By Kristina Katz, M.D.
A bagel for breakfast. A salad for lunch. A bowl of pasta for dinner.
Whatever you eat throughout the day is broken down by the bacteria in your digestive system so that nutrients can be absorbed and put to use by your body.
When your digestive system is functioning well, your body is getting the nutrition it needs as efficiently as possible.
However, when this system is out of balance, it can cause discomfort and sometimes lead to more serious health issues.
If you regularly experience bloating, gas, or other uncomfortable symptoms, talk with your physician. Your symptoms could mean that you have an imbalance in your digestive system that needs treatment.
How Your Digestive System and GI Tract Work
Your digestive system—comprising your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder—has the important role of digesting the foods you eat and liquids you drink so your body can benefit from the nutrients they provide. Nutrients give you energy, and support cell growth and repair.
When you eat, food passes through the GI tract. There, food mixes with digestive juices and bacteria that break it into smaller molecules your body can use. The body absorbs these molecules through the walls of the small intestine and then moves them through the bloodstream. Whatever your body doesn’t absorb continues through the GI tract to the large intestine, or colon, before becoming waste.
The bacteria that live in your GI tract—or gut—help with digestion and keep your body free of bad bacteria. As good bacteria multiply, they leave little space for unhealthy bacteria to grow.
Imbalance Linked to Chronic Conditions
Your gut is home to more than 100 trillion bacteria that are formed at birth. While friendly gut bacteria help your body, developing harmful bacteria can be dangerous for your body.
When the bacteria in your digestive system become imbalanced it is called dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis can be linked to chronic gastrointestinal diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, as well as liver disease, obesity, heart disease, and dozens of other conditions.
There are a number of factors that can cause dysbiosis, including genetics, environmental factors, and especially the overuse of antibiotics. While antibiotics help kill harmful bacteria that can cause illness and disease, they can also kill the good bacteria that help keep your gut microbiome in balance.
Other factors that can cause dysbiosis include:
• Eating a narrow range of foods can limit the number of nutrients your body needs to help good bacteria grow.
• Consuming too much alcohol and/or not enough water.
• Not consuming enough prebiotic fiber which can be found in foods such as bananas, garlic, and onions.
• Smoking cigarettes.
• Getting little to no physical activity.
• Not getting enough sleep.
How to Stay Healthy
Developing a healthy lifestyle can support good bacteria growth in your body and provide long-term benefits. It can also lead to better overall health.
To protect your gut and body, you should:
• Drink plenty of water and avoid or limit your alcohol intake.
• Eat a balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, chicken, and fish. Avoid red meat.
• Avoid artificial sweeteners, foods that are high in sugar, and processed foods.
• Exercise regularly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity activity or some combination of both.
• Make time for sleep. Adults 18 and older need 7 to 10 hours of sleep per night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
• Take antibiotics only when appropriately indicated and at the recommendation of a physician.
• See a dentist. Dental problems can lead to bacterial imbalances in your mouth that impact your digestive system.
• Develop tools that work for you to help reduce anxiety and stress, such as exercise, socializing, and mindfulness techniques.
When to Seek Medical Attention
Signs that you may have developed an imbalance of the gut bacteria include:
• Bad breath
• Unexplained weight loss
• Abdominal pain
Any of these symptoms should be brought to your physician’s attention.
Your physician will first take steps to assess whether you are suffering from dysbiosis. They will want to first obtain a detailed clinical history and may request a stool sample and/or breath test. Sometimes evaluation with an upper endoscopy, colonoscopy, or both may be necessary.
If your physician suspects a gut microbiome imbalance, they may prescribe a course of specialized antibiotics or suggest lifestyle and dietary changes. A probiotic, which can be found in pill form or in foods like yogurt of kefir, may also be used to help restore bacterial balance.
If something more serious is involved, such as inflammatory bowel disease, digestive enzyme deficiency or even malignancy, physicians can take steps to identify the issue and provide the appropriate treatment plan before the condition progresses.
By keeping your GI tract healthy, you can keep the rest of your body healthy too.
To find a gastroenterologist affiliated with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 1-888-742-7496 or visit www.princetonhcs.org.
Kristina Katz, MD, is a board certified gastroenterologist on the medical staff of Penn Medicine Princeton Health.