Here’s what you know: Gut health is all the rage right now, with increasing evidence linking your microbiome to brain health, emotional health, cardiovascular health and more. Here’s what you don’t know: Is your gastrointestinal tract in OK shape, or does it need a helping hand? We checked in with microbiome researcher Mahmoud Ghannoum Ph.D., author of Total Gut Balance, for some clues that your gut could use a little TLC. Here, four signs of an unhealthy gut (and how to fix them).
1. Gastrointestinal issues
If you’re having abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, gas, nausea, bloating or heartburn, you might have a gut issue. “In these cases, we have an increase in the level of harmful bacteria and fungi in the gut and a decrease in the beneficial ones,” says Ghannoum. And this imbalance makes it difficult to break down food. Cue stomachaches and more.
How to fix it: Incorporate more probiotics into your diet. Plain yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and kimchi can help add (and restore the balance of) friendly bacteria in the gut. As a bonus, they’re also delicious.
2. Poor sleep
Tossing and turning all night long? Or maybe you only manage to clock in a couple of hours of shut-eye every night despite going to bed at a reasonable hour? Insomnia or disturbed sleep could be a sign that your gut health is out of whack. Here’s why: The majority of serotonin (a hormone linked to mood and sleep) is produced in the gut, and when less serotonin is produced, it can lead to difficulty sleeping.
How to fix it: According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults should be getting between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. To give yourself the best chance of a good night’s slumber, be consistent about sticking to a bedtime (yep, even on weekends) and give yourself time to unwind before hitting the sack (that means no Instagram scrolling in bed). Create a Zen-like space in your bedroom by keeping the temperature cool and banning blue-light-emitting screens. You could also try a pillow spray like this one from ThisWorks. Simply spritz this aromatherapeutic blend of lavender and vetiver onto your pillows before bed and let the calm, soothing scent work its magic. Sweet dreams.
3. Skin problems
“Having an imbalance in our gut microbiome can lead to skin issues including acne and psoriasis as well as atopic dermatitis,” Ghannoum tells us. That’s because your gut and skin are connected, and an unbalanced gastrointestinal tract leads to inflammation—a leading cause of complexion concerns.
How to fix it: Many beauty products contain chemical ingredients that undermine the skin microbiome and immune function, Zach Bush, M.D., tells us. Per Dr. Bush, the ones to watch out for are phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde and formaldehyde donors such as DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, diazolidinyl urea and imidazolidinyl urea. To keep your complexion glowing, he suggests choosing organic products when possible and letting your skin breathe (by going sans makeup) on the reg.
4. Increased anxiety and brain fog
“Dysbiosis in the gut [aka microbial imbalance] alters certain chemicals in the brain (like serotonin and dopamine) that directly impact mood. These changes can lead to increased anxiety and depression,” says Ghannoum. “They may also bring about a change in eating habits, thereby causing a further imbalance of the gut microbiota,” he adds.
How to fix it: Chill out, dude. “People who are chronically stressed tend to have more microbiome imbalance, even when they eat a good diet,” Ghannoum explains. Take measures to reduce stress levels (he likes yoga and meditation) and try not to worry too much—not even about your gut balance.