Woman looking in the mirror with a horrified look on her face popping a pimple

10 Signs of an Unhealthy Gut You Should Know

If you’re reading this article, you probably know that the condition of your gut affects your overall health in many ways. And if you didn’t know that… now you do! Since our digestive system isn’t something we can visibly see, it’s a good idea to stay in tune to signs we CAN see that are indicative of our gut health.

Here are 10 signs of an unhealthy gut and some nerdy science on the connections behind them.

But first, to preface, when I say “unhealthy” gut, I simply mean that your gut is not operating in tip top shape. It doesn’t mean that it’s not fixable or that you have done anything to cause this. 

Gut issues can occur for MANY different reasons. And many of us have areas of needed improvement in our gut whether we know it or not.

Settle in because here we go! Let’s see how many signs of an unhealthy gut you were aware of and how many come as a surprise!

1. (and 2 – the science is similar for both) Rosacea/redness and Acne

Many consider rosacea to be genetic. While there may be a genetic component to it, research shows that rosacea is also associated with multiple GI disorders. Some of these include inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), to name a few. 

You may have heard of the gut-brain axis but have you heard of the gut-skin axis? It’s real! 

Even if you don’t have IBD, celiac, etc. rosacea can still be a sign of an unhealthy gut. According to microbiologist Kiran Krishnan, if your gut microbiota doesn’t have the proper diversity, there can be a shift toward gram negative gut bacteria versus gram positive. This gut imbalance also cause an overgrowth of opportunistic organisms in your digestive tract.

Side note: gram negative and gram positive is just a way to classify different bacteria species. It isn’t necessarily an issue of good bacteria versus bad bacteria. We should have some component of both gram positive and gram negative bacteria in our gut.

A shift toward more gram negative bacteria causes an inflammatory response in our gut and brings down expression of something called regulatory T cells. These circulate throughout our body including heavily under the skin. 

These T cells also protect our skin from exposures to harmful bacteria and other things we may come in contact with in our environment. If our T cells are low, our tolerance to these exposures decreases, resulting in skin irritation and inflammation underneath the skin layer (redness/rosacea). This cascade also causes acne (sign number 2).

Another reason for rosacea (as well as acne) is increased intestinal permeability, called leaky gut. Yes, leaky gut is real despite sources out there telling you it’s not. Here’s why. 

Gram negative bacteria produces a toxin called lipopolysaccharide (LPS). If your gut is leaky, LPS leaks through your gut layer and deposits itself in various parts of the rest of your body, including under the skin. This causes inflammation which manifests as redness/rosacea. 

This also causes the sebaceous glands to produce more sebum and inflammatory cytokines – all big words but basically means clogged pores and MORE inflammation (again… hello acne).

3. Dryness of the Skin

We’re hammering skin conditions hard here but that’s because the condition of your skin is often a HUGE indicator of your digestive health.

If you have any sort of dysbiosis in your GI tract, you likely have a high toxin load in your gut. As mentioned above, this increased toxin load causes inflammation. If gut inflammation is present, you may not be absorbing your nutrients effectively through the gut lining.

This can result in malnutrition and/or weight loss. With this, your skin will likely become dehydrated resulting in an increased appearance of wrinkles as well.

Dry, cracked soil similar to what you may see in a dessert or bottom of a dried out bed of water.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with wrinkles in my opinion – unless it’s the result of dehydrated skin from an unhealthy gastrointestinal tract. Then maybe let’s try to fix that. 

One last point on this, ineffective nutrient absorption can also cause thinning of the actual skin layer. This then further decreases moisture retention and further increase the appearance of wrinkles. 

4. Getting Sick Often

As we’ve established, if your gut flora is compromised, the intestinal lining will be compromised. This then causes inflammation and leaky gut. 

Another effect of this situation is immune system activation because particles are coming through our gut lining that shouldn’t be. Our body sees these as foreign invaders (which it should) and sets off alarm bells, aka an immune response.

If there are alarm bells constantly going off because of leaky gut, your body can no longer differentiate this from the alarm bells that go off when a pathogenic virus or bacteria enter your system. It basically goes unnoticed, and these viruses and bacteria are able to cause illness.

Also, we talked about how leaky gut can cause inflammation in other areas of our body, not just our gut lining. When this happens, your immune system is even more compromised. This is because alarm bells are not only constantly going off in your gut, they are going off all over your body wherever the inflammation is present. 

So again, this makes it even harder for your body to tell when a true pathogen has entered your system.

What’s even WORSE, opportunistic pathogens can take advantage of this situation. They are sneaky like that and they are called opportunistic for a reason. They sense when there is chronic inflammation in your body. 

