Gut health is an essential part of your overall well-being. A healthy gut will contain diverse bacteria and immune cells that can protect your body from damage and harm. The microbes and bacteria of your gut are often referred to as your “gut microbiota” or your gut “microbiome.” Anywhere between 300-1000 species of bacteria live in your gut and can contribute to almost 2 million different genes. Your gut microbiota plays a fundamental role in digestion and has also been linked to mental health and immune system function.
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What are the signs of a healthy gut?
There are many signs that indicate good gut health. Many of these signs can be interpreted by understanding and being able to properly assess your fecal matter. 3 main signs of a healthy gut include:
- Regular bowel movements
- Long, smooth, and brown poop
- No pain, excessive bloating, or gas
Regular Bowel Movements
How often you poop may be a good indicator of your gut health. However, bowel activity can vary drastically from person to person based on numerous factors. These factors include age, diet, genetics, and lifestyle. In general, someone with a healthy gut will poop anywhere from three times a day to three times a week.
Pooping Too Often
Although there is not an exact threshold for determining whether or not you are pooping too often, if you feel as though your bowel movements are becoming more frequent and irregular, these issues could point towards a whole host of problems. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Infection: frequent pooping could be caused by bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection. A bacterial infection could be caused by eating spoiled food.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): a group of disorders including Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis that are caused by inflammation of your digestive system.
- Celiac Disease: an autoimmune disorder where gluten triggers a severe reaction.
- Lactose Intolerance: a disease caused by your body’s inability to digest lactose in dairy products.
- Medication side effects: some medications can contribute to excessive bowel movements. If you’ve been taking a new medication and have a sudden or severe change in your bowel movements, make sure you talk to your doctor.
Not Pooping Enough
Not pooping enough, or constipation is a very common gut-related complication. Constipation occurs when your body has trouble eliminating your poop because it may be too dry or hard, or because your colon might absorb too much liquid.
A lot of lifestyle and medical factors can contribute to constipation. These include but are not limited to:
- Diet: not consuming enough fiber can lead to constipation.
- Dehydration: not drinking enough water can lead to dry and hard stools.
- Medication side effects: certain medications such as narcotics, antidepressants, antacids, and iron supplements lead to constipation.
Constipation can also lead to a variety of disorders. These include but are not limited to:
- Hemorrhoids: swollen and inflamed veins near the rectum.
- Anal Fissures: small tears in the lining of the anus which can lead to pain and bleeding.
- Urinary Incontinence: leaking of the bladder during physical exertion.
- Fecal Impaction: hardened poop that gets stuck in your lower intestinal tract.
If you feel as though constipation is interfering with your life, speak with your doctor.
Transit time, or the amount of time it takes for your food to travel through your digestive system and get excreted, can also be an important indicator of your gut health. Average gut transit time should range around 30-40 hours and should not exceed 72 hours.
Gut transit time is important to evaluate because it is linked to your body’s ability to metabolize food. A long gut transit time might point towards an issue with your gut’s ability to digest food. If your colon is not properly moving along digestive material, harmful products could accumulate in your intestines and lead to an increased risk of disease.
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Appearance of Poop
The color, consistency, shape, and texture of your poop can say a lot about your gut health. Normal and healthy stool should be brown, soft to firm in consistency, smooth in texture, and should be long and sausage-shaped, similar to your colon.
The Bristol Stool Chart is a diagnostic tool used to categorize poop into 7 main groups.
Bristol Stool Chart
|Type 1||Individual hard lumps||Severe constipation|
|Type 2||Lumpy, but sausage-shaped||Mild constipation|
|Type 3||Sausage shaped, but with cracks in the surface||Normal|
|Type 4||Sausage shaped and smooth||Normal|
|Type 5||Soft blobs with clear cut edges||Mild diarrhea|
|Type 6||Fluffy, mushy pieces with ragged edges||Mild diarrhea|
|Type 7||Entirely liquid and watery||Severe diarrhea|
If your poop is any color besides brown, this could indicate a variety of issues such as internal bleeding or infection. Although a variety of food and medications can change the color of your poop without indicating severe illness, it is still important to be aware of what the color of your stool means.
Red or black poop is especially concerning as it can be an indicator of internal bleeding or tumors in the digestive tract. This is not always the case, however, as blood in your stool can also be a cause of mild irritation or even an individual’s menstrual cycle. If you have black or red stool accompanied by other symptoms such as abdominal pain and vomiting, or if the bleeding is persistent, make sure to speak with your doctor.
Bloating and Gas
Excessive bloating or gas can be a sign of poor gut health. Excessive gas is caused by a buildup of gas in your digestive system and can manifest as consistent belching, bloating, or passing gas. Keep in mind that stomach bloating is a very common symptom a lot of people experience.
