If you have digestive issues, you’re not alone. Each year, nearly 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases, from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Many factors affect your gut health, like your family and genetic history and how your body is built. There are also factors you can control, like stress and diet. When your gut functions properly, there’s a good balance of bacteria helping your body process and get energy from the foods you eat, clear toxins, fight against disease, and boost your mood. You’re also free of symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, loose stools, gas, bloating, and abdominal pain.
Here are 10 warning signs you may have an unhealthy gut.
You have an upset stomach. Frequent discomfort, gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn could be signs that your gut is having a hard time processing food and eliminating waste.
You feel tired more often than not. People with chronic fatigue may have imbalances in the gut. One study found that almost half of people with fatigue also had IBS.
You have trouble sleeping in general. An unhealthy gut can cause insomnia or poor sleep, which leads to fatigue. The majority of your body’s serotonin, which affects mood and sleep, is produced in the gut. So, when there’s bacteria or inflammation in the gut, your sleep may be affected as well.
You are intolerant to some foods. Food intolerances may be caused by poor quality of bacteria in the gut. You may have a food intolerance if you struggle to digest certain foods. This can cause bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain.
You have extreme food cravings, especially sugar. Eating too much sugar can cause too much “bad” bacteria in the gut. High amounts of sugar, especially high-fructose corn syrup, are linked to inflammation in the body and puts you at risk for other diseases.
You have unintentional weight gain or loss. When your gut is imbalanced, your body may struggle to absorb nutrients, store fat, and regulate blood sugar. Weight loss or gain may be caused by bacteria overgrowth or lack of nutrients.
You have skin irritations. Some skin conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis may be related to gut issues.
You get migraines. There may be a link between headaches and gut health, especially if you experience nausea or vomiting with migraines. Studies suggest that people with frequent headaches are more likely to have gastrointestinal disorders too.
You have autoimmune problems. Some “bad” gut bacteria may trigger autoimmune conditions like thyroid issues, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes.
- You have frequent mood changes. Gut problems and inflammation in the nervous system can lead to anxiety and depression.
So, how do you balance your gut health?
- Add probiotics to your diet. Probiotics promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. You can take these in vitamin form or, preferably, from natural sources like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and kimchi.
- Limit processed foods and sugar. Instead, get nutrients from plant-based foods and lean proteins. A diet high in fiber can promote a healthy gut.
- Eat slowly. Chew thoroughly and eat slowly to fully digest your food and help your body absorb all its nutrients.
- Eliminate food intolerances. If certain foods always cause cramping, nausea, or acid reflux, you may have a food intolerance. Try an elimination diet to determine your trigger foods, then remove them from your diet completely
- Drink water. You’ve heard it before, but staying hydrated really does improve your body’s overall health. Drinking water aids with digestion.
- Have a grocery game plan. Avoid the center aisles with processed foods and refined sugars and stay around the outside of the grocery store. Choose healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Exercise regularly. Moving your body improves the healthy microbes in your body, keeps your bowel movements regular, and prevents disease while improving your overall health.
- Get enough sleep. Aim for 7-8 hours each night. Proper sleep helps to balance your hormones and prevent many scenarios that can negatively impact your digestive health, like stress or eating too close to bedtime.
- Reduce stress. Some studies show that people who have early life stress more likely to develop IBS. Finding ways to manage your stress can help manage your gut, too.
- Avoid or quit smoking. Smoking can harm your digestive system in many ways—from heartburn and ulcers to liver disease and cancer. If you smoke, try to quit. Get medical help if you need it.
- Talk to your doctor. There’s no better time or place than the doctor’s office to talk about gut health. Tell your doctor about your symptoms, pain rating, recent changes, and health goals.
Probiotics May Be Effective in Preventing the Common Cold
Over the last several decades, numerous research studies have looked into that claim. Findings from those studies have shown that probiotics do, in fact, appear to improve the body's immune response. That in turn helps the body be better prepared to fight off certain infections, including the common cold.
That doesn't mean if you eat yogurt you will never have a cold. But taking probiotics regularly can lower your chances of getting a cold. And, if you do catch a cold, probiotics may help reduce the severity of your symptoms and shorten how long they last.
As for vitamin C, findings from research studies show that taking 200 milligrams regularly does not help prevent a cold. But it may help decrease the severity and duration of symptoms. Studies also show that vitamin C may be better at decreasing symptoms when taken regularly, rather than just when the cold symptoms start. Vitamin C was more effective in preventing a cold from happening only in people under extreme physical stress or in cold temperature conditions, such as in marathon runners and soldiers in subarctic temperatures.
For adults, the recommended amount of vitamin C is 65 to 90 milligrams a day, and the upper limit is 2,000 milligrams a day. For most people, a large orange, or one cup of sliced strawberries, chopped red pepper or broccoli provides enough vitamin C for the day.
If you take a vitamin C supplement, stick to one that provides about 100 percent of the amount you need in a day. Avoid "megadoses" that have, for example, 500 percent of the amount you need daily. When it comes to vitamin C, more is not always better. Too much may cause diarrhea, nausea, abdominal bloating and cramping, heartburn and headaches.
Of course, there are plenty of other steps you can take to help keep from catching a cold that don't involve taking anything. Wash your hands regularly, keep kitchen and bathroom surfaces clean, and don't share drinking glasses or utensils with others. Using alcohol hand sanitizers is an excellent way to keep hands clean while on the move.
If you do get a cold, you can help prevent it from spreading to those around you by coughing or sneezing into a tissue or the bend of your elbow, rather than your hands. The old recommendations to drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest won't cure your cold, but they can help you feel better. Having a bowl of chicken soup is a good idea, too.
— Abinash Virk, M.D., Infectious Diseases, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.