Gut Health

10 Surprising Signs Your Gut-Brain Axis May Be Out of Balance

“I can’t remember a day when I didn’t wake up tired,” my friend Natasha, a 34-year-old consultant who works on Wall Street, shared with me.

“By the time I go to bed, I’m exhausted and sore all over, but I can’t fall asleep…my mind races and I can’t stop stressing about everything I have on my plate. And all day long I feel trapped by moodiness and constant brain fog.”

It seems like these days most of us relate to Natasha…

Many of us wake up groggy, going through the motions until we can have that first sweet sip of our national drug of choice: coffee.

We need to re-up with caffeine again and again throughout the day to try and elevate our brains out of the fog they’re endlessly enveloped in.

When we make it to the weekend, we often can’t find the energy to do what we love. Even when we do, it’s hard to be fully present as one worry after another passes through our minds…

“It feels like my ‘normal’ is what I once would have considered being sick or unwell,” Natasha continued…

Just five years ago if you’d asked me why Natasha was feeling anxious, and inexplicably fatigued, I would’ve thought it was something brain-related…but now, my ‘gut instinct’ points me away from brain health, and instead, directly to her digestive tract…

Yes, you heard me right—all of these ‘mental’ symptoms may come down to something going on in our guts, specifically an imbalance of the bacteria found there.

In each of our digestive tracts, collectively known as the gut, lives a community of trillions of microorganisms (largely bacteria). These organisms are referred to as our gut microbiome (sometimes called our microflora or microbiota).

Our digestive tracts are linked to our brains through the Gut-Brain Axis, a bidirectional communication system that allows the gut microbiome to communicate directly with the brain. (R)

New research shows how your gut communicates to the brain, and when the gut bacteria are out of balance, that communication can get messed up. When this happens it’s called Gut-Brain Axis Dysfunction, or G-BAD. (R) When this occurs, we can experience problems not only with digestion but with mood and cognitive function as well.

But how can you know if your gut-brain axis is not functioning properly?

While digestive troubles can queue that something is going on, not everyone with an imbalance in their gut microbiome will experience these problems. Many of us will exhibit signs that have nothing to do with digestion!

Read on to find out 10 of the most common signs of G-BAD that have nothing to do with digestive distress.

1. You’re Fighting a Constant War Against Moodiness

We all have days where even the smallest of things get to us—the problem is when this irritability never goes away. Moodiness that doesn’t fade robs us of the joys life provides…

But what exactly controls our mood?

Biologically speaking, hormones and neurotransmitters are primarily responsible for how irritable or cheerful we feel. And it’s not just the human part of us that’s capable of producing these chemicals.

Recent studies show the bacteria in your gut, known as your microbiome, are actually responsible for the majority of the neurotransmitters released inside your body…

That means they play an integral role in how much serotonin (your body’s feel-good chemical) is released…or ‘not released’… Studies are now showing this can have a major influence on your mood throughout the day. (R)

If your emotions seem to fall outside of your control, it may be chemicals produced by mood-busting microbes hijacking the way you feel each day.

2. You’re Anxious, Even When Everything is Going Well

We all experience anxiety at one point or another, but feeling overly stressed on a regular basis signals trouble. Anxiety has a huge impact on our daily lives, from how well we do at work to the health of the relationships that matter most.

Studies have found alterations in our gut microbiome composition can result in an increased incidence of anxiety. (R)

A change in the different strains of bacteria inside of your microbiome is commonly caused by taking antibiotic medications. If you have ever taken antibiotics and felt anxious or moody for weeks or months afterward, you’re not alone.

Researchers have found changes in the gut microbiome diversity caused by antibiotic medications may increase the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms thanks to a variety of pathways.

When researchers examined a large population in the United Kingdom, they discovered that a single course of antibiotics was associated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety. Recurrent treatment was linked to an even higher risk of these conditions. (R)

3. You’re Tired All Day, Even After a Good Night’s Rest

Are you tired all the time, no matter how much you slept the night before? Persistent fatigue is a sign something is wrong, and the culprit may reside in your gut.

Researchers have found that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) patients have a dysbiotic gut microbiome makeup with low levels of Bifido species. (R) While more studies need to be conducted on healthy volunteers, it’s not a stretch to think that other people suffering from fatigue without an identifiable source may also want to address their gut issues…

It’s worth noting many patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) have psychological troubles too—think anxiety, difficulties focusing, or depression—symptoms that have been connected in other research to an out-of-balance gut.

Scientists have found supplementation with psybiotic supplements (psybiotics are a new classification of probiotic bacteria, aimed at helping the Gut-Brain Axis) in CFS patients led to decreased anxiety and enhanced gut microbiome diversity when compared to a placebo group, demonstrating that enhanced microbiome diversity may help those suffering from fatigue and mood disorders.

If you experience fatigue symptoms that seem to come from nowhere and don’t fade with proper sleep, you may too suffer from an imbalance of gut bacteria contributing to your fatigue.

4. You’re Always Fighting ‘Brain Fog’

‘Brain fog’ is a term describing impaired cognitive function. Those suffering from ‘brain fog’ tend to have trouble concentrating and remembering things, and often feel fatigued. It’s like going through life in a sort of haze, where nothing is as sharp as it once was.

While there are likely many causes of brain fog, having too much ‘bad bacteria’ and not enough ‘good bacteria’ in our guts may be to blame…

And an altered microbiome diversity can lead to systemic inflammation as well as reduced synaptic plasticity, which means your brain cells aren’t able to communicate with one another as well as they could before. (R) This can lead to thinking that feels a bit slower and difficulty remembering things.

When inflammatory molecules from your gut travel throughout your body, they can cause problems for the health and function of your brain. (R) Symptoms can include memory troubles, depression, and anxiety. Reduced synaptic plasticity too can lead to troubles with memory and cognitive function.

