These sneaky signs and symptoms could point to a serious gut issue.

By Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
Updated: May 29, 2019

Having an imbalance of good bacteria can affect your entire body, which means signs of a gut issue may show up in your digestive tract (or a host of other places.) That’s because one role of a healthy microbiome is to serve as a strong barrier between the digestive tract and the rest of the body.

But when the number and diversity of good bacteria get disrupted (through things like diet, stress, and antibiotics), this barrier is weakened and develops holes. The result is that foreign compounds and toxins are able to “leak” through, which creates a cascading effect of irritation and inflammation throughout the body.

So, not only can you have a gut issue without noticeable GI symptoms, but warning signs of a gut issue can also show up in some pretty weird places. Here are five signs to look for.

Bad Breath

Have ongoing bad breath that brushing can’t seem to fix? You may have a gut imbalance that’s allowed certain types of the H. pylori bacteria to take up residence in your GI tract.

These bacteria are at the root of many stomach ulcers, and halitosis (read: bad breath) is a symptom often seen with H. pylori infections. It’s unclear if these bacteria in the stomach cause the halitosis, or if they simply increase the likelihood of periodontitis which then creates breath issues. Regardless, treating H. pylori bacteria when present in the stomach can improve bad breath. Some research also suggests that taking probiotics (particularly ones in the lactobacilli species) may help to treat and prevent halitosis.

Joint Pain

Gut issues are associated with causing or exacerbating joint pain in two types of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by an autoimmune reaction in the body, so maintaining a healthy gut to reduce overall inflammation in the body is key.

More recently, though, poor gut health was found to also exacerbate osteoarthritis, or general wear-and-tear joint pain, particularly when an individual is overweight or obese. While, it’s not clear the exact role that a healthy gut may play in preventing osteoarthritis, research suggests an unbalanced microbiome may accelerate joint deterioration and pain.

Fatigue and Signs of Autoimmune Disease

Still tired even after a good night of sleep? Ongoing fatigue is an initial sign of most autoimmune conditions whose development is thought to be closely linked to gut health. The connection has to do with the role that a healthy gut plays in proper immune functioning.

An imbalance of good gut bacteria creates an overworked immune system, and in in susceptible individuals, this stress may cause a pathogen (such as the normally inactive Epstein-Barr virus) to trigger an autoimmune reaction. Not only has the virus been linked to development of multiple sclerosis, lupus, and chronic fatigue, but it’s also thought to be present in 90% of the population. While occasional bout of fatigue shouldn’t cause panic, it’s also a good reminder to take care of your gut to prevent future illness.

Breakouts and Skin Irritations

Wondering why you still get sporadic skin breakouts or irritations as an adult? An unbalanced microbiome can make you feel like a teenager again by increasing your skin’s sensitivity and making it more prone to issues like eczema, dermatitis, acne, and psoriasis. Skin is an ideal barrier to the outside world—until its homeostasis is disrupted and it can’t function as it was designed. This can happen when there's chronic inflammation and a decreased immune response due to an influx of foreign compounds in the body from a leaky gut.

Increased Forgetfulness

Busy lifestyles make staying on top of details challenging, but if you feel like you’re forgetting more things than usual, look at your gut.  A 2010 research study examining gut health and memory in rats suggested microbe imbalances in the gut impacted memory formation and recall, especially when under stress. The study also found that consuming probiotic-rich foods may reduce memory issues, as well as reduce associated inflammation in the brain. Even though the relationship isn’t fully understood, research suggests that gut health has a definite impact on brain health, as well as mental health conditions.

How to Fix a Gut Issue

If you believe you have any type of gut issue, the first step is to see your doctor. But if you’re looking to improve overall gut health, tweaking your diet is the best place to start. Research points to these key things when eating to support a healthy gut: choose more whole, fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables; incorporate microbe-rich foods like yogurt and fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha; and cut down on processed foods, added sugars, trans fats, and unnecessary chemicals and additives. And if you want a total reboot, try our 3-day gut health meal plan.

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