The Gut Connection: Exploring How Gastrointestinal Health, Metabolic Health, and Fertility Are Linked

Is there a link between your gut, metabolic health, and fertility? This article explores how everything in your body is interconnected and may impact your fertility journey.

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by
April Benshosan
— Signos
Health Writer
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Reviewed by

April Benshosan
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
March 19, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Your gut microbiome is a microscopic city made up of trillions of bacteria that reside inside of you. And these microorganisms have more of a say on our overall health than we once thought.

Our gastrointestinal (GI) tract, known as the "gut," is closely intertwined with our metabolism and fertility. The same factors that affect our gut and metabolic health — including lifestyle, diet, and habits — play a major role in our hormones, gene expressions, and metabolism, which all affect our ability to conceive.

Here, we examine the intricate web connecting gut health, metabolism, and fertility and offer actionable tips to optimize these processes. 

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Understanding Gastrointestinal Health

The gut microbiome is home to trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites — good and bad — that influence how our bodies function. While some of these microbes can be harmful and promote diseases, most benefit the body by helping break down nutrients in food.1

These microbes live in the entire body but are mostly present in the small and large intestines. They affect everything from our digestion habits to mood to immune system function. 

Recent research has given us clues into how the gut plays a major role in our whole-body health, deeming it much more important to maintain a balanced gut microbiome. However, many lifestyle habits we partake in (i.e., eating a diet high in ultra-processed foods and not getting enough quality sleep), as well as taking antibiotics, can cause a dysbiosis or imbalance that can throw our entire systems out of whack. 

Research shows that certain external factors (such as diet, illness, antibiotic usage) and internal factors (such as age, genetics, stress, and your digestive tract's physiology) set the stage for your microbiome's density and diversity and, ultimately, its health.2

How Gut Health and Metabolic Health Are Closely Connected

Metabolic health refers to the health of your metabolism, but metabolism plays a much larger role than simply dictating how fast you absorb nutrients or how efficiently your body burns fat. (Yes, metabolism has much more to do than just weight loss.)

Metabolism is a chemical process the body undergoes to turn calories into energy, and that energy is responsible for regulating blood sugar levels, hormones, and body temperature, as well as circulating blood throughout the body and creating and repairing cells.3

The gut microbiota produce a variety of important nutrients, including short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) that are a byproduct of breaking down complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber; SCFAs also help produce B vitamins and vitamin K. 

Our gut bugs have the incredible ability to interact with the body's cells, influencing metabolism and playing a role in our risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which includes insulin resistance, obesity, high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides, and low levels of HDL cholesterol, as well as diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and brain function.4

Let's zoom in on how the bacteria in our gut influence our risk of disease. Research shows that external and internal factors (such as diet, stress, age, poor sleep, and antibiotic use) can change our gut microbial composition and turn that beneficial symbiotic relationship into a pathogenic one. This shift is thought to trigger low-grade inflammation, which can contribute to developing metabolic diseases down the line.5

The Gut's Impact on Fertility

We know that the gut plays a significant role in our metabolism and metabolic health; we also know that our fertility is influenced by metabolic health. While this connection may seem evident, only recently has research actually looked into this link. 

Indeed, the microbiota interacts with hormones such as estrogen, androgens, and insulin, influencing the reproductive endocrine system. The limited research that's currently out there suggests that gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance of the microbiota composition, can contribute to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), pregnancy complications, endometriosis, and cancer.6

PCOS is the most common endocrine (or hormone) system disorder that affects people of childbearing age, and it's a leading cause of infertility. Unsurprisingly, our gut has a lot to do with how this common condition develops and progresses. It turns out that gut dysbiosis can activate inflammatory pathways and contribute to hyperandrogenism (a condition where you make excess male sex hormones called androgens), insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, and metabolic disorders, which are all associated with PCOS.7

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="metabolic-health">What Is Metabolic Health?</a>.</p>

4 Lifestyle Tips to Help Improve Your Gastrointestinal Health and Metabolic Health

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Improving your gut health has a trickle-down effect. Having a robust microbiome can confer benefits that ripple to your metabolism and, potentially, fertility. Here are some ways to help strengthen your gut and metabolic health to support your fertility:

1. Eat a Fiber-Rich Diet

A high-fiber diet supports gut function by improving immune cell function. When you eat fiber, the bugs in the gut work to ferment and break down the nutrient into byproducts, including short-chain fatty acids. Butyrate, a type of SCFA, has been associated with an improved insulin response.8 

What's more, fiber is generally associated with healthy body weight and can help promote satiety and prevent obesity, which is associated with various metabolic issues, including fertility trouble. Fiber comes from plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains. 

2. Cut out Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods contain refined wheat and high amounts of salt, fat, or sugar (e.g., pastries, white bread, fast food, and microwave meals). These foods are also high-glycemic, often leading to a rapid rise and subsequent crash in blood glucose levels. Eating a high-glycemic diet is tied to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, two conditions associated with PCOS and infertility. On the contrary, according to research, sticking to a well-balanced diet that's low-glycemic and rich in whole, plant-based foods has a positive effect on fertility.9

3. Prioritize Good Quality Sleep

Our microbiome regulates multiple metabolic processes, including circadian rhythm. Human studies have shown that sleep deprivation can change the gut microbiome composition in as little as 48 hours.10 Circadian disturbances (which can include not getting enough quality sleep) are linked to altered secretion of reproductive hormones and poor reproductive outcomes.11 

To catch more zzzs each night, make sure to block out all light and distracting noise from your bedroom. Pro tip: use a sleep mask or blackout shades, try listening to a sleep meditation), or try setting your room's temperature to between 60 and 65 degrees.

4. Limit Alcohol

A study that looked at acute binge drinking, or drinking more than four alcoholic beverages in a night, found that alcohol causes inflammation in the gut and impairs gut barrier function.12 Instead of saving up all your drinks for the weekend, make sure to limit yourself to no more than one or two drinks when you do drink, and try keeping drinking occasions to the bare minimum. 

Get Insight into Your Body’s Metabolic Signals With Signos

Blood glucose level is a key indicator of overall health and is significantly affected by our everyday choices. With the next generation of continuous glucose monitors and Signos’ expert guidance, you can incorporate changes into your nutrition and lifestyle based on real-time personalized blood glucose data.

Learn about Signos’ science-backed approach to achieving better health, weight loss, and more. See how Signos works to pair continuous glucose monitoring, an all-in-one app experience, and expert advice to help you reach your health goals.

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<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="metabolic-health-101">Metabolic Health 101</a>.</p>

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References

About the author

April is a writer, editor, and content strategist with a Master’s degree in Publishing.

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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