Digestive problems affect everyone at some point in life, but when you feel persistent heartburn, bloating, or other gastrointestinal distress, it may be time to take another look at your gut health. A healthy digestive system contains beneficial bacteria that break down and extract nutrients from food. Although an important job on its own, these helpful microbes do a lot more than process food for us.

The bacteria in your gut, otherwise known as gut flora, have numerous impacts on your health and well-being. Along with providing nutrients and setting a metabolic rate, a healthy gut flora supports the immune system and can even impact your mental health. If you have an imbalance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria, your gut flora is considered to be in a state of “dysbiosis.” Dysbiosis is thought to contribute to a wide range of health issues, from IBS to diabetes, and may play a role in some mental health issues as well.

Signs of an Unhealthy Gut

There are numerous symptoms of dysbiosis. Some are temporary and go away after dietary changes, while others persist and can cause discomfort, pain, or more serious medical issues. If you experience digestive problems that won’t go away after changing your diet or taking probiotics, there may be underlying issues that are best handled by a medical professional. Here is a list of symptoms associated with an unhealthy gut.

• Abdominal pain

• Bloating

• Loose stools or constipation

• Heartburn

• Nausea or vomiting

• Sudden weight loss

• Pain while eating

A Gut-Healthy Diet

Usually, the best way to improve your gut health is by improving your diet. For a well-rounded nutritious diet, avoid foods that are highly processed, high in sugar, or especially fatty. Instead, opt for foods that are plant-based, contain lean protein, or that are high in fiber. These foods are considered prebiotics and have all of the nutrients required to promote healthy gut flora. Here are a few tips to encourage a healthy gut.

• Eat more whole grains, lentils, and nuts

• Include fresh fruits and vegetables with lots of fiber

• Go for yogurt containing live cultures

• Choose white meat over red meat

• Avoid excess caffeine, sugar, and fatty foods

If you feel like you lack good bacteria, you might want to consider taking probiotic supplements. Probiotics can help you maintain a healthy microbial balance, but not all supplements are made the same. It’s best to talk to a healthcare professional about your diet and digestive issues so that they can help you choose the right probiotic for your gut.

Healthy Gut, Healthy Body

Your gut is responsible for some critical functions in your body. Aside from absorbing nutrients for you, the beneficial microbes in your gut also help strengthen your immune system, reduce inflammation throughout your body, and improve your mood, energy, and overall mental health. On top of this, healthy bacteria also protect your intestinal tract and prevent the growth of harmful microbes and pathogens.

Although they are occasionally medically necessary, antibiotics can have a catastrophic effect on the health of your gut flora. This is because they tend to wipe out bacteria indiscriminately, leaving your digestive tract susceptible to pathogens and other nasty microbial growth. If you require antibiotics, talk to your doctor about incorporating probiotic foods or supplements into your diet to avoid dysbiosis.

Mental Health and the Gut

Recent scientific studies diving into the connection between the mind and gut have found that patients with psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety tend to have differences in the composition of their gut flora. This makes sense when you find out that an estimated 90% of serotonin, the happiness chemical, is produced in the gut. The gut also helps create a number of other neurotransmitters that are beneficial to your mental health, including dopamine.

All that is to say that your gut likely plays a significant role in your mental health. If you are experiencing mental health issues, don’t forgo treatment in the form of therapy or prescribed medication in favor of dietary supplements. Instead, it’s best that you talk to your doctors about ways in which you can improve your gut health and how this might benefit your mental health.