The majority of my practice includes patients with digestive concerns. After months and sometimes years of persistent bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation, they can ignore the symptoms and discomfort no longer. Digestive disturbances, although very common, often lead to a long list of complications if left untreated. With the essential function of absorbing nutrients, the digestive system is the foundation of your health—any dysfunction can lead to dysfunction and illness elsewhere in the body.
Imbalances in the Gut
A food intolerance occurs when your body produces an inadequate amount of an enzyme needed to break down a specific food. The classic example is an intolerance to lactose; an individual lacks the enzyme, lactase, to break down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. The food travels along your gut, partially digested, until it contacts gut bacteria. The bacteria feed on the undigested food, causing fermentation and putrefaction. Subsequently, this leads to bloating, gas, pain, inflammation and diarrhea. As we age, our body’s ability to produce enzymes decreases, leading to food intolerances later in life. Excessive stress, rushed eating, as well as coffee, tobacco and alcohol also prevent the body from producing digestive enzymes.
Food allergies are the most well-known food reactions. The symptoms are specific—hives, swollen lips, difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis—and they occur almost immediately after exposure to the allergenic food. This overactive immune response occurs because roughly 70% of your immune system is present in the gut. If your immune system sees something you ingest as foreign, it may mount a response by releasing antibodies. The most common allergenic foods include peanuts, shellfish, dairy, eggs, soy, corn, and wheat.
Food sensitivities are different types of immune responses to food within the gut. Here, antibodies are produced against certain foods, but unlike an allergic reaction, the symptoms are non-specific and delayed, occurring an hour to 2 days after ingesting a food. Symptoms include bloating and gas, bowel irregularity, headaches, brain fog, fatigue, skin conditions, such as eczema and acne, and joint pain. Because these symptoms are non-specific and do not arise immediately, food sensitivities can be difficult to determine through dietary changes alone.
This refers to a reduced production of stomach acid. Stomach acid aids in the activation of an enzyme needed to break down protein, while the acidity itself aids the disintegration of tough protein fibres. Furthermore, it provides protection against foreign microbes, like bacteria and viruses, as the acidity can directly kill an infection.
Heartburn is a common condition in North America—just count the number of Tums commercials during a football game—and it’s widely thought that the burning sensation is caused by too much stomach acid travelling into the esophagus. In reality, many individuals with heartburn have low stomach acid production. When you eat, stomach acid acts as the stimulus that closes the connection between your esophagus and stomach, causing food, acid and enzymes to flow in only one direction, down. But with low stomach acid, the stimulus is inadequate and the connection remains open, allowing food, enzymes and what stomach acid is present to flow up. To complicate things further, patients are often given antacids, which suppress the symptoms of heartburn, but in the long-term, exacerbate the depletion of stomach acid. Stomach acid can be reduced for a number of reasons, including excessive stress and medications (including anti-histamines).
Your digestive system is lined with over a 1000 different species of friendly bacteria, amounting to over 100 trillion bacterial cells. Each species has a specific function. Some species produce enzymes that humans cannot, aiding in the digestion of food and regular bowel movements. Others produce certain vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin K. Lastly, the bacteria have a major role in our immune system, crowding out foreign and pathogenic bacteria, preventing infection.
Unfortunately, the friendly bacterial population can be disturbed with excessive stress, poor eating habits and food choices, medications, sugar and toxins and esepcially with the use of antibiotics, which kill both bad and good bacteria. When the good bacteria is destroyed, other species of bacteria flourish. This leads to an overgrowth of certain bacterial species at the expense of others. This imbalance is known as dysbiosis: dys = imbalance or dysregulation, and biosis = living organism.
When dysbiosis occurs, the function of the digestive system becomes severely disturbed. Bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation are very common symptoms, as are skin conditions, brain fog, weight gain, anxiety, depression, nutrient depletion and recurrent infections. IBS, which has no structural or functional cause within the scope of conventional medicine, is associated with dysbiosis.
Candidiasis is a form of dysbiosis, where the yeast species overgrow at the expense of other microbes. This is often seen after a women takes antibiotics for a bladder infection, only to contract a vaginal yeast infection right afterwards—good bacteria was consequently killed by the antibiotics, allowing Candida to overgrow. Heavy metals and exogenous hormones from birth control pills are risk factors for candida overgrowth.
Any living organism produces waste products and gut bacteria and yeast are no exception. When dysbiosis occurs, the microbes produce compounds, known as endotoxins, which in excess impede normal function.
Leaky Gut – The Consequence of Digestive Disturbances
The effects of food reactions, impaired stomach acid production, dysbiosis and endotoxins all lead to inflammation within the digestive tract, by stimulating immune cells that inhabit the gut. This inflammation causes the cells of the intestine, which are normally tightly packed together, to