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What Is Gut Dysbiosis? Causes, Symptoms, & Gut-Healing Diet

Gut dysbiosis refers to a imbalance of gut microbiota in your gastrointestinal tract that can result in various health issues. 

Experts estimate that around 100 trillion bacteria and other microbes live in the digestive tract. They are collectively called the gut microbiome. The microbiome consists of a mixture of beneficial and harmful bacteria, with good bacteria vastly outnumbering the dangerous kind.

A graphical image of a human stomach, liver, intestines, and intestinal bacteria with text that reads microbiome.

Gut dysbiosis occurs when harmful bacteria outnumber the good kind. Eventually, this bacterial imbalance can lead to unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms and health problems.

In fact, an imbalance in gut microbiota is associated with many conditions, including infections, obesity, atherosclerosis, hypertension, heart failure, type 2 diabetes, and chronic kidney disease. Dysbiosis is also associated with many gastrointestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome.

How can an imbalance of gut microbes lead to such varied health conditions? Thanks to the gut-brain axis, gut bacteria communicate with the brain and vice versa, causing symptoms and conditions that go way beyond the digestive system. For example, the immune system is located in the gut, which affects the entire body.

A graphical image of a transparent human body with intestines with images and names of good and bad bacteria on either side of him with explanatory text. Explanatory text is described below.

 Explanatory Text

Good Bacteria: Lactococcus, Lactobacillus, Lactobacillus bifidus.

Bad Bacteria: Clostridium perfringens, staphylococcus, Escherichia coli.

End Explanatory Text

What Are The Symptoms of Gut Dysbiosis?

The most apparent symptoms of gut dysbiosis include:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn
  • Upset stomach
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bad breath
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia


An image of a mature woman sitting on a bed holding her stomach in pain.

Conditions Associated With Gut Dysbiosis

Conditions associated with gut dysbiosis include:

  • Leaky Gut
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), i.e., ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease
  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth
  • Central nervous system disorders, i.e., Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, etc.
  • Celiac disease
  • Autoimmune disorders, i.e., rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, lupus
  • Weight gain
  • Obesity
  • Food sensitivities
  • Allergies
  • Diabetes
  • Candida (a type of yeast infection)
  • Memory lapses
  • Trouble focusing
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Vaginal or rectal itching

What Causes Dysbiosis?

There are several potential causes of gut dysbiosis.

Antibiotic Usage

Antibiotics are medications that destroy bacteria and are used to treat bacterial infections. However, they are an equal opportunity destroyer, killing both "good" and "bad" bacteria, which can disrupt the bacterial balance in your intestines.

Also, you don't have to take antibiotics yourself to develop dysbiosis. However, eating a lot of meat raised on antibiotics will also negatively affect your gut's microbial community.

Poor-Quality Diet

The content of your diet significantly affects the composition of your gut microbes.

This was dramatically demonstrated when germ-free mice received human fecal microbiota transplants. Then:

"The mice were fed a low-fat, plant polysaccharide-rich diet, and when switched to a “Western” diet, the microbiota composition shifted to an overgrowth of Firmicutes including Clostridium innocuum, Eubacterium dolichum, Catenibacterium mitsuokai and Enterococcus spp., as well as a significant reduction in several Bacteroides spp. (3)

An image of a variety of junk foods, including burgers, fries, cookies, candies, muffins, soda, and pastries on a table.

What food types are best and worst for gut microbiota composition?

Well, diets rich in complex carbohydrates appear to produce less pathogenic microbial species than diets higher in protein or fat. (Complex carbohydrates also increase levels of several species of beneficial bacteria. (4)

Vegetarianism also significantly alters bacterial composition in a manner that may prevent the growth of potentially pathogenic bacteria. (5)

By contrast, sugar and refined carbohydrates appear to be the worse foods for your gut microbiome.

For example, research shows that a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can cause diet-induced dysbiosis. It seems that refined sugars can promote the overgrowth of harmful bacteria, such as C. difficile and C. perfringens, eventually outnumbering beneficial bacteria. (6, 7)


An image of a young stressed woman sitting on the floor and covering her face with her hands.

Psychological stress is a constant in today's technologically advanced environment. Unfortunately, chronic stress has increased the risk of numerous diseases. It also has a profoundly negative effect on the gastrointestinal tract, including the intestinal microbiota.

Chronic stress often leads to gastrointestinal diseases. In an article published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, the authors write:

"Exposure to stress results in alterations of the brain-gut interactions ("brain-gut axis"), ultimately leading to the development of a broad array of gastrointestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other functional gastrointestinal diseases, food antigen-related adverse responses, peptic ulcer and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)." (8)

A gut bacterial imbalance can increase susceptibility to these digestive conditions, and as discussed above, it can also lead to numerous diseases outside the gastrointestinal system.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol consumption disrupts the microbial community in your gut and causes gut dysbiosis. Studies show it not only creates an imbalance in "good" and "bad" bacteria but also promotes bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine and increases intestinal permeability. (9)

And it doesn't take much alcohol to harm your gut, either. Studies suggest that as little as two alcoholic beverages per day can negatively affect your gut health.

Gastrointestinal Infections

Viral or bacterial infections of the digestive tract are common and usually clear up quickly. But if the symptoms persist too long, it can destroy a significant portion of your beneficial bacteria, creating a state of microbial dysbiosis. This dysbiosis can lead to a condition called "post-infectious Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)".

Healing Gut Dysbiosis

Healing gut dysbiosis isn't difficult, but it does take time. Here are a few ways to heal dysbiosis and enjoy excellent health.

Enjoy a Dysbiosis Diet

There is no officially recognized dysbiosis diet. However, a few scientifically backed dietary strategies can help heal your gut and rebalance your gut microbiome. Here are a few of them.

Eat More Whole Foods

Whole foods are those that have been processed or refined as little as possible and contain no artificial substances. So how do you know if it's a whole food? A good rule of thumb is choosing foods as close to a plant you can gather or an animal you can hunt.

For example, Cheerios, pasta, bread, and similar items don't grow on trees. Instead, they are heavily refined with sugar and chemicals added to create the finished product. Therefore, to keep your microbiome balanced and support gut health, you should reduce or eliminate these foods from your diet.

Also, most whole foods don't have labels, except perhaps specific cuts of meat. If the food does have a label -- like canned tuna, beans, etc. -- make sure that it contains no more than three ingredients and that you recognize and can pronounce, thus ensuring the absence of chemicals.

Eat More Fiber

Fiber feeds the beneficial bacteria in your colon, helping keep the microbiome balanced. You should get most of your fiber from non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruits. Fiber keeps your bowels "regular." Plus, the soluble fiber travels to your lower colon to be fermented by beneficial bacteria, helping keep your gut flora balanced.

Examples of fiber foods that promote a healthy gut include:

  • Asparagus
  • Banana
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cocoa
  • Eggokabt
  • Flax seeds
  • Green beans
  • Kale
  • Orange
  • Onions
  • Oats
  • Peppers
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes

Eat More Probiotic Foods

Probiotic foods are fermented and contain various strains of beneficial bacteria needed for a healthy gut. Therefore, when you consume probiotic foods, you add good bacteria to your digestive system.

Probiotic foods include:

  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Natto
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tempeh
  • Yogurt

You may also take a probiotic supplement; however, they typically contain just a few bacterial strains that may be destroyed during the digestive process before arriving at your lower colon.

Reduce Stress

Reducing stress wherever possible is crucial to rebalance gut bacteria and have a healthy gut.

The best stress-relieving activities include:

  • Listening to music
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness where you put your attention fully on the present moment
  • Practice progressive muscle relaxation
  • Aromatherapy
  • Yoga
  • Walking
  • Get a massage
  • Go swimming
  • Pet your dog
  • Practice slow, deep breathing exercises
  • Take a bubble bath
  • Go dancing
  • Go to a park and feed the ducks
  • Go to lunch or dinner with friends
  • Practice gratitude
  • Take up a relaxing hobby like bird watching
  • Bing-watch episodes of your favorite comedy series
  • Do some stretches
  • Drink herbal tea

Get Enough Quality Sleep

Research suggests that sleep deprivation may lead to changes in gut microbiome composition. (10)Though more research is needed, improving sleep quality is always a good idea for your health and perhaps to prevent dysbiosis.

Here are a few tips to help you get a good night's sleep.

  • Go to bed at the same time every night. A consistent sleeping schedule is critical, as it trains your body to start getting tired near bedtime.
  • Avoid devices before bed. The blue light emitted from device screens interferes with melatonin production. So, to cultivate a good night's sleep, you may want to put away your devices an hour before bedtime.
  • Make sure your bedroom temperature is cool. Sleeping in a cool temperature -- around 65-68 degrees -- helps you fall asleep faster. It also helps your body produce more melatonin.
  • Reduce light in your bedroom. Any light can interfere with melatonin production, even if it's coming from the neon numbers on your alarm clock. So, you might want to turn your alarm clock away from you, put black drapes on your window, or wear a sleep mask to bed.

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