The bacteria in your gut can be one of your strongest allies in getting healthy…or it can be one of your worst enemies. Most people don’t realize it, but what they eat and how they live are changing the makeup of their gut bacteria.
Exciting new studies are coming out every day exploring the connection between gut bacteria and practically every other aspect of human health. The conclusion is clear: if you can change your gut, you can change your life.
But how do you know when something’s wrong with your gut bacteria in the first place? And more importantly, what can you do about it? Keep reading to find out.
Not All Gut Bacteria Are Created Equal
Gut bacteria, which number more than 100 trillion cells, have more of an impact on our health than medical experts previously realized. But not all gut bacteria are created equal. Among other things, “good” gut bacteria improve digestion, strengthen the immune system, and manufacture the vitamins your body needs. On the other hand, “bad” gut bacteria or simply a lack of good bacteria can cause digestion nightmares, skin conditions, and vitamin and mineral deviancies that can lead to more and more problems, such as hormonal imbalances, poor sleep and lack of energy.
A healthy gut isn’t made by trying to rid your body of gut bacteria altogether. It’s made by balancing the bacteria—limiting the bad guys and encouraging the good guys to grow. So let’s start at the beginning: how to figure out if your gut bacteria is unbalanced.
How can you know if your gut bacteria are out of whack? It isn’t quite as easy as finding out if you have a fever. You can’t just take your gut bacteria’s temperature with a thermometer you bought over the counter. But there are common warning signs that something might be wrong. Keep an eye on them, and you’ll put yourself in the best position to get healthy.
Here’s what to watch out for:
When you think of the potential consequences of unhealthy gut bacteria, digestive problems are probably the first things that come to mind. Many doctors will prescribe drugs like Prevacid or generic antacids to help people struggling with these issues, but those medications only address surface level symptoms. They don’t get to the root cause of the problem, which is unhealthy gut bacteria. If you’re dealing with any of the following, you might have an unhealthy gut:
- Heartburn/acid reflux
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Irritable Bowel Disease (including Crohn’s and Ulcerative colitis)
Did you know the health of your gut could affect the health of your brain? It’s true. Scientists have already discovered that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters. Now, they’re focused on another trend: people with certain mental disorders also tend to have disturbances to their gut bacteria.
Believe it or not, your gut could be to blame for certain mental disorders.
If you have any of these mental issues, your gut bacteria might be to blame:
- Depression and anxiety
- Brain fog
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
A healthy gut and digestive system also plays an important role when it comes to helping your body produce and synthesize vitamins and minerals. When your gut bacteria is out of whack, your body has a harder time getting enough of the following essential vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin B12 and B7
If you’re deficient in any of the above (you can find out by getting a simple physical from your doctor), you might have an unhealthy gut.
You’ve Used Antibiotics
Used correctly, antibiotics are one of the greatest innovations of modern medicine, but using them incorrectly can create gut issues. The food industry uses them indiscriminately on factory-farmed animals. Some doctors even use them on viral infections (which is useless). Antibiotics wipe out bad bacteria, but they also wipe out many of the good bacteria in the gut that are essential for your health. Research also suggests that good bacteria wiped out by antibiotics don’t replace themselves unless you intervene.
You Have Chronic, Un-managed Stress
Stress can wear you down, make you anxious, and increase your blood pressure… and it can also wreak havoc on your gut! Stress is inevitable, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. That isn’t an issue — until you let it go on for too long without managing it. Un-managed stress raises cortisol levels, which can stop the gut from working properly. If you’ve been stressed for the past few months (or years, or decades) but haven’t acted to manage your stress, you’re more likely to have an unhealthy gut.
Unresolved Skin Conditions
There’s been a lot of confusion about skin conditions over the years. Much of it comes from the common (but misguided) idea that the symptoms of a condition must appear in the same spot as the condition itself. For many skin conditions, the problem isn’t with the skin itself. It’s with an unhealthy gut. If you have any of these skin conditions, it could be due to unbalanced gut bacteria:
Autoimmune Diseases & Inflammation
Autoimmune diseases can be difficult to manage because the body is literally attacking itself. It can be even tougher to spot the source of the problem and address it there. But more research is emerging linking autoimmune diseases to unhealthy guts. If you’re dealing with any of the following, you just might be able to make your symptoms disappear by taking care of your gut:
- Flare-up Rheumatoid arthritis
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Flare-up of Osteoarthritis
How to Balance Your Gut Bacteria in a few Simple Steps
If any of the warning signs above look familiar to you, there’s good news! You can take action to improve the health of your gut. Doing so can prevent new medical conditions from arising and even reverse conditions that have bothered you for years.
Ready to get started today? Here’s how to balance your gut bacteria in four simple steps:
Step 1. Avoid Toxins
If you wanted to put out a fire, adding gasoline would be worst thing you could do! Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a lot of people with unhealthy guts are doing. They’re continuing to eat and live in a way that kills good bacteria, encourages bad bacteria to grow, and breaks down the integrity of their gut lining. Most of them don’t even realize they’re doing it.
The first step to reversing this trend is to avoid toxic foods. These include:
- Processed foods
- Unhealthy oils
- Any foods that are allergens or cause distress
If you’re already following a Paleo lifestyle, you’ve pretty much taken care of this step. Stick to a diet focused on vegetables, animal protein, and fruits, and you’ll create a gut environment that’s friendly for good bacteria and unfriendly for bad bacteria.
Avoid sugar, drugs and other toxins to maintain a healthy gut.
It’s also a good idea to avoid other modern toxins. Watch out for:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil and Ibuprofen
- Antibiotics (as much as possible)
Step 2. Take Probiotic Supplements
In addition to eating fermented foods (a great natural source of good gut bacteria), you can restore your gut health faster by taking a daily probiotic supplement. Our ancestors were a lot less concerned with hygiene than we are. This actually helped them pick up plenty of good gut bacteria along with the soil and other dirty things they encountered. You can use probiotic supplements to “make up” for that lost good bacteria.
There’s a wide range of probiotic supplements available. And just like with gut bacteria, some are better than others.
- Stay away from “bargain bin” prices. You get what you pay for.
- Look for supplements that contain multiple strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
- Don’t count on yogurt as a source of probiotics
Step 3. Manage Your Stress
One of the most powerful things you can do to improve your gut health (besides changing your diet) is to make “stress management” a priority. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all method to do this. The key is to pick something you enjoy and stick with it. Making time to manage your stress — whether you feel stressed or not — will reduce inflammation, lower cortisol levels, and improve your gut health.
Get plenty of sleep and take time to reduce your stress levels to improve gut health.
And make sure to get enough sleep! A sleep deficit raises cortisol levels (and harms the gut) just like any other type of stress. Shoot for at least 7 hours a night.
Change Your Gut, Change Your Life
More science is emerging every day connecting issues with the gut to issues throughout the body and mind. That’s good news for you! With knowledge and smart action, you can quite literally heal yourself from the inside out. The recipe for a healthy gut is simple. Avoid toxic foods and substances, add in some fresh vegetables and fruits and probiotics, and make managing your stress a priority. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. Changing your gut just might be the first step to changing your life.
This is just a “how to begin” article and while the steps here are a good place to start, there are other important steps to take with your practitioner when more severe digestive conditions exist.
Dr. Hoch (pronounced Hoke), is a 1988 Graduate of Peotone High School and a 1990 Graduate of Joliet Junior College. She Received both her B.S. in Human Biology (1991) and her Doctorate of Chiropractic (D.C.) (1993) from The National College of Chiropractic in Lombard, IL. She also received her graduate and post-graduate certifications in Acupuncture from NCC.