Better Health Starts In the Gut
Digestive disorders are on the increase. About 38 million Americans suffer from a variety of digestive problems such as GERD, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, food allergies, diverticulitis, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. Approximately 25 million Americans have daily heartburn and it is estimated that 20% of the adult population have irritable bowel syndrome. Celiac disease, once considered rare, is now thought to affect 1 in 133 people, and food allergies have increased alarmingly.
Why is this happening? Several reasons come to mind: stressful lifestyles, environmental pollution, and the American diet are a start. The standard American diet tends to be high in carbs and sugar and low in fiber and healthy fats. Not only can this contribute to digestive problems but also to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, as we know. Another factor in the increase of digestive disorders is an imbalance of gut microbes.
But how can illness be related to gut health when the stomach feels just fine? Because digestion has multiple phases, but poor function in any phase can contribute to many illnesses, including allergies, autism, autoimmune disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome. When the proper function of the gut has been challenged, the effects can initially be subtle, but over time become profound. They say we are what we eat, but more truly, we are what we absorb.
The first phase of digestion takes place in the mouth and the second phase is in the stomach, which alerts us with pain, bloating or gas when something is wrong. This is where food is mainly broken down. The third phase takes place in the small intestines, which don’t always have a direct way to tell us there’s a problem. Here food is further digested and then absorbed into the body. The fourth phase (elimination of waste and toxins) takes place in the colon. If food is properly processed in the mouth and stomach, the intestines will receive partially digested food that it further breaks down using enzymes and beneficial bacteria.
These enzymes can be low from poor eating habits or chronic illness. Temporary replacement with plant enzymes is often warranted. Beneficial bacteria can also be out of balance due to antibiotic use, heavy metal toxicity, steroid prescriptions, birth control pills or an unfriendly gut environment. This imbalance can range from a simple lack of normal bacteria to an invasion of infectious species (including parasites and yeast). Reestablishing a healthy bacterial population is essential to getting the intestines back in order, like spreading grass seed on a lawn to crowd out weeds. The intestines have a lining to act as a barrier. When inflammation disrupts this barrier, unbroken down food can pass through and enter the body, an all too common condition known as “leaky gut”.
The immune system responds to these large food particles as invaders. This signals other immune factors, resulting in a heightened immune response, which can lead to allergies, autoimmune disease or arthritic-type pain. Gut wall inflammation can also decrease the ability to absorb food properly, leading to low body nutrients. Thus, healing the lining is the place to begin gut rehabilitation.
Common Irritants/Causes of Inflammation
In recent years we have come to appreciate our body’s amazing ecosystem, the balance of friendly and potentially harmful microorganisms that live in our gut. This balance can be disturbed by antibiotic therapy, birth control pills, steroid drugs, chemotherapy, physical and emotional stress, as well as by food allergens, preservatives, food dyes, MSG, aspartame, steroids and hormones in meats, coffee, cigarette smoke, pesticides, salon products and building materials.
When out of balance, harmful bacteria, yeast or parasites can overgrow. This is called intestinal dysbiosis. Friendly bacteria in our gut are of prime importance in keeping our digestive tract as well as our immune system healthy. What is not always easily recognized is that poor gut health also greatly contributes to many systemic conditions: such as allergies, asthma, eczema, ADHD, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, arthritis, headaches and insomnia. Fortunately, many of these conditions can be improved with treatment. There are many ways to look for and treat nutritional deficiencies, low stomach acid, intestinal dysbiosis including yeast, food allergies and heavy metal toxicity. Resting the gut with a short-term allergy free diet, is critical for healing acute inflammation. A long-term method of avoiding inflammation is to rotate irritating foods out of the diet for 3 to 4 day periods. An individual should ideally identify which foods they are personally sensitive to, but a good starting point is the “Dirty Dozen” or top 12 food allergens: wheat, egg, corn, peanuts, cow’s milk, soy, chocolate, shellfish, nightshade vegetables, oranges, tree nuts and alcohol.
