10 Signs You Have An Unhealthy Gut + How To Support It

Certified holistic nutrition consultant By Lindsay Boyers
Certified holistic nutrition consultant
Lindsay Boyers is a nutrition consultant specializing in elimination diets, gut health, and food sensitivities. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
Medical review by Marvin Singh, M.D.
Integrative Gastroenterologist
Dr. Marvin Singh is an Integrative Gastroenterologist in San Diego, California. He is trained and board certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology/Hepatology.
Young pregnant woman sitting on the white bed, holding her stomach and toes.

Image by Nina Zivkovic / Stocksy

When your gut is healthy, the rest of your body hums along happily. That's because your gut influences everything from your digestion to your brain and your immune system.

If your gut isn't at its healthiest, you may experience some apparent digestive symptoms, like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. But there are some less obvious signs, too. Poor concentration, fatigue, and skin problems can also point to gut issues.

Luckily, there are ways to tell if you have an unhealthy gut, plus expert-backed strategies to cope.

Signs you have an unhealthy gut.

Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria along with yeast and viruses that live among this bacteria. Collectively, these microorganisms are called your gut microbiome. 

Although everyone’s microbiome shares some similar characteristics, there are also vast differences. As Will Bulsiewicz, M.D., a gastroenterologist and internationally recognized gut health expert, puts it “you are one-of-a-kind with a gut microbiome as unique as a fingerprint.”

When the bacteria, yeast, and viruses that live in your gut are in balance, the rest of your body is in harmony too. However, when things go awry, and the bad bacteria are able to take over the good, it can lead to an unhealthy gut (also called gut dysbiosis), which negatively affects the rest of your body. Here are some of the signs to look for:

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1. Gas and Bloating

Gas is produced as a normal part of the digestion and fermentation process in the gut, however some strains of gut bacteria naturally produce more gas than others. If you have more of these super-gas producing "bad" strains, it could lead to excessive fermentation, trapping gas in the gut and creating bloat. 

2. Diarrhea

Occasional loose stool affects everyone at some point, but chronic or acute diarrhea can be a sign of bacterial overgrowth or an infection with Clostridioides difficile, a type of bacteria that lives in the gut in small numbers, but can create problems when it multiples.

Diarrhea can also make gut health worse by pushing out the good bacteria in your gut, contributing to even more gut dysbiosis. 

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3. Constipation

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Although researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint a single underlying cause of constipation, one scientific review points out that functional constipation and irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C) is connected to gut imbalance.

People who suffer from constipation typically have lower levels of certain types of bacteria, including Bifidobacteria, in their stool samples. Which is often why supplementing with this type of probiotic strain can help improve digestion.*

4. Mood disorders

Your microbiome plays a vital role in your mental health and the way you respond to stress. Although the exact mechanisms aren’t totally clear, there’s evidence that certain hormones that are made in the gut—collectively called gut peptides—control the signaling between your gut and brain (and vice versa). If this hormonal balance is thrown off, it can contribute to anxiety, and other mood disorders.

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5. Poor concentration

Your gut produces neurotransmitters that are directly connected to mood, thoughts, and other cognitive abilities, like concentration. Research shows that gut dysbiosis can negatively affect learning and memory and contribute to inflammatory reactions in the brain.

6. Skin inflammation and acne

Topical skin care products are often recommended for eczema, psoriasis, acne and other inflammatory skin problems, but in many cases, an unhealthy gut is to blame. Your gut is in direct communication with your skin through what’s called the gut-skin axis. 

It plays a role in skin homeostasis and inflammatory responses that keep your skin clear and healthy. Your skin also has a microbiome of its own, and the bacteria in your gut directly influence the balance of bacteria on your skin. An imbalance in your gut can cause an imbalance in your skin that results in things like acne, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis.

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7. Sugar cravings

The microbes in your gut are really good at trying to manipulate you into eating the types of food that feed them and help them grow. But different types of microbes like different foods. 

For example, yeast thrives on sugar, Bifidobacteria love dietary fiber, and Bacteroidetes prefer fats. If your gut contains too much yeast it can lead to intense sugar cravings that ultimately perpetuate the unhealthy gut cycle.

8. Chronic fatigue

Research shows that people with chronic fatigue syndrome have abnormal levels of certain types of gut bacteria. In fact, the connection between an unhealthy gut and chronic fatigue is so strong that one study estimates that 80 percent of people with chronic fatigue could be diagnosed just by looking at their gut bacteria. 

An unhealthy gut can also negatively affect your circadian rhythm, which can disrupt sleep and leave you feeling overly tired during the day.

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9. Weight gain and obesity

There are several factors that contribute to weight gain, but the bacteria in your gut is one that’s often overlooked. One study looked at the gut microbiome in lean and overweight twins and found that the overweight twins had reduced bacterial diversity—or fewer types of bacteria in their gut. 

Certain types of bacteria can also influence weight gain, since bacteria help break down food and the way your body absorbs nutrients.

10. Autoimmune diseases

Your gut microbiome directly influences your immune system. When your gut is healthy, your immune system is healthy. But when things become imbalanced, it can lead to immune abnormalities, like autoimmune diseases. 

Research has connected an unhealthy gut to several autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and autoimmune liver disease. 