Woman laying on her side in bed blowing her nose with several tissues around her.

Then, they take that opportunity to quickly replicate because they know it won’t be noticed by your immune system. Kind of creepy right?

5. Indigestion and Other Bowel Symptoms

Yes this may seem obvious, but you would be shocked at how often this is normalized. 

Are you a really gassy person? Do you bloat up like a beach ball every time you eat? Do you experience excessive gurgling or frequent belching?

But that’s just “you” right? You’re just a gassy, bloated, belchy person – it’s normal for you. But is it?

Everyone experiences these things now and then. However, if you’re experiencing digestive issues like the ones mentioned above or listed below, frequently, there may be an issue. 

  • abdominal pain 
  • alternating bowel movements between constipation and diarrhea
  • upset stomach
  • acid reflux

If you’ve just decided that these symptoms are typical for you and that’s just the way you are, you might be wrong. And you might not need to live like that. If your family members can’t even be in the same room with you after a meal, it’s a good indication that there may be something going on. 

6. (and 7) Hair loss and Poor Nail Quality

To preface, I am referring to hair loss and thinning that excludes male pattern baldness. These are two different things.

In extreme and/or prolonged cases of an unhealthy gut where inflammation goes unchecked, some degree of villous atrophy can occur. This is where the finger like projections that line your gut wall, become blunted and unable to absorb nutrients properly. This is the reason behind the malnutrition mentioned above. 

Also, gut inflammation alone can inhibit absorption along with any villous atrophy that’s occurring. Our bodies produce digestive enzymes to help us break down food. One of the places it does this is in the brush border of our gut lining. 

If this lining is inflamed and/or is experiencing villous atrophy, the production of these enzymes could be decreased. This contributes even further to impaired nutrient absorption. 

Over time, this can lead to hair loss or thinning as well as brittle and thin nails. It takes nutrients of proper amounts and the ability to utilize these nutrients to create strong, healthy strands of hair and nails.

If your gut is unable to absorb these, your hair can actually start falling out. The rate of re-growth can slow down as well.

8. Poor sleep

We all know how important it is to get enough sleep. While there are certainly other reasons for poor sleep, an unhealthy gut is one of them. This again, traces back to an unhealthy gut microbiome causing inflammation and leaky gut. 

As the LPS toxin leaks through and circulates the body, chronic inflammation occurs. Chronic inflammation causes chronic stress in your body. When your body is chronically stressed, it is difficult to come down from this enough to enter a state that is conducive to sleep. 

This chronic inflammation can happen in the brain itself. It can disrupt hormone production pathways, hormone signaling and hormone binding in the brain.

You may already be aware that hormones play an important role in sleep – when these are disrupted, guess what suffers? A proper balance and utilization of hormone function is crucial to restful sleep.

9. Increased Stress and Anxiety

We alluded to this already but let’s dive in to the mechanism behind increased stress response. When we experience a stress trigger, our brain releases hormones which activate our sympathetic nervous system. This, in turn, activates our fight or flight response. 

Through this process, cortisol is increased, some of which dumps into our gut. If we have an unhealthy gut microbiome, we already likely have inflammation and consequently leaky gut. This incoming cortisol actually increases the “leakiness” of our gut.

This process also results in the release of something called interleukin 6 which in turn, goes back to the brain and triggers more cortisol production and more stress response.

A healthy, balanced gut has something called peptidoglycan which is produced by certain types of bacteria. This serves as somewhat of a check point in the gut to bring down the stress response. If our body isn’t able to bring down this fight or flight response, we continue in a chronic state of stress and inflammation. 

This then produces more stress and inflammation, creating a vicious cycle. So if you find yourself unable to relax, nervous all the time, or getting worked up over things that you didn’t in the past – the condition of your gut may be a driving factor.

The word "stress" written in red pencil on white paper with a line under it. The red pencil is still on the page and the tip has started to crumble from the pressure being applied to it.

10. Food Intolerances

A lot of us think that food intolerances are just a normal part of life. Again, it’s just the way you are right? Does anyone find it odd that these are becoming more and more common? Do you find it odd that you don’t tolerate the same foods you used to? What changed?

As previously mentioned, our gut lining produces some of the the digestive enzymes needed to break down food. If our gut is unhealthy and inflamed, this enzyme production may suffer. This could lead to food sensitivities or intolerances that either occur suddenly or over time.

Also, we mentioned how inflammation and leaky gut can cause an immune response due to particles crossing the gut barrier that shouldn’t be. So, over time, some foods may start to trigger intolerance reactions due to this activated state of the immune system. It may see those food particles as foreign invaders when they of course, are not.

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As always, thanks for reading!