty of fiber, which is a vital nutrient for regular and comfortable digestion and is found in most plant-based foods. Examples of high-fiber foods include vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.
- Eat less processed, high sugar and fatty/fried foods. While you’re at it, start limiting ultra-processed foods, which tend to be low in fiber (in fact, healthy fiber is often stripped from the ingredients used during processing). Excessively fatty and fatty foods can also lead to inflammation and upset stomach, so it may be worth cutting back on these foods for the sake of your gut. Finally, start consuming less added sugars, as sugar actually helps feed the “bad” strains of gut bacteria, causing them to thrive and outcompete the healthy, beneficial gut bacteria we need.
- Adopt some general healthy lifestyle habits. Other natural ways to maintain gut health include drinking plenty of fluids, staying active, and getting at least seven hours of sleep a night. Practicing stress relief is also crucial because the gut and mind are constantly communicating through the gut-brain axis mentioned earlier. Physical activity can help in this area, and don’t forget about meditation, yoga, and spending time in nature to relax your body and mind, Salazar says.
If your digestive problems persist in the midst of gut-healthy habits, talk to your primary care physician. Depending on your symptoms, they may refer you to a gastroenterologist, who can order stool or blood tests to determine what’s going on. Your doctor may also have you consult a registered dietitian for personalized nutritional guidance, if needed.