In ADHD, for example, food allergies and yeast overgrowth in the intestine can exacerbate or cause hyperactivity and attention deficits. There are many studies that show an improvement in ADHD behaviors when allergies are addressed by elimination diets or desensitization. And according to parent rating surveys collected from thousands of parents by the ARI (Autism Research Institute), a gluten-free casein-free diet resulted in improvements in 66% of autistic children, food allergy treatment caused improvements in 64% of autistic children, and an anti-Candida diet had good results in 55%. So what are some things we need to maintain good digestion, absorption and elimination?
Healthy digestion actually begins with making the time to enjoy an unhurried and relaxing meal. Many studies have proven that it is not just WHAT we eat, or WHY we eat that is important- it is also HOW we choose to consume a meal: whether we are sitting at a table with a relaxing view or driving in rush hour traffic will have an enormous impact on how well we are able to digest our meal. Taking a moment to be thankful for our food is a wonderful way to prepare both body and mind to slow down so that it can properly receive a meal.
Secondly, adequate stomach acid is very important to sterilize food, start the breakdown of proteins and act as a signal for the release of bile when the acidic food bolus reaches the small intestine. Chronic use of antacids and an infection called H.pylori can cause low stomach acid. If stomach acid is low, proteins are only partially broken down, and food allergies can result. Also, minerals like iron and calcium are poorly absorbed without adequate stomach acid. Low stomach acid is also associated with increased inhalant allergies, asthma and skin conditions like eczema.
Other factors needed for adequate digestion are bile, enzymes, normal peristaltic action (movement of the gut muscles to help the food bolus travel down the gut), a healthy intact gut lining, plenty of friendly bacteria, adequate fluid and fiber in the diet and healthy eating habits. Avoiding or minimizing environmental toxins is also extremely important. Heavy metal toxicity, mercury in particular, affects digestive capacity by poisoning enzymes and chelation therapy to remove heavy metals can have marked benefits for a wide range of conditions, among which are autism and ADHD.
Importance of Beneficial Bacteria & Fermented Foods
A wealth of research has been conducted in the last several years on the use of probiotics or good bacteria for gut health in both children and adults. It seems that without friendly bacteria our immune systems would not develop. We don’t often think of our gut when we think of the immune system, yet 80% of our immune tissue actually resides in the gut and is called gut-associated lymphoid tissue or GALT. A newborn baby’s gut is sterile. It acquires microorganisms during delivery, and then from the environment, which then colonize the gut. Experiments done on monkeys have proven that without these friendly bacteria the immune system does not mature. One of the common types of harmful overgrowth in the gut is yeast or Candida overgrowth. Intestinal yeast can cause a variety of gut symptoms such as bloating, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, and leaky gut. Yeast also produces toxins which can get absorbed and cause systemic symptoms such as sinus congestion, joint pains, headaches, fogginess, fatigue, and depression to name a few.
The intestines are the first line of immune defense, disabling invaders before they can get into the body, as well as our pathway to assimilate what we need to survive. Soluble and insoluble fiber can help them stay healthy by absorbing toxins, waste products, and excess hormones and fats and carry them out the back door as they go. Fiber builds bulk which stimulates the gut to contract and empty, improving both constipation and diarrhea, and is also the primary food source for normal bacteria in the gut. As well as including lots of fresh, organic vegetables and fruits that provide fiber, the biggest part of “eating right” includes limiting sugars and grains. If you are eating as many sugars as the typical American, then you are feeding the "bad" bacteria rather than promoting the "good" bacteria that help protect you from disease.
In addition to limiting the sugar and grains you eat, it’s also necessary to eat plenty of rich probiotic sources, and these come from fermented foods. Fermented foods are part of nearly every traditional culture. As far back as Roman times, people ate sauerkraut because of its taste and benefits to overall health. In ancient Indian society it became commonplace (and still is) to enjoy a before-dinner yogurt drink called a lassi. Bulgarians are known both for their longevity and their high consumption of fermented milk and kefir. In Asian cultures, delicious and healthy pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash and carrots still exist today. If you can avoid exposure to both the external and internal toxins and allergens, and eat a diet rich in whole and fermented foods that have NOT been pasteurized, then you are on your way to reversing the many disorders that start in the gut and enjoying vibrant overall health.
Wall Street Journal January 13, 2009
Science Daily October 22, 2009
2009 Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo, Denver, CO, October 17-20, 2009