I think I’ll spare myself the embarrassment and not share with you the nickname my friends gave me in high school as a result of my digestive problems. I now know that the diet of my youth which consisted of: bologna sandwiches made with Wonder Bread, soda, milk and Twinkies was at the root of my problem. But I sure didn’t know that then. All I knew was that the constant bloating and gas were sources of embarrassment and pain!
Seems I wasn’t alone in my GI discomfort. It is estimated that 116 million Americans suffer from upper digestive tract disorders including acid reflux, indigestion, GERD and heartburn Another 40 million have lower digestive tract problems including Irritable Bowel Syndrome, colitis, diverticulitis, constipation and diarrhea and Inflammatory Bowel Syndromes ( Crohns and Ulcerative Colitis ) affect another 1.5 million.
Although I studied the anatomy and some physiology of the GI tract while in a four year nursing college, it wasn’t until years later that I began to understand just how significant the digestive tract was to proper immune function, overall health and even one’s mental condition. I found it astounding when I met Dr. Michael Gershon, MD (professor of anatomy and cell biology at New York’s Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and author of the book The Second Brain) and heard him state that the largest concentration of the mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter Serotonin was located in the gut. I was even more surprised to learn while working with children with autism that a very high percentage of the immune system is headquartered in the gut. To the delight of many parents of children on the autism spectrum, addressing gut issues often brings about tremendous improvements in a child’s cognitive skills (including speech), behavior and general health.
I had no idea for most of my life that when the digestive system is malfunctioning, it is unable to properly assimilate and absorb the nutrients the brain and body require for optimal health. As Pam Ferro, RN, (a nurse who for years has been helping children with autism heal by addressing their gut related issues) recently wrote in an article that appeared an international publication: “The inability to properly digest foods has a dramatic and far-reaching negative impact on all bodily processes, and, therefore, on how a person thinks, feels, and functions.”’
This is why physicians of the past (before the pharmaceutical industry hijacked the medical system) as well as some wise and knowledgeable health care providers today (such as functional medicine practitioners, Doctor’s of Chinese Medicine and Ayruveda) know to begin their investigation into the cause of illness by first looking at their patients diet and digestion.
The GI tract: Parts and, Function
The GI tract is divided into the upper section (which consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach and duodenum) and the lower half (which is made up of the small intestines and large intestines or colon). The process of digestion involves complicated chemical and biological interactions that happen at every step along this 30 foot tract.
It turns out enzymes and the acid present in saliva, as well as the highly acidic environment of the stomach (PH 4) are important first defense mechanisms the digestive tract uses to kill off invading pathogenic organisms. Hydrochloric acid and pepsin are usually in abundance when we are young and then begin to decline as we age. Decreased amounts of these acids compromises proper digestion and lowers our defense against bacteria and other germs. Pharmaceutical companies have spent a lot of money promoting the idea that taking acid inhibitors (such as Pepsid AC, Prilosec, Zantac,) is the key to minimizing symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion and GERD. However, physicians such as Dr. Mercola, and many other naturally- oriented doctors now understand that these disturbances are often caused by too little stomach acid, not too much. As one physician recently remarked to the audience at a health conference, “acid reflux is not due to too much acid, it’s just in the wrong place” (hence heartburn from stomach acid regurgitating into the esophagus).
Joseph Mercola, MD writes in a recent article on his website “Digestive aids like hydrochloric acid (HCL),, enzymes and probiotics can actually be powerful tools to maintain a more acidic and beneficial environment in your stomach and intestines that will help your digestive system work optimally.” For more information on the stomach acid issue, he recommends reading Dr. Jonathan Wright’s excellent book Your Stomach: What is Really Making You Miserable and What to Do About It
Heal the Gut, Heal the Body
After working for years in hospitals and witnessing the ineffectiveness of many of the medications used to treat chronic illnesses including GI disturbances, in my mid 20’s I began the process of changing my diet. I started out by eliminating processed foods including white flour products, most forms of sugar and meat. My symptoms improved somewhat, but I had a long way to go before my GI tract issues resolved completely.
It wasn’t until my 30’s when I began working with Sidney Baker, MD, (a graduate of Yale Medical School, pediatrician, author and co-founder of the Defeat Autism Now! Movement) that I began to learn about other factors that influence digestion. Dr. Baker taught me about the role yeast overgrowth (caused by eating too much sugar, recurrent use of antibiotics and stress) plays in symptoms such as gas, bloating, weakened immunity, fatigue and mental fogginess. He was also an expert in identifying and treating parasistes (which had somehow taken up residence in my GI tract!) and the critical role probiotics (good friendly bacteria) played in both GI and overall health. Dr. Baker taught me about food allergies by explaining that if you eat foods you are sensitive (or allergic to) an immune response can ensue (antibodies form) which in turn weakens your overall immune system’s ability to defend itself.
As the lucky recipient of Dr. Baker’s brilliance and tutelage, my digestive problems resolved and subsequently my overall health improved. I then made a personal pledge to continue to learn as much as I could about digestion in order to help others heal from this modern-day malady.
Eventually, I discovered information on the importance of digestive enzymes (which assist in the breaking down of food, and absorption of nutrients .) Although they remain intact when food is raw, enzymes are easily destroyed by heating (beyond 118 degrees) and cooking. Our pancreas also manufactures enzymes, but if it is overwhelmed with a high carbohydrate diet, it falls down on the job.
