5 Ways You Are Harming Your Gut
What Happens When Your Microbiome Is Unbalanced?
Your microbiome is a fascinating and critical mini-ecosystem that resides mainly in your gut. It is essentially a diverse population of bacteria that plays a critical role in our digestive, metabolic, and immune functions. That’s why keeping our microbiomes populated with the right amount of good bacteria is critical for establishing healthy, regular digestion.
Even more importantly, several scientific studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between the quality of your microbiome and your overall health.42 That’s why it’s crucial to maintain a healthy microbiome.
Unfortunately, diet, travel, stress, antibiotics in our food, big life changes, and our environment can affect our microbiome and lead to an imbalance. Left untreated, signs and changes begin to occur that can eventually lead to serious conditions, including chronic inflammation, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer.
5 Ways You May Be Harming Your Gut
Our modern lifestyles pose a significant threat to the health of our gut flora, and a great deal of it is simply unavoidable. Excessive consumption of processed food, chlorinated water, and antibiotics hidden in food can have disastrous consequences for your microbiome.4
1. Processed Food
Foods packed with refined carbohydrates and sugar can get absorbed quickly in the digestive tract, which means there is nothing left for the microbes to ferment or break down. Although it may sound not that bad, in reality, it’s a huge problem that can have far-reaching consequences.
Your gut microbes depend on natural food that takes longer to absorb. With a diet limited to processed meals, these microbes no longer have anything to consume. So, they start destroying the cells that line your intestine. If you keep ignoring your microbes, they will slowly but steadily cause your gut to leak, otherwise known as leaky gut syndrome.4
Leaky gut syndrome is an extremely unhealthy condition where toxic digestive elements seep through the intestinal lining and into the bloodstr
eam. When microorganisms in the intestinal tract do not have enough prebiotics to consume (food for bacteria), they seek nourishment through the intestinal wall, which can create permeability that allows undigested particles and toxins to pass through the intestinal barrier, and into the blood and body.
If a leaky gut is not treated, it can lead to a wide variety of undesirable conditions and diseases.
2. Unnecessary Chemicals In Our Food Supply
The unnecessary chemicals commonly found in your food can diminish the population and diversity of your microbiome.
Some of the worst include emulsifiers, which are present in many, if not most, prepared foods and medications. One study found that rats fed an emulsifier diet experienced digestive inflammation and a change in the mix of bacteria colonized in their colons.
Pesticides and herbicides can also harm your gut microbes. Glyphosate is one of the most common weed-killers used in farming, and it has been shown to harm our gut microbes using the same method it employs to kill unwanted plants.
Another microbial study found that participants who ingested artificial sweeteners had a higher number of Bacteroides fragilis in their gut than the control group. This species of bacteria has been linked to intestinal inflammation that can lead to other health concerns down the road.
3. Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety can cause heavy damage to your intestinal microbiome. A recent study found that stress decreases microbial diversity, which can result in a severe imbalance.5
More specifically, it revealed that individuals with high stress levels had more Clostridium, which is a pathogenic species of bacteria that can cause widespread damage to your body. That’s why it’s crucial to control your stress level if you want a healthy digestive system.
While it can sometimes be challenging to eliminate stress and anxiety completely, you can take efforts to reduce it. Meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga can significantly improve your overall well being.
4. Chlorinated Water
Many of us think that chlorinating tap water will help benefit general public health, but this may not be the case. Chlorine can actually damage the good bacteria in your gut, and drinking it on a daily basis can cause serious long-term effects to the diversity of your microbiome.
While antibiotics are also generally seen as healthy medications to help fight off disease and bad bacteria, they can seriously harm your microbial balance. Antibiotics kill indiscriminately, meaning that they are just as likely to destroy the good microbes as the bad. Ultimately, due to your microbiome’s intimate connection to your immune system, an antibiotic-related imbalance may actually decrease your natural ability to fight off infections. Worse, antibiotics are prevalent in most dairy and meat products, so even if you avoid them as medications, you are likely still exposed to them elsewhere.
Several tell-tale signs of an unhealthy microbiome become apparent if you pay close attention. Some symptoms can be a bit subtle, while others are much more blatant.
Here are just five of the many possible indicators you can expect to come across when your microbiome becomes unbalanced:
- Mental Impairment
There is also a strong connection between your gut and your brain. Several studies have shown that an unbalanced microbiome can cause anxiety, depression, and other behavioral disorders.
