If you’ve followed my blog for a while you will not be surprised that digestive issues are some of the most common things we see in the clinic. I’ve posted on gut related issues a couple of times before (like here and here). What may be surprising to some though is just how often even those without obvious digestive symptoms, actually have an underlying gut problem that is causing or contributing to their main complaint. In fact, the previous two installments of this series talked about fatigue and weight loss and quite often both of these conditions are related to gut problems. Let’s explore the reasons.
You’ve heard it said that “you are what you eat” but that isn’t really true. In reality “you are what you absorb”. Our bodies are in a constant state of break down and repair. Every cell is replaced at least every year (many cells are replaced every few minutes). The basic building blocks of each cell come from nutrients that we absorb from the food we eat. This simple awareness shifts the discussion beyond “diet” and focuses our attention on how well we are digesting our foods. With this concept in mind you can see how even a “good” diet can have limited benefit if we aren’t able to get access to these nutrients.
When we put food into our mouths, we initiate a complex, multi-organ system that has to work together to accomplish its task. We might think of the organs of digestion as a relay-race team. In a relay race, each member of the team has their own leg of the race to run and then they pass the baton off to the next runner. If the first runner is slow or drops the baton, it will compromise the entire team.
On our Digestion relay race team, problems in the stomach – like insufficient levels of hydrochloric acid or infections – can lead to poor initiation of digestion. When things aren’t broken down well in the stomach it becomes nearly impossible for the small intestine and gall bladder to work effectively. When they aren’t working, it has an impact on the environment in the large intestine. Simply put, upstream events affect all downstream events. When proper digestive juices aren’t being produced it becomes imperative to REPLACE them via supplementation.
One of the key roles of adequate stomach acid is to prevent bacterial infection from the food we eat. As a general rule it is important to recognize the importance of the microbes in our gut and how they impact health. Just how many microbes are there within us? You are made up of about ten trillion cells – but there are about a hundred trillion microbial cells in and on your body. That means that what you think of as “you” is actually mostly “not you”.
Balancing this environment, called the microbiome, is crucial to our health. Science is proving that our diet and lifestyle has a powerful effect on these microbes. When we have an overgrowth of the harmful types of microbes, like mold, fungus, parasites and opportunistic bacteria, we need to REMOVE them. We’ve become so accustomed to think that antibiotics are helpful for our health but they come with a heavy unintended consequence of killing off our friendly bacteria. That leaves us vulnerable to yeast and other types of microbes to overgrow. So that means we need to use other novel approaches to address bacterial overgrowth and use herbs and other formulas to eliminate mold, fungus and parasites.
While we are busy removing or killing off the unfriendly microbes in our gut it critical to REBALANCE the friendly probiotics into our gut. Taking a probiotic formula every day in addition to eating a gut microbe friendly diet with fermented foods and a low processed food diet can help to bring the levels of friendly bacteria back up to normal healthy levels.
One of the other interesting things that we’ve learned about the digestive tract is that approximately 70% of our immune system resides there. When our guts are out of balance, it promotes inflammation and irritation to the entire gut lining. The gut lining is only 1 cell layer thick so when there is inflammation present, these cells get damaged we need to add specific nutrients to REBUILD the damage to these cells. Bone broths and other “functional foods” are helpful to add into the diet in addition to herbs like slippery elm, marshmallow root, aloe vera and others.
This basic 4 R approach – Replace, Remove, Rebalance and Rebuild – has stood the test of time as a model for addressing digestive problems. Although the specifics change from patient to patient, when we focus on the root causes and explore the entire system holistically, we are able to help a myriad of really challenging symptoms.