Do you need to improve your gut microbiome? What does it even mean to have ‘bad’ gut bacteria? Here’s how to tell if your gut microbiome is off-balance and what to do about it according to the experts.
Improving your gut health is a mainstream concept now. But before you drop money on probiotics or time on elimination diets, it’s important to know whether you have a problem with your microbiome in the first place.
First off, it’s worth explaining a little about gut bacteria. It’s more complicated than categorising them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ strains, says Kim Plaza, a technical advisor to probiotic brand Bio-Kult. In fact, there are four different types of bacteria that live in our gut:
· Benign bacteria – has neither a negative nor positive effect on us as the host
· Beneficial bacteria – both the bacteria and the human host benefit from this relationship, so these are known as our ‘good’ bacteria
· Pathogenic bacteria – these are often referred to as ‘bad’ bacteria and are capable of causing us disease
· Opportunistic – These may be benign or beneficial when they exist in low levels. However, they are capable of causing disease if there is too much of it in the body, and at this point, they can become pathogenic ‘bad’ bacteria
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“It is really a question of balance and diversity when it comes to our gut bacteria,” say Professor Barbara Ryan and registered dietitian Elaine McGowan, aka @TheGutExperts. “Many bacteria are not ‘bad’ in and of themselves but are deemed unhealthy if the balance in the gut is wrong.”
What are the symptoms of bad gut bacteria?
There are obvious signs that your balance of these strains is off. These include:
“If you’re bloating two hours or more after eating, it could suggest that harmful bacteria are fermenting the food in the intestines and producing gases and by-products that cause bloat,” says Plaza.
If you are struggling to poo, Plaza says it might suggest that your gut microbiome has an overgrowth of potentially harmful bacteria. “Those more harmful bacteria produce chemicals in the gut that can slow down stool motility. The slower the transit, the more water is taken out of the stool, leaving the stool hard to pass,” explains Plaza.
There are a number of potential causes of diarrhoea and gut bacteria can be one of them. Interestingly, Plaza says this can be down to how the gut produces serotonin.
“Serotonin is a neurotransmitter produced in the gut by intestinal cells and can be regulated by the gut microbiome. The hormone can speed up the muscular movements within the digestive tract to move contents through quicker and excrete them from the body,” she says.
Studies show that those with diarrhoea have higher circulating levels of serotonin than those with constipation, supporting the belief that an imbalance of gut bacteria changes levels of the hormone production.
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But the signs of poor bacteria don’t end there. Hussain Abdeh, superintendent pharmacist at Medicine Direct, says that because of how the gut impacts all areas of our health, other bodily signs can also show you have an off-balance microbiome.
“If you feel constantly fatigued or have trouble sleeping, it could be a sign of an imbalance of bacteria in the gut because of how much serotonin impacts sleep,” he says.
“Being intolerant to certain foods is also a sign of a bacterial imbalance. As a result, it may cause symptoms like flatulence, diarrhoea, bloating, and nausea,” adds Abdeh. Research suggests that the microbiome we have when we are babies can influence whether we develop allergies. As an adult, if we lack certain bacteria that breaks down specific foods, we may find these harder to digest or have an intolerance. For example, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium are linked with breaking down lactose.
How to reduce bad bacteria
One of the main reasons for an imbalance of strains can thrive is simply because there isn’t enough good bacteria. It’s been shown that the good stuff can produce antibiotic-like substances called bacteriocins that kill harmful bacteria. That’s why it’s best to focus on building a healthy microbiome, rather than trying to get rid of the bad bacteria.
That means avoiding ultra-processed foods that feed the bad bacteria and instead opt for a high-fibre, diverse diet. “Whole foods, rainbow-coloured vegetables, legumes, healthy fats and fermented foods help maintain a healthy gut microbiome,” says Plaza.
Taking probiotics can be useful for some people, but it’s important to find one that works for you; if you already have an overgrowth of certain strains, you don’t want to be taking more of them. “Multi-strain probiotics have been shown to be able to exert more positive benefits and reach more areas of the gastrointestinal tract, therefore being able to help a more diverse range of digestive disorders,” says Plaza.
Plus, reducing stress at meal times and in your day-to-day life can support your immunity, gut health and microbiome. “Relax before eating,” says Plaza. “Find somewhere quiet away from distractions and chew your food well to manually start the digestive process.”
Crucially, The Gut Experts add that conditions such as IBS are not always associated with bad gut bacteria and there are many other reasons why someone might develop digestive conditions. “Commercial testing of gut bacteria really isn’t of clinical or practical value at this point and we would not recommend it as there is no way of increasing the level of one specific bacteria or reducing another in any meaningful way,” she says.
And finally, it’s always best to talk to your GP if you’re worried about your gut health, especially before buying expensive solutions to a problem you might not have.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).