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Gut health: Here's how, and when, to check on it

You understand why gut health is important. You've been trying to eat foods that support your gut microbiome. But how can you check on your gut health?

Experts say to be aware of symptoms and respond to them.

"If you're feeling well, then you don't need to be going to a GI doctor asking 'How can I improve my gut health?'" explains Dr. Aditya Sreenivasan, a gastroenterologist at Lenox Hill Hospital. Instead, be on the lookout for frequent issues with the following:

  • reflux
  • gas bloating
  • constipation
  • diarrhea

"If you're having those symptoms, I think seeing a GI doctor and doing whatever testing is necessary to diagnose what is causing the symptoms is probably the first step," he says.

But before you worry, remember it's normal for everyone to experience these things sometimes. The key is to pay attention to an emerging pattern, worsening symptoms or sudden change.

"If you're not having these consistent symptoms, it's not something you need to actively pursue (with) a preemptive workup or screening," Sreenivasan says. 

Even if you feel fine, however, don't skip colon cancer screenings, which should be done even with no symptoms in order to detect potentially problematic polyps before they have a chance to develop into cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends screening beginning at age 45 for people at average risk.

If you're experiencing "red flag" symptoms such as rectal bleeding or weight loss for an unexplained reason, this is a sign to see your doctor sooner. 

If you are experiencing more mild symptoms, it can be helpful to keep an eye on a few other gastrointestinal issues to share with your doctor as well, says Dr. Shilpa Ravella, transplant gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. These include:

  • color of your stool
  • if your stool floats or sinks
  • any food intolerances or sensitivities

Awareness of these factors can help guide what treatment approach to take, she explains. 

In terms of other testing, there are companies that are starting to sell microbiome kits meant to check the different types of species of microorganisms in your microbiome, Ravella explains — but she doesn't recommend them.

"It doesn't have a lot of clinical relevance," Ravella says. "Your microbiome is as unique as a fingerprint. So, pointing to disparities across studies can be challenging. ... If you get that test and check your microbiome ... it doesn't really tell your doctor too much from a clinical standpoint. We don't have enough information yet. Maybe in the future, we will."

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