Another study found that when a certain bacteria, called Enterococcus gallinarum, multiplies too much, it can travel outside your gut to your liver and other tissues where it contributes to the development of autoimmune disorders.

What causes gut issues?

Poor diet is one of biggest causes of gut issues. While good bacteria thrive on things like fiber and plant foods, bad bacteria and yeast love processed foods and sugar. And when your diet is full of processed foods and sugar, as many Western diets are, the well-fed bad bacteria start to overtake the good. Your diet is so important that it can cause undesirable changes in gut health even in a short period of time.

However, while diet is certainly important, it isn’t the only thing that matters. Other factors that can contribute to gut issues include:

  • Chronic stress
  • Frequent antibiotic use
  • Medications
  • Travel
  • Food intolerances
  • Poor sleep
  • Alcohol

How to support your gut.

Fortunately, just like there are a lot of things that can contribute to an unhealthy gut, there are a lot of things you can do to improve your gut health and bring your body back into balance.

Clean up your diet

One of the first lines of defense against an unhealthy gut is diet. The food you eat has a direct effect on the balance of bacteria in your gut. Fiber and complex carbohydrates feed the good bacteria, while sugar and processed foods feed yeast and allow pathogenic bacteria to grow.

To keep your gut healthy, avoid sugar and processed foods and include plenty of high-fiber vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins in your diet. Focus on getting plenty of prebiotic foods, like asparagus, flaxseeds, artichoke, and jicama, too. Prebiotics help feed the good bacteria in your gut so that it can multiply and push out the bad.

One study points out that eliminating gluten and FODMAPs may also help, especially if the dietary therapy is combined with probiotics.*

Include probiotic supplements and fermented foods

Probiotic supplements (such as mbg's probiotic+) and fermented foods can help bring your microbiome back into balance by directly introducing good bacteria into your gut.*

As Robert Rountree, M.D., pioneer of functional medicine and an integrative physician, explains, "Probiotics are like good cops. We're putting in the good cops, and the good cops can keep watch over the bad guys."

One study showed that taking a probiotic supplement for just two weeks supported digestive health without any adverse effects.* Probiotics can also provide nutritional support for chronic and acute gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel issues.*

In addition to supplements, you can also include fermented foods, like kefir, kimchi, yogurt, miso, sauerkraut and kombucha in your diet. Fermented foods also contain beneficial bacteria.

Of course, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before taking any new supplements, especially if you’re dealing with ongoing health issues and are taking other medications and supplements.

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Identify and eliminate your specific triggers

While there are some foods, like refined sugars, that are known to contribute to poor gut health across the board, it’s possible that you have specific food intolerances that are causing a problem even though the food itself isn’t inherently bad for your gut.

If you keep eating the offending food, it can lead to inflammation that contributes to poor gut health. The key to good gut health is identifying and eliminating your food triggers to allow your gut to heal.

The simplest way to identify food intolerances is an elimination diet, in which you eliminate common food triggers for 30 days and then slowly reintroduce them, looking out for symptom flare-ups.

In the past, confirming your food triggers required a trip to the doctor, but now there are several companies offering at-home testing kits that you can use to confirm which food(s) may be causing a negative reaction in your body.

While the science behind these food sensitivity tests may not be perfect, if you are able to identify some of your food triggers, eliminating them for at least 30 days could help get your gut on the path to healing.

Move your body regularly

Getting regular exercise is also an important step in getting your gut back into balance. According to one review on the effects of exercise on the microbiome, aerobic exercise can increase the amount of bacteria in your gut and contribute to overall bacterial diversity.

While any movement can help, it appears that the more physically fit you are, the more diverse your microbiome is. If you’re sedentary, start small by exercising a couple days a week, then work your way up to including exercise as part of your regular, everyday routine.

Manage stress levels

Stress wreaks havoc on your entire system, and your gut is especially susceptible. Chronic stress causes an inflammatory response that contributes to gut dysbiosis and intestinal permeability, a condition more commonly known as “leaky gut.”

And this effect is seen with any type of stress—physical, emotional, and environmental. While it’s impossible to get rid of stress completely, it’s important to get all types of stress levels under control. You have to find what works best for you, but some common stress reduction techniques include:

  • Reducing your workload
  • Making time for fun
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Journaling
  • Exercise
  • Getting enough good sleep
  • Supplements and herbs (ashwagandha, kava kava, St. John’s Wort)
  • Cleaning up your environment by using non-toxic personal care and cleaning products
  • Breathwork

Try intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting, or going without food for a certain period of time, usually about 14 to 16 hours, may also help get your gut health back on track. Amy Shah, M.D., a double-board certified medical doctor and expert on intermittent fasting, says, “Giving your gut a break can reduce inflammation, shed water weight, and reduce bloating.”

To add to that, one study points out that regularly intermittent fasting can also keep your gut healthy and working correctly as you age.

The takeaways

Chronic digestive complaints, like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea, are all signs of an unhealthy gut, but imbalances in your gut microbiome can also cause more widespread problems like difficulty concentrating, skin troubles, and more. 

Luckily, there are lots of things you can do to help improve your gut health. While diet is often the first line of defense, taking probiotics and other digestive supplements, reducing stress levels, and exercising regularly can also play a big role in getting your body back to optimal health!*

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