Research has been published on the effects our microbiome has on the daily moods of individuals who don’t suffer from mental disorders. In one study, healthy individuals who consumed probiotic supplements reported less reactivity to sad moods than those who took placebos.2
- Chronic Fatigue
Your gut microbes may be to blame for your afternoon drowsiness. Studies have shown that individuals who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome produce high levels of immune cells directed against toxins given off by unhealthy bacteria.
The connection was so strong that the severity of an individual’s chronic fatigue syndrome directly correlated with the number of immune cells directed against the bad bacteria.3
- Decreased Immunity
Are you getting sick more often? It may be a sign of an unhealthy gut. If your microbiome is thrown out of balance, your immune system can also take a substantial hit. Certain gut bacteria are critical for boosting immunity, and without them, your defenses can weaken, which ultimately leads to increased susceptibility to infections and diseases.
- Digestive Discomfort
This is usually your first sign that something is wrong. An unbalanced microbiome can cause several digestive issues, including gas, constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux, and hemorrhoids. If you feel bloated after a meal or are experiencing chronic constipation, it may be a sign that your microbiome has been thrown out of whack.
- Skin Problems
Believe it or not, an imbalance in your microbiome can make itself known through your skin. Some studies have found a link between conditions such as dermatitis, eczema, rosacea, and acne to poor gut health.1 If you’re experiencing any new or unusual skin issues, you may need to check your digestive health.
What Diseases Stem From Poor Digestive Health?
It may not be your favorite subject, but gastrointestinal problems are a real struggle for millions of people. If your digestive system is in poor condition, you may be exposed to a litany of possible health problems and conditions — even certain diseases. Here’s a short list of just some conditions caused by an unbalanced digestive system:
- Autoimmune Diseases (Crohn's and Ulcerative Colitis)
These disorders develop when your immune system begins functioning incorrectly and attacks your own body. Since immunity is so closely related to gut health, it’s easy to see a correlation between an unbalanced microbiome and certain autoimmune disorders.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
The exact cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) isn't known. But health experts believe that faulty communication between the brain and the intestinal tract is one cause of symptoms. In some people, this miscommunication causes abnormal muscle contractions or spasms, which often cause cramping pain. The spasms may speed the passage of stool, causing diarrhea. Or they may slow it down, causing constipation or bloating. The symptoms appear to result from disturbances in colonic motility (muscle contractions) and increased sensitivity to food, gas, or stool in the bowel.4
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
When stomach acid backs up into your esophagus — a condition called acid reflux — you may feel a burning pain in the middle of your chest, have a dry cough, or even taste food coming back up. While it’s common for people to experience some acid reflux and heartburn every now and again, having symptoms that affect your daily life or occur at least twice a week could be a serious sign of GERD, a chronic digestive disease that can lead to esophageal cancer.
Most people fight this condition by steering clear of food and drink that trigger uncomfortable symptoms and/or by taking medications, antacids, or natural means to reduce stomach acid production or enhance digestion. Still, some cases of GERD call for much more aggressive treatment, like surgery.
- Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Research has connected cognitive decline to excessive and prolonged inflammation. On the flip side, lower inflammation levels tend to correlate with better memory retention and overall cognitive health. Additionally, researchers have discovered multiple pathways between our brain’s nervous system and our digestive tract, and these systems are constantly sending signals to one another. This means that our microbiome can impact our reasoning and memory skills.7
Research has shown that optimal gut health leads to better immune support against free radical damage, which can cause breast, stomach, pancreatic, prostate and colon cancers. That said, the opposite can also be true: an imbalanced microbiome can cause inflammatory responses that lead to certain cancers.6
- Allergies and asthma
If we lose certain helpful bacteria that help lower inflammation, the severity of our allergic reactions starts to increase. A balanced microbiome will fight seasonal allergies more effectively, plus it can help keep our breathing passageways clear.
Without a fully optimized microbiome, your digestive health will suffer in one form or another. It’s not only important to keep your microbiome completely balanced, but to ensure that you are doing everything possible to promote regular, unhindered digestion so that it remains balanced.
Unfortunately, there are so many unavoidable aspects of our daily lives hurting our good bacteria that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to keep our microbiomes in top shape.