The human gut that includes the stomach and intestines is lined by epithelial and immune cells that interact with the gut microbiota to form a protective barrier from the external environment. The gut microbiota comprises trillions of microorganisms inside every human being. Not surprisingly, these microorganisms (bacteria) outnumber human cells in the entire body.
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An unhealthy gut is one in which either there is “gut dysbiosis” which occurs when there is an imbalance in the number and diversity of your gut microflora or there is chronic inflammation which disrupts the mucous layer of the intestinal lining, and the tight junctions become compromised increasing gut permeability also known as a “leaky gut”.
An unhealthy gut can impact your child’s health in various ways and can lead to immune dysfunction, inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), obesity, and, in extreme cases, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular and central nervous system disorders.
“Dysbiosis” is a term used to describe a maladaptation or imbalance inside the body, and a “gut dysbiosis” occurs when there is an imbalance in the number and diversity of your gut microflora. This can impact our health in various ways. When leaky gut occurs, inflammation can cause the release of cytokines and neurotransmitters wreaking havoc on the immune system, even crossing the blood-brain barrier, influencing brain function.
Symptoms of an unhealthy gut can be grouped into the following five main categories:
Abdominal discomfort and gastrointestinal symptoms
GI symptoms may range from gas, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, indigestion and distension. Unhealthy gut bacteria may cause more gas formation, trapping it in the gut and causing bloating. Increase in certain types of bacteria, including Bifidobacteria, can cause constipation and increase in Clostridium difficile can cause diarrhoea.
These signs and symptoms are collectively known as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Unexplained weight changes, bad breath, vitamin deficiencies
Gut bacteria affect the way nutrients from the food are absorbed, sugar is absorbed and fat is stored. And all these three parameters have a direct link to weight.
Weight loss without reason could be triggered by a gut bacteria condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Putting on weight without any change in diet or exercise can be because of insulin resistance, a trigger for type-2 diabetes. Insulin resistance causes poor nutrient absorption, causing the urge to overeat.
Bad breath or halitosis is caused by bacteria that reside in the gums, between teeth and the tongue. However, changes in gut bacteria can cause bad breath. Despite eating a healthy and wholesome diet, individuals may show vitamin deficiencies due to an imbalance in the gut bacteria. Deficiencies of magnesium, vitamin B7, B12, D3 and vitamin K have gut bacteria to blame.
Allergies and skin conditions
A damaged gut caused by consuming an unhealthy diet can cause food allergies and proteins from the body to leak out. This can cause skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, acne, rashes and psoriasis. Atopic dermatitis or eczema presents as red and itchy skin and is linked to intestinal dysbiosis.
If the skin is more than just red and itchy, but scaly too, it is probably psoriasis. Psoriasis has been associated with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Alterations in the gut microbiome can also contribute to rosacea pathogenesis, a common skin condition that causes redness and visible blood vessels in the face.
Skin-health needs can represent underlying gut health needs. That’s because the gut is in direct communication with your skin through the gut-skin axis. Gut health plays a role in skin homeostasis and physiologic pathways that keep your skin clear and healthy.
Our gut microbiome directly influences our immune system. When our gut is healthy, our immune system is healthy. In fact, approximately 70 per cent of the immune system resides in our gut!
Poor gut health makes us prone to seasonal infections such as viral influenza, cold and cough, bacterial infections and even COVID-19.
When the gut is imbalanced, it causes a host of conditions known as auto-immune disorders. An auto-immune condition or disorder is one in which the body’s immune system attacks the body’s own cells. Autoimmune disorders caused by poor gut-health can range from psoriasis, celiac disease, Hashimoto’s, multiple sclerosis, lupus and type 1 diabetes.
Disturbed sleep, fatigue, poor mood and cognitive ill-health (poor mental health)
Serotonin is a hormone which affects our moods and sleep. A majority of it is produced in the gut. A gut imbalance can disturb serotonin production, causing insomnia and poor sleep. Insomnia or poor sleep in turn causes fatigue and tiredness all through the day, leading to fibromyalgia.
An imbalanced gut can cause depression, anxiety and mood swings. This is caused by certain hormones called gut peptides that control neurotransmitters or signals between the gut and brain. Gut peptides can also affect cognitive abilities like concentration and focus. A gut imbalance can also affect learning and memory.
If gut bacteria and reduced gut inflammation are so crucial for our overall health, is there a way to fix the imbalances in them? Yes, there is! Some of the ways of improving gut health are: lowering stress levels, getting enough sleep, eating healthy, eating slowly, staying hydrated, taking a prebiotic or probiotic, checking for food intolerances, and changing your food.
Next fortnight, we will talk about the approaches to resolve an unhealthy gut in detail in the second part of the article so your child can lead a healthier life.
(Manjari Chandra is a consultant, functional nutrition and nutritional medicine, Manjari Wellness, New Delhi. Her column appears every fortnight)
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