I used to think the only factor in health was choosing high quality foods, and of course that is essential. However, health is not just dependent on what you eat, but on what you digest and absorb. Enzymes such as proteases which break down protein, lipases which break down fats, play major roles in digestion and overall health. Until clients can tolerate a diet that contains more raw foods, and or fresh- squeezed organic vegetable juices, I often recommend a comprehensive digestive enzyme such as those made by Houston Enzymes.com. These are to be taken with each meal (after the first few bites of food.) After starting digestive enzymes, many individuals report a decrease in bloating, gas, fatigue and improved mental clarity.
Another area to explore if gas, bloating and other signs of poor digestion persist is IgG food allergies or sensitivities. Some individuals find eliminating the common culprits (dairy, gluten, soy, eggs, sugar etc) for a period of 10 days or 2 weeks and then reintroducing them one at a time, to be an effective and inexpensive way of identifying if one or several of the foods may be causing symptoms. Another option is having a specialty lab such as Genova Diagnostics (gdx.net) perform an IgG food panel. This is a blood test that must be ordered by a physician. It is helpful in pin pointing which foods may be causing delayed reactions (meaning you eat a certain food one day, and one or two days later, you experience bloating, skin rashes, fatigue, headaches, weight gain etc.).
In more recent years, I discovered again through my work with children affected by autism, just how problemative gluten (the protein in wheat, barley, oats and rye) can be. Once I eliminated it from my diet, I witnessed additional positive changes in my health including increased energy. For some individuals, even if they do not test positive for Celiac Disease, gluten serves as an irritant to the gut membrane, leading to inflammation and intestinal permeability or leaky gut syndrome.
Lastly, about a year ago I was lucky enough to come across information on proper food combining which encourages eating fruit alone and not combining too many different types of food at the same meal. More information on this technique in future articles
I know changing your diet and finding the right supplements specific for your needs can be a bit daunting. But, if you have GI symptoms, it really helps to investigate the root causes with a naturally oriented practitioner. The benefits? Suffice it to say, after all the changes I made, the nickname assigned to me during my youth is thankfully, no longer relevant!
As one local Ayravedic Practitioner (John Immel from JoyfulBelly.com) said to me in an interview “The digestive tract is both a pathway that can cause great harm to the body, but it also holds the greatest potential for healing. ”
Tips for Improving Digestion.
- Sit and relax during meals. Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly. Digestion actually begins with the simple but important act of chewing and the subsequent release of enzymes contained in your saliva.
- Avoid processed foods which can weaken your immune system by triggering the release of antibodies. Try to purchase as many organically-grown foods as possible to minimize your exposure to chemicals.
- If you have gas after meals, try avoiding drinking liquids with your meals (especially milk). Instead consume adequate fluids (mostly water) in between meals.
- Try adding a comprehensive digestive enzyme taken after the first few bites of food with each meal.
- Probiotics may be the single most important supplement to take in supporting the health of the GI tract. They not only crowd out bad organisms such as yeast and bad bacteria, they also increase immune function in the intestines, can help protect against food poisoning, help eliminate toxins (including heavy metals) synthesize B vitamins, regulate bowel movements and limit bacteria that produce cancer causing nitrates.
- In addition to chewing food well and relaxing during meal times, sipping a strong cup of organic peppermint or ginger tea after a meal can be quite helpful in easing digestive discomfort.
- We digest big meals better in the middle of the day than we do at night. This is a tough one for me, because I LOVE going out for dinner. But eating our largest meal at mid-day and consuming a lighter meal later in the day is actually more in line with the natural rhythm of digestion. Eating close to bedtime is also not recommended as the body needs to regenerate overnight, not digest food.
- The worst foods for digestive health are sugar and processed carbohydrates including pasta, breads, cookies, cereals etc. If you crave carbs and sugary foods, or have taken several courses of antibiotics, see if your doctor or natural health care provider will test to see if yeast overgrowth (also called Candida) is an issue. Stool test kits from specialty labs like Genova Diagnostics will provide a comprehensive overview of the status of your digestive tract and check for yeast, parasites, good friendly bacteria and nasty pathogenic organisms. Information on Candida detection and treatment can be found at wncwoman.com June 2011 issue
- If you suspect a particular food may be at the root of the problem, try the elimination diet explained above. Additionally, progressive labs will do testing for IgG food allergies or sensitivities. The typical allergic reaction is IgE mediated (meaning it causes an immediate reaction. You eat a shrimp and get a hive). However, IgG food sensitivities are much harder to track as they cause a delayed reaction. You drink, milk and 2 days later you might be bloated or have a headache. Or you eat soy one day and the next day your are tired etc.
- Gluten, which is the sticky protein in wheat, barley, most oats and rye can be very problematic for some and cause symptoms ranging from headaches, fatigue, bloating and gas, all the way to mild and or severe depression and other mental health conditions. An article which discusses the problems caused by gluten, scientific research substantiating the benefits to some of removing it from ones diet, as well as practical steps for cooking without it can be found at http://www.sokhop.com/why-is-everyone-going-gluten-free-296S
- For lower GI issues, such as IBS, in addition to the above mentioned recommendations, you might add a high quality source of Omega 3 (like fish oil) as this will help reduce inflammation.
Your Stomach; What is Really Making You Miserable and What to do About it, Dr. Jonathan Wright
The Autism File Magazine, Healing the Gut in Teenagers and Beyond, Pam Ferro, RN www.autismfile.com
Messaoudi M., Lalonde R., et al, J.-M. “Assessment of psychotropic-like properties of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in rats and humans.” Br J Nutr. 105.5 (2011) 755-64.