Trillions of microorganisms hang out in the body, forming what’s known as your microbiome. And as you’ve probably heard, the mix of organisms that call your gut home tend to influence not just your waistline, but your overall health. In fact, scientists have discovered links between gut health and your immune system, sleep, mood — even chronic diseases. So whenever your belly bacteria is out of whack, it could throw your whole body off balance.
The question is, though, how do you know if your gut is actually healthy? Let the experts we talked to help you decipher a real problem from simply a bad case of bloat.
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What Does It Mean to Have Good Gut Health?
For teeny tiny microbes, bacteria has a pretty big job in the body. It helps you digest the plant material that the body doesn’t have enzymes to break down. It synthesizes vitamins and long chain fatty acids, and helps maintain the integrity of the GI tract lining. It even communicates with the central nervous system and strengthens the immune system to give illnesses the one-two punch. In return, the body provides the microorganisms with food and a place to live. (This is one co-dependent relationship we all need.)
A healthy gut microbiome depends on a diverse and balanced population of microorganisms, which can help crowd out the bad bacteria. “It’s like if you have a lot of good people and one bad person. The bad person can get kicked out. If you have fewer good people, the bad person can more easily make inroads,” says Dr. Purna Kashyap, assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and member of the scientific advisory board for the American Gastroenterological Association Center for Gut Microbiome Research and Education.
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The tricky thing: Unlike say, cholesterol levels, there’s no one definition or measurement for what defines good gut health. And there’s no ideal ratio of microorganisms.
“There’s so much inter-individual variability. What may be present and healthy in one person could look very different in another person,” says Dr. Claire Fraser, PhD, professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Everyone’s body determines its own homeostasis — where they are in harmony and don’t have any symptoms,” says Dr. Kashyap.
So, in a broad sense, that means if you have a strong appetite, eat well, have a normal-for-you bowel pattern and generally feel good, your gut is doing OK.
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When Your Gut’s Out of Whack
“The interaction of the microbiome and humans as the host is like an ecosystem and as complex as a rainforest,” says Dr. Fraser. A number of factors can mess with the balance in your microbiome, including medication, diet and stress.
For example, a seven-day course of antibiotics may shift the balance of bacteria, eliminating the good right along with the bad. Also, eating a diet full of easily digested and quickly absorbed simple sugars and carbs leaves little food for the gut microbes in your colon to munch on. Instead, they scavenge for nutrients, often nibbling at your own gut lining.
“When your gut isn’t working well, you can have a whole range of symptoms,” says Dr. Kashyap. Think: losing your desire to eat, experiencing changes in your bathroom breaks and fluctuations in weight.
As mentioned, it’s important to pay attention to your individual bowel movements, as there’s a range of what’s considered healthy and normal. While general guidelines say you should go number two once a day, some people might go every other day or twice a day. As long as that’s your normal pattern and you’re not having loose stools or feel constipated, you’re good to go. Even if you have a change here or there, the gut should bounce back pretty quickly. If it happens a few times a week, however, that’s when it’s time to mention it to your doctor.
Another important thing to note: You can’t fixate on a 24-hour period, Dr. Kashyap says. “Everyone, in day-to-day life, will have some pain or variability,” he says. “More alarming features are small amounts of blood in the stool and severe pain with cramping which is persistent over time. This is telling you there’s likely something wrong with the gut and you should see your doctor.” Other red flags: diarrhea that persists for more than a few days, fever, and severe or recurring abdominal pain (say, if you can’t stand up or your belly is tender to the touch).
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Tend to Your Flora
All of this isn’t to say that your gut is a delicate garden. One cupcake (or day of cupcakes) won’t trample every good flower, er, bacteria. It’s tough to cause serious or permanent damage after a day of an unhealthy eating, Dr. Kashyap says. A few simple strategies for tending to your gut flora will help it thrive, though.
“Consuming a diet rich in fiber will provide nutrients for the bacteria since they rely completely on humans for food,” says Dr. Kashyap. Focus on a Mediterranean diet (legumes and whole grains welcome). Fermented foods — think sauerkraut, kombucha and pickles — will also provide some fertilization for your good bacteria to grow, as will yogurt. Other key habits: Regular physical activity and avoiding antibiotics — both in your food and at the doctor’s office. “Antibiotics are used a lot in agriculture so if you eat a lot of meat, be aware of your sources,” says Dr. Fraser.
As for probiotic supplements? The jury’s still out on those popular pills. “If you’re having some constipation or GI distress, you might try taking a probiotic, but the science behind it is in its infancy,” says Dr. Fraser. “There’s some science…but there haven’t been well-designed clinical trials to look at the efficacy of probiotics to treat various conditions.” Dr. Kashyap also notes that the government doesn’t regulate probiotic supplements so it’s hard to tell what exactly is in them.
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The Bottom Line on Bacteria
While a ton of exciting research continues to emerge on gut health and your microbiome, the field is still in its early stages. “If you look at some of the studies that have been published and the changes in the microbiome associated with diseases, these are interesting associations but oftentimes we don’t have cause and effect data,” says Dr. Fraser. “Even before we have all the answers, avoiding antibiotics [whenever possible] and eating a healthy diet can go a long way to feeding and caring for your gut microbiome.”