10 Signs of an Unhealthy Gut [According to a Dietitian]

Did you know that inside your body there’s a hidden superhero called the gut? It’s another word for the gastrointestinal system or GI tract.

Beyond the superficial aspects of health, the gut plays a pivotal role in digestion, immunity, weight, and even emotional balance.

However, an increasing number of individuals find themselves grappling with the consequences of an imbalance in this system, leading to a myriad of health issues.

Understanding the signs of an unhealthy gut will empower you to regain control and restore vitality to your life.

Signs of an Unhealthy Gut

unhealthy gut

Gas & Bloating

During the digestion of food and nutrients, it’s normal for gas to form in the intestines. For some, however, the intestinal gas gets to the point of severe bloating and embarrassing flatulence.

The Mayo Clinic’s definition of excessive gas is passing gas, belching or flatulence more than 20 times per day. If the belly looks bloated and excessive gas is being passed, it’s a sign that your gut is having a hard time processing and eliminating the food you’re eating. 

Discomfort After Eating and Drinking

Discomfort after eating and drinking could be another sign of issues in the gut. However, this discomfort feels different for different people.

For some, it’s a feeling of extreme fullness after eating a “normal”-sized meal. For others, it’s an unsettling feeling in the stomach that could be described as “gurgling” or “twisting.”


This is defined as a condition in which stool becomes dried out and difficult to pass. Constipation is characterized by three or fewer bowel movements per week.

Stool can become dried out when it sits in the colon for too long before being excreted. This is a sign that the gut is unable to function efficiently and is passing stool too slowly.


The opposite of constipation, diarrhea, is another sign of an unhealthy gut. Diarrhea is defined as having loose, watery stool three or more times per day.

Having diarrhea indicates that the processes in the gastrointestinal system are moving too quickly and excreting contents before the body has a chance to absorb vitamins and minerals. 

Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is characterized by bile and acid from the stomach flowing upward into the esophagus.

The upward flow of stomach contents is caused by a dysfunction or weakness in the lower part of the esophagus, known as the lower esophageal sphincter. The weakness in the sphincter makes it possible for contents from the stomach to pass back into the esophagus, causing a burning feeling commonly known as heartburn. 

Weight Gain or Weight Loss

An unhealthy gut affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, regulate sugar, and manage fat.

For this reason, it can often cause unexplained weight loss or gain. If you’re experiencing weight changes without changing your eating or exercise habits, it might be an unhealthy gut. 

Changes in Mood

The bacteria in the gut, or gut microbiome, is responsible for 95% of the serotonin released in the body. Serotonin is a chemical that is carried throughout the brain and body and plays a key role in mood, digestion, and sleep. As you can see, mood swings can be a result of an unbalanced gut. 


Research is still emerging about how poor gut health can lead to feelings of fatigue. When the gut isn’t healthy, it’s possible that the unhealthy bacteria trigger an inflammatory response in the body which causes feelings of fatigue. 

Skin Irritation

New research is showing that skin disorders such as eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea could be related to gut health. The gut microbiome, or bacteria in your intestines, is related to skin and skin disorders.

Thus, improving gut health is a great way to improve your skin and complexion. 

New Food Intolerances

Food intolerance, also known as food sensitivity, is a chemical response to a food or ingredient found in food. Some intolerances are genetic and can be detected during childhood. Others don’t arise until later in life and can seem random.

A new food intolerance might be a sign of an unhealthy gut. An overload of bad bacteria in the gut might make it more difficult to tolerate foods.

10 signs of an unhealthy gut infographic

5 Tips to Improve Gut Health 

Gut health is a complex issue and may require trial and error to find what works for you. Here are some tips to help improve the health of your GI tract:

Add Probiotics and Prebiotics to Your Diet

Probiotics are food or supplements that contain live microorganisms that assist in balancing the gut microbiome. Prebiotics are a form of fiber that feed the good bacteria in the gut.

kimchi is a great source of probiotics

Sources of probiotics include yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha.

Prebiotics are found in high-fiber foods such as asparagus, legumes, and berries.

When shopping for a probiotic supplement, it’s important to look at the label and make sure that the supplement contains live bacteria cultures.

Adults can safely consume between 30-50 billion live cultures. However, a 2015 study showed that 10-20 billion is all we really need. 

Read this blog post to learn more about the difference between probiotics and prebiotics.

Drink Enough Water 

Drinking enough water has been proven to aid in digestion by assisting with the breakdown of food. Studies have also revealed that drinking enough water can diversify the bacteria in your gut and decrease the number of “bad” bacteria.

Cucumber water

What’s more, staying hydrated is also a key component in preventing constipation by making the stool softer and increasing the flow through the intestines.

The Mayo Clinic recommends that women should be drinking 11.5 cups of water per day, while men should be drinking 15.5 cups per day.


Move Your Body

Getting regular exercise has many proven benefits, including reducing inflammation, supporting mental health, and improving body composition.

Move more with friends and family

Exercise is also a key component in gut health. Research suggests that exercise enhances the diversity of the gut microbiome and increases the beneficial bacteria within it.

The American Heart Association recommends that adults should get up to 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise.

For tips to heal your gut, check out this post.

Eat Less Sugar

Eating too much sugar can lead to a decrease in healthy gut bacteria and an increase in unhealthy bacteria.

Incorporating natural sources of sweetness, like fruit, is a great way to reduce your sugar intake while still enjoying a sweet treat.

In addition, artificial sweeteners should be avoided, as they are highly processed and can have a negative effect on the gut microbiome. As a general rule, it’s best to avoid foods that contain artificial sweeteners such as diet sodas, candy, or packaged desserts.

For more tips about how to detox from sugar, visit this blog post.

Sleep More

One of the most powerful things you can do to improve your health is to sleep enough. In terms of gut health, studies show that high-quality sleep can increase microbiome diversity.

The Bottom Line

Every day we learn more about how powerful the gut is to the point that experts are calling it the second brain.

So it’s easy to see how working on improving gut health can go a long way to improving our overall physical and mental health.

If this article was helpful, check out some other blog posts related to this topic! 

Try this tasty smoothie for a quick, easy and delicious way to improve your gut health.

This post was written by dietetic intern Natalie Larsen. Edited by Dr. Su-Nui Escobar, DCN, RDN, FAND.

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