Digestion is foundation for all health conditions
By Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND
Digestion and its proper function has ramifications in all aspects of our health.
For this reason, I ask all my patients about their bowel movements and review other symptoms concerning the health of their gastrointestinal tract (or gut).
It's important to do a full assessment of digestive health. Questions aim to determine the presence or absence of constipation, loose stools (or diarrhea), heartburn, reflux (or food regurgitation), burping, gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort or pain, straining with bowel movements, and blood, mucus or ingested food in the stool.
For many of us, ignoring these symptoms is common because we were not taught about the importance of digestive health and ways to be able to fix it.
To help understand why improving your digestive health is so important, I'll use the analogy of your house's foundation (see diagram). A properly built foundation for your house (like the digestive tract in your body) is perhaps the most important criteria for it's long-term health. The foundation of a house keeps everything above it in place and allows us to build upon it. The state of your kitchen (like your nervous system), living room (hormonal system), front entrance area (liver), bedrooms (circulatory system), family members (immune system) and roof (skin) all depend on a strong foundation. Maintaining your house's foundation is equally important. Any cracks or leaks should be quickly taken care off (like seeking solutions for any changes in your health).
Building and maintaining a strong foundation for our health, therefore, often starts with improving our liver function and digestive health. Stay tuned for a future article related to improving your liver function. In this article, let's explore why digestion is so important:
Digestion feeds the whole body
The majority of nutrients required by the body are absorbed via the digestive tract. This includes proteins (amino acids, peptides), fats, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. These nutrients feed all cells, fuel our body for energy and metabolism, repair and keep inflammation under control, maintain a healthy weight, and provide the substrates for hormones, neurotransmitters and other molecules.
Digestion is part of our detoxification system
The liver cleans our blood while our bowels move out material that the body no longer needs.
The liver and the digestive system are in fact, intimately related. The health of one affects the other. Since the liver dumps its detoxification wastes into the small intestine, it's important to ensure that the bowels are moving first. This way toxins won't be re-absorbed and re-circulated in the body, and rather properly excreted via our bowel movements.
Our digestive tract may be a source of inflammation for the rest of the body
Remember that blood circulating from your digestive tract eventually circulates to the rest of your body. Poor food choices, food allergies/intolerances, and certain diseases can lead to gut inflammation and cause the release of inflammatory molecules into the blood stream. This in turn can have a negative impact on other parts of the body.
Inflammation is a contributing factor for many conditions such as eczema, arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and countless others. Discuss with your naturopathic doctor or medical doctor about the importance of testing your blood for inflammatory markers such as erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) or C-reactive protein (CRP). This is especially useful for understanding the impact of known inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.
A healthy digestive system helps to decrease the risk of autoimmune disease.
A healthy gut lining and the presence of sufficient ‘good’ gut bacteria appear to be involved in helping to control inflammation and even regulate allergic/immune responses. Likewise, in the event of a ‘leaky gut’ (a lay man’s term for what is known in medical research as ‘increased intestinal permeability’), the epithelial lining of the gut becomes compromised at a microscopic level and therefore more permeable. The barrier is breached.
In this situation, byproducts and improperly digested foods (especially proteins that react with the immune system) can slip into the bloodstream. If bad bacteria and viruses are present in the gut, they can produce endotoxins that can also bypass our intestinal barrier. Microbial endotoxins are involved in many chronic diseases.
Research has linked leaky gut and alterations in the intestinal microflora with autoimmune conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), rheumatoid arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis; just to name a few.
Gut flora helps the body in multiple ways
The presence or absence of good bacteria in your digestive tract (such as Lactobacillus species) can influence our health in many ways.
The formation of vitamin K (MK7 subtype) in the digestive tract for example, is dependent on adequate levels of good bacteria. Taking an antibiotic prescription can deplete gut flora thereby decreasing the formation of vitamin K.
Good bacteria in our gut also have an important immune function. Recent studies indicate that the prophylaxis use of probiotics in hospitals decreases the risk of acquiring opportunistic infection such as C. difficile. Other studies indicate that probiotics decreases the incidence of childhood allergies.
On the other hand, abnormal gut bacteria can lead to digestive upset and improper hormone metabolism. As part of its detoxification function (as described above), the liver conjugates hormones and excrete them from the body via the digestive tract (this is done by the liver's production of bile). Once in the gut, unwanted hormones are usually evacuated via our bowel movements. Bad gut bacteria, however, can release enzymes that can lead to the re-circulation of these hormones. Hormonal imbalances contribute to conditions such as PMS, irregular menstrual cycles, changes in libido, etc...
The gut and our nervous system are intertwined
Our digestive tract contains 100 million sensory neurons (this interconnection of nerves is often called our second brain). For this reason, our digestive tract produces vast amounts of melatonin and serotonin thereby strongly affecting our mood (and sleep). Likewise, chewing our food, and sitting down to eat slowly has a relaxing effect on our nervous system.
Let's review the top 7 strategies that aim to restore optimal gut function. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about options specific to your needs.
- Determine the presence of any bad microbes in the body (bacterial & viral imbalances in the gut are common) which contribute to chronic inflammation.
- Adopt new dietary choices that aim to include more phytonutrients (which includes vitamins, minerals, and phytochemical compounds) aimed to heal both the gut and the liver.
- Re-establish gut flora using quality probiotics. Use probiotics that have been well researched for strains, potency and clinical success.
- Diagnose and address food sensitivities/intolerances. Poorly digested foods can cause immune and inflammatory responses in the digestive tract. Determining and avoiding foods that cause digestive distress is therefore important. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about different options to determine your food reactions. An elimination/challenge assessment or a blood test for IgG antibodies against many common foods are some of the methods that can be used.
- Make lifestyle changes that help the gut heal: reduce chronic stress, address nutrient deficiencies, reduce toxin exposure, sleep more, exercise, etc.
- Replenish mineral and vitamins that are deficient due to gut malabsorption. Special emphasis is often made on the fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D, E and K as well as calcium, iron, and B vitamins, which are more common deficiencies when digestive tract function is inadequate.
- Stimulate and encourage the digestive tract to produce appropriate amounts of saliva, stomach acid, enzymes, and bile. Taking the time to cook your meals, adequately chewing your food, and relaxing while eating are the first steps in stimulating the digestive process. When digestive function is impaired, various naturopathic supplements and herbal remedies in medicinal doses are recommended to replace enzymes, acid and bile salts until the underlying causes are dealt with.
Abnormal digestive patterns should always be discussed with your medical doctor or naturopathic doctor. Celiac disease, colon cancer (and other cancer's affecting any part of the gut), Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcers, and bacterial gut infections are serious conditions and must be diagnosed correctly. Many other functional digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), digestive upsets due to food allergies, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gastritis (stomach inflammation), as well as general constipation and loose stools are also important to address. They affect the quality of life short-term and can have important health implications in the long-term.
Improving your digestion is an important priority and should be treated along with one's primary health concerns. Remember, if the foundation for your health (ie digestion) is fixed and strong, the body is much more able to self-regulate and heal itself!
Published by Dr. Gleixner on Thursday August 18th, 2011 in Times & Transcript. Updated in January 2023.
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