But if you don’t experience digestive distress, can tolerate most foods well, and pass solid BMs on a consistent basis, does that indicate that your gut microbiome is in tip-top shape?
Can you have great digestion despite gut imbalances?
Gut microbiome researcher Nathan Price, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at Thorne, gets right into things, saying it’s not truly possible to have stellar digestion if you don’t have a healthy gut. “There is more to digestion than the clear signs we are all too familiar with, such as bloating, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, or gas,” says Dr. Price. “Digestion breaks down food into nutrients, which the body uses for energy, growth, and cell repair—all of which are essential for the body’s needs to work properly and stay healthy.” If your gut is imbalanced, you may (or may not) experience manifestations of digestive discomfort, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
If your gut is imbalanced, you may (or may not) experience manifestations of digestive discomfort, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
“The gut microbiome impacts our digestion in many ways that are harder to feel and only become visible through testing,” Dr. Price continues. “For example, some bacteria will break down compounds in our food and make byproducts that can be harmful to heart health. They can also transform health-promoting nutrients, blocking their absorption into our bodies.”
In addition, your microbiome impacts how you break down macronutrients. Dr. Price offers another illustration: If your microbiome digests complex carbohydrates more into simple sugars than other compounds that promote good health, you may experience a greater spike in blood sugar—and thus may experience accompanying side effects. “In fact, studies have shown that our responses to food we digest and how it affects our blood sugar is actually predictable from your individual microbiome, which has major consequences for personalized nutrition recommendations,” Dr. Price says.
Simply put, digestion is a complex process that goes well beyond how you feel after consuming food and how comfortably (and often) you pass bowel movements. “If you don’t have a healthy gut, then that is always going to impair your digestion to one degree or another,” Dr. Price reiterates.
“If you don’t have a healthy gut, then that is always going to impair your digestion to one degree or another,” Dr. Price reiterates.
Additional signs of poor gut health
Symptoms associated with digestive discomfort aren’t the only signs indicating that your gut may be in bad shape. In fact, there are plenty of instances in which gut imbalances could be causing you to feel unwell.
Dr. Price reminds us that most of serotonin—an all-important neurotransmitter for mental health—is produced in the gut. So if you’re feeling more down or anxious than usual, or even routinely struggle with mental health challenges, nurturing your gut could very well translate into discernible benefits for your mind and mood.
If you’re feeling more down or anxious than usual, or even routinely struggle with mental health challenges, nurturing your gut could very well translate into discernible benefits for your mind and mood.
“Serotonin also is involved in a wide range of biological processes, including bone health, healing from wounds, blood clotting, and sexual desire,” Dr. Price says. He also mentions that gut imbalances can contribute to fatigue and will often interfere with how well you sleep at night. (These callouts only scratch the surface, as your gut will impact countless other aspects of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.)
Simple tips to support your gut (and how to gain clarity on how healthy it truly is)
Whether or not you feel like your digestion isn’t as optimal as it once was or could be, it’s never a bad idea to take proactive steps to support your gut health. Fortunately, this could be as simple as finding a healthy outlet to manage stress, whatever that may be.
As far as diet goes, Dr. Price recommends staying hydrated and eating high-fiber foods, many of which offer prebiotic perks. (Note: While not all dietary fibers are prebiotics, all prebiotics are dietary fibers.) While probiotics tend to hog the spotlight in conversations around gut health, Dr. Price emphasizes just how crucial prebiotics are. “Studies have shown more long-lasting changes in the microbiome and gut health by altering the foods that feed your microbiome (prebiotics) over the introduction of new bacteria (probiotics) that often have trouble competing to survive and persist,” he explains.
This isn’t to say that you should pass up your go-to probiotic foods or supplements; prebiotics and probiotics work synergistically, with the former promoting the latter’s chance to thrive for the long term. Tip: Some fermented foods can pack both prebiotics and probiotics—including some personal faves, kimchi and sauerkraut—offering two-in-one support.
Finally, if you make these adjustments and still get the sense that your gut health isn’t optimal, it’s probably time to dig deeper. “You can do individualized testing of your microbiome and get personalized insights backed by science,” Dr. Price explains. He recommends Thorne’s Gut Health Test, an at-home stool test that measures good and bad bacteria, pathogens, micronutrients, and much more. “Importantly, what you can do is take a test, do the intervention, and then test again to make sure you are getting the changes you really want to see.”