When you combine the effects of a dysfunctional gut microbiome, you can experience what many describe as a foggy brain, where you have trouble thinking and may be easily frustrated.

5. You Can’t Focus

Do you sit down at your desk preparing to study or finish a presentation for work, and find yourself unable to concentrate for more than a handful of minutes at a time? Maybe you find that your mind fatigues quickly, or you just read the same sentence over-and-over without any real understanding.

By adjusting the bacteria in the gut with prebiotic and probiotic supplements, researchers have been able to enhance focus is multiple studies. (R) In one study, prebiotic supplements boosted the performance of healthy participants in an emotional attention task.

Another study on healthy volunteers found probiotic supplements to slow cognitive fatigue, signalling an increased ability to concentrate and perform well for long periods of time.

6. You’re More Forgetful Than You Once Were

We all grapple with forgetfulness here-and-there, not knowing where we put our keys or spacing on the name of the person we just met. But when these occurrences become the new norm, the quality of daily life can be dramatically impacted. Proper memory formation is imperative for performing our best at work and remembering our loved one’s birthdays and the commitments we make.

Butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid metabolite produced by the gut microbiome, is a critical part of long-term memory formation. In animal studies it’s been found to facilitate memory and neuronal plasticity, even boosting memory performance in an animal model of Alzheimer’s disease. (R)

Both healthy individuals and those with neurodegenerative conditions can experience increased forgetfulness when the gut microbiome is out of balance.

7. You Crave Sugar, Even When You Aren’t Hungry

You finish dinner and you’re full to the brim, but before you feel satisfied, you need to get some dessert. Your sweet-tooth cravings just won’t calm down until you top your meal off with some well-deserved sugar.

Recent research suggests that it’s not always your brain that’s telling you to get some of that sweet stuff ASAP…it may be certain bacteria in your gut that feed off of sugar, instead! (R)

That because your microbiome includes species of bacteria that love fiber, those that feed off of fat, and those that feed off of simple sugars…

And these bacteria each have their own way of asking you for what they want…

The more you feed them, the more their population grows, and eventually, your cravings for sugar can overtake your logical response when you really don’t need more food.

8. You Aren’t as Happy as You Used to Be

Whether you suffer from severe depression or intermittently experience depression symptoms, your gut health appears to play a role. Multiple studies have confirmed that a lack of gut microbiome diversity is tied to major depressive disorder and other mood disorders. (R)

While researchers are still uncovering which came first, the depression or the gut microbiota imbalance, they agree that these two are tied.

One animal study suggests that depression may stem from a particular microbiome composition. (R) When researchers transferred the microbiome from a depressed rat into a healthy rat, the healthy rats became depressed as well…

And human studies have found promising results when it comes to using probiotics to improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression. (R)

In one such study, patients suffering from major depressive disorder were given either a placebo or a special class of probiotics known as ‘psybiotics’ for 8 weeks, with clinical signs of depression measured before and after treatment. (R)

Following supplementation, those in the psybiotic group saw a statistically significant reduction in their depression scores when compared to those in the placebo group.

9. You Get Sick Often and Don’t Recover Quickly

With 70% of your immune system residing in your gut, it may not come as a surprise that getting sick frequently and struggling to get healthy again may be a sign that your gut microbiome isn’t balanced.

And scientists have demonstrated that a healthy gut microbiome may protect against colds. (R)

Researchers took 272 healthy adults and had them take either a placebo or a probiotic supplement daily for 12 weeks. During this period, researchers found that those who took the probiotic were less likely to catch a cold. For those who did catch a cold the cold was on average shorter and less severe when compared with those who took the placebo.

If you keep getting sick and feel like you can’t get back to healthy, a dysfunctional gut microbiome may be partly to blame.

10. You Struggle to Lose Weight and Keep it Off

If you battle with weight loss and cannot lose weight no matter what you do, it’s likely that your gut microbiota is playing a role behind the curtain.

Studies have found that losing weight is much more in-depth than the “calories in vs calories out” tale we’ve been told, and differences in the composition of our gut microbiome offer a clue as to why this may be. (R)

Researchers have discovered that the gut microbial makeup is different in people who are overweight when compared to those who are not…and they can change not just how much energy we absorb from what we eat but also our genes involved in how we store and burn these calories.

What this means is that two people can eat the exact same meal, but one of them will actually absorb more of the food that they eat, while the other one will simply pass it through. At the same time, these microbes can impact our genes, influencing metabolism and how we store the energy from the food we eat.

This understanding has led researchers to study how probiotic supplements can make weight loss easier by balancing the gut.

In one study, overweight women who were given a probiotic in combination with a weight-reduction program experienced a greater decrease in food cravings and hunger scores when compared to women in the same program who were given a placebo. (R)

The women who took the probiotic also lost more weight, suggesting that these changes made it easier for them to lose weight thanks to changes in their gut microbiomes.

What About Digestive Troubles?

When most people think of gut-issues, they think of gas, bloating, constipation, loose stools, pain, and acid reflux, but the reality is that not everyone will experience poor digestion when their gut microbiome is dysfunctional.

It’s important to look at the whole picture when examining if you’re suffering from a messed up gut. While many people will experience troubles with mood, energy, digestion, and more all at once, others will only have signs that fall under one category or the other.

And if your only signs are related to non-digestive symptoms, many doctors and health professionals will miss them.

What Should You Do If You Believe Your Gut Microbiome is Imbalanced?

Now that you know a few of the signs that may point to Gut-Brain Axis Dysfunction you must be wondering what you can do to fix it. Fortunately, there are many lifestyle changes that you can make to turn around the health of your gut, and with it, your mood and overall quality of life.

To learn more about what causes G-BAD and what you can do to fix it, check out our article here.

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