Nowadays it is well known how important a balanced gut microbiome is for our digestion. The overgrowth of certain bacteria strains can easily lead to an imbalance in the gut microflora and cause a wide range of digestive symptoms. From diarrhoea to constipation, from bloating to indigestion and acid reflux.
But what if you’re experiencing other symptoms that seem completely unrelated to your digestion? Could these be less obvious signs of gut imbalance?
The gut microbiome, nowadays considered a true standalone organ, is incredibly complex and ongoing research seems to be bringing out new findings almost on a weekly basis. Made up of trillions of bacteria, the gut microbiome is in constant communication with every other organ in the body and can therefore affect the health of our brain, skin, vagina and bladder, liver, lungs and heart, to name a few.
As Alessio Fasano, M.D. and Gastroenterologist once said:
“The gut is not like Las Vegas: what happens in the gut does not stay in the gut”.
I have experienced this on my own skin, quite literally
Unexplained skin rashes were one amongst many things I have battled with in the past, when I had no idea food, let alone the microbes in my gut, could have such a big impact on my health. Alongside these I also used to experience constant brain fog, fatigue and joint pain, which now I know were all signs that my gut needed attention and care and explains why treating these symptoms separately could never bring long-lasting results.
Through this article we’ll be shedding some light on some of the unexpected signs of gut imbalance, as they could provide clarity when assessing your overall health and may be the missing key in finding the root cause of your symptoms.
7 unexpected signs of gut imbalance
1. Nervous system symptoms
Our gut, or more precisely the enteric nervous system, is in constant communication with our brain, through the gut-brain axis. One of the main components of this axis is the Vagus Nerve, on which you can find more info in this previous blog post.
The gut-brain axis is probably the most known and the one with most research, as the interest in mental health and the role of the gut microbiome in it has grown over the past decade.
Poor brain health and neurotransmitter imbalances can affect digestion, while poor gut health, dysbiosis and increased intestinal permeability can affect your mood and thinking capacity, causing a vast range of symptoms.
You might be familiar with these if you’ve experience any (or all) of the followings:
- Brain fog and poor concentration
- Fatigue, physical and/or mental
- Anxiety, low mood and lack of motivation
- Headaches and migraines
Often these symptoms are associated with changes in neurotransmitter concentration.
For example, anxiety and depression are associated with low levels of serotonin in the brain.
Serotonin is also known as the calming neurotransmitter and about 95% of it is produced in the gut. Unfortunately, this means that if your gut health is challenged, the production of serotonin could possibly be disrupted leading to changes in your mood. This is commonly seen in people with IBS (source) .
2. Skin rashes
The gut is connected to the skin forming what we call the gut-skin axis.
To this date there is substantial research looking at how a diverse gut microbiome influences skin health and suggesting it plays a role in the development of certain skin conditions, including acne, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea.
A common way through which the gut microbiome can affect skin integrity involves the activation of an immune response, which can manifest with local and/or systemic inflammation.
Once associated exclusively with the teenage years, today acne is just as common in adults. The nature of acne is often multifactorial, meaning there are multiple causes that need addressing in order for it to resolve. An imbalance in the gut microbiome (dysbiosis) and the presence of a leaky gut barrier may not be causative but can definitely worsen acne by altering metabolism and inflammation (source).
Eczema, or Atopic Dermatitis (AD) has also been linked to imbalances in the gut microbiome, in particular there seems to be less of a particular bacteria strain called Faecalibacterium prausnitzii. In addition, an increase in intestinal permeability could be the driver of skin inflammation in people with eczema (source).
Sometimes the skin rashes can be sporadic and don’t turn into full-on acne, but it might still be a sign of gut imbalance, as your gut health is strictly related to your skin health.
3. Food sensitivities and intolerances
Food sensitivities and intolerances differ from a food allergy, as they do not involve an immune response but are usually localised and manifest with digestive symptoms (source).
Food sensitivities are on the rise and research suggests this is due to changes in the gut environment, such as the presence of pathogens or low amounts of protective strains of bacteria (source).
Food sensitivities might also be the result of “leaky gut”. The junctions in the mucosal lining of the intestines are naturally tight and control what is absorbed into the bloodstream. In the case of leaky gut, or increased intestinal permeability, these junctions loosen up and allow big food particles amongst other things to enter the bloodstream and cause inflammation and other systemic symptoms, some of which are mentioned in this post.
To top this off, food sensitivities can also be the cause of leaky gut in the first place, creating a vicious circle that can only be addressed by eliminating the food responsible (source). Common food intolerances include casein, lactose (both found in dairy) and gluten (in wheat, rye and barley), however you might have a sensitivity to virtually any food, including food additives.
4. Joint pain
We have seen how leaky gut could manifest with inflammation of the skin.
But if it is left unassessed and untreated, leaky gut could also result in widespread inflammation, causing pain and swelling in the joints.
This is because particles that manage to make their way across the one-cell-thin-barrier and into the bloodstream move and deposit across the body, including in the joints. This causes localised inflammation but can also lead to autoimmune conditions such as Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Of course when addressing halitosis (aka bad breath) the first thing that comes to mind is to take care of our oral health, by checking for cavities, making sure we brush our teeth adequately and not stripping out the beneficial bacteria using loads of mouthwash.
But if you’ve tried all of this and the problem persists you might have to look further and turn to your digestive system, as this too could be an unexpected sign of gut imbalance and in particular of poor enzyme secretion or pathogens.
Halitosis could be the result of undigested food that’s not properly broken down and is sitting in your intestine, left to ferment and create “gases” as a result.
This might be due to a lack of stomach acid, which believe it or not is often seen in people with acid reflux.
H.pylori infections, the bacteria responsible for many cases of acid reflux, can also cause halitosis (source).
6. Thrush and recurrent vaginal infections
Just like the gut and many other systems in our body, our vagina also has its own microbiome and it’s linked to the gut through the gut-vagina-bladder axis.
The location and proximity of the anus to the urethra can allow intestinal bacteria to move between the two and is one of the ways the gut microbiome can influence vaginal health. For example, women with intestinal overgrowth of E.coli have a tendency to suffer from recurrent infections of the urinary tract (UTIs) (source).
Another common cause of imbalances in the vaginal microbiome is the overgrowth of Candida Albicans in the gut. Candida is a fungi naturally found in the intestine, skin and mouth and in small amounts it doesn’t cause havoc to our health.
However it can easily overgrow and is one of the most common fungal infections in humans (source).
Although very common, bacterial infections and thrush are simply the result of an imbalanced microbiome, characterised by the loss of beneficial bacterial strains such as Lactobacillus. These can be addressed by restoring good amounts of healthy flora both in the gut and in the vagina.
If you experience congestion with phlegm, recurrent sinus infections with flu-like symptoms and you find yourself relying on tissues at any season, you might want to look at your gut as it could be driving the inflammation and the production of mucus. After all, about 80% of our immune system is found in our gut!
This alone could be a driver, but studies have also found that people with chronic sinus infections lack diversity of bacteria in their nasal cavity (which btw is a direct extension of your digestive tract) (source).
Candida overgrowth can be another cause, as elevated levels have been found in many people with chronic sinus infection (source).
The state of our gut has a huge impact on our overall health.
The good news is that there’s a lot we can do to support our gut to resolve our symptoms and help us thrive. You can find some useful tips in this previous post, however depending on your symptoms you might need more than these to address the true root cause.
I hope you found this article helpful and perhaps these unexpected signs of gut imbalance help shed some light on what you might be currently experiencing.
If you’d like to dive deeper and know how I can support you and your gut health further don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org