Most of the time, bloating does not indicate anything serious. However, consistent bloating accompanied by other symptoms of abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, or weight loss that impacts your daily quality of life should be carefully evaluated. Bloating can be caused by:
- Food intolerance: some individuals have issues absorbing compounds such as carbohydrates, lactose, or fructose; this can lead to chronic bloating. If you suspect that you might have a food intolerance, speak with a nutritionist or your physician.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO): individuals who have an increase in the number of bacteria in their small intestine can experience bloating and gas symptoms.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): a disorder that is characterized by cramping, abdominal, pain and excessive bloating and gas.
Why is gut health important?
In addition to preventing digestive system-related disorders, improving your gut health has also been linked to improvements in mental health and immune system function. Increasing evidence and research point towards an intrinsic connection between your brain and your gut health. Anxiety and depression have been linked to poor gut health and mental states, such as stress, which can lead to digestive issues.
Furthermore, 70% of your immune system is located in your gut. The bacteria and microbes in your digestive system help to protect your body against damage and toxins and also provide important nutrients that play a vital role in your overall health. Recently, studies have shown that poor gut diversity is linked to autoimmune disorders. As such, by maintaining good gut health, you are also building a more robust immune system.
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How To Improve Your Gut Health
The more diverse your gut microbiome is, the healthier your gut is. The diversity of your gut microbiome is based on modifiable factors such as your lifestyle and diet. However, gut diversity has also been found to decrease with age and vary based on your genetic makeup. In people with poor gut diversity, it is important to supplement your gut health with changes in lifestyle and diet and consistent probiotic consumption.
Here are 5 ways to start improving your gut health:
- Start taking probiotic supplements or eat more fermented foods. Fermented foods include: kimchi, kombucha, kefir, miso, and sauerkraut. You can find probiotics in grocery stores and online. Some probiotics may interact with your medication, so make sure to speak with your doctor before starting probiotics.
- Eat prebiotics. Prebiotics are a form of fiber to supplement your gut microbiota. Vegetables and fruits high in fiber such as apples, corn, onions, and oats can improve your gut health.
- Eat foods with less sugar and artificial sweeteners. The artificial sweetener ingredients can change the composition of your gut microbiome.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise can increase the diversity of your gut microbiome.
- Get more sleep. Sleep deprivation has been linked to poor gut health.
Signs of a Healthy Gut Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Consider the following questions when evaluating your gut health.
How often should I take probiotics?
In general, it is recommended to take probiotics on a daily basis. However, it is important to note the probiotic market is generally unregulated and not monitored by the FDA. Additionally, some probiotics might exacerbate your autoimmune condition or interact with your medications. Consult your doctor or primary care provider before starting a probiotic regimen and always choose USP verified probiotics.
How can I check my gut health?
Besides evaluating your stool, monitoring your health, and keeping track of how many bowel movements you have per week, there are multiple ways to test your gut microbiome diversity at home. At-home microbiome tests should only be used for informational purposes and not for self-diagnosis. These tests have not been approved by the FDA and can also be pricey.
If you are interested in evaluating your gut health with a test, you can bring the results to your doctor who can help you interpret and improve your gut health. If you visit your doctor directly, they might ask you for a fecal sample and will counsel you on your results. If the test is ordered by your doctor’s office, it may be more likely to be covered by insurance.
When should I see a doctor about my gut health?
You should see your doctor about your gut health if you experience any consistent and severe diarrhea, constipation, or bloating. If these symptoms are mild but accompanied by lifestyle changes, and other symptoms of abdominal pain, fatigue, and vomiting, make sure to contact your primary care provider. If you feel healthy, but want to check your gut health, your annual physical is a great time to ask your doctor about your gut health.
Maintaining a healthy and diverse gut microbiome is vital to your overall health. Understanding the signs of a healthy or unhealthy gut is a great way to evaluate and monitor your own gut health. Additionally, there are a variety of ways to improve and supplement your gut health which can contribute to improvements in well-being. More research is currently being conducted about the role of gut microbiomes in overall health.
In order to keep your gut health in check, it is important to have an annual physical and access to a primary care provider. Mira can help you maintain a consistent relationship with your healthcare providers by providing unlimited $5 virtual care consultations, affordable lab testing, and prescription medications. Sign up for Mira today!
Sophie is a 2024 Pharm D. candidate studying pharmacy at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She has a passion for healthcare and writing and hopes to make meaningful contributions to healthcare transparency and accessibility. In her free time, she likes to take care of her houseplants, cook, and hang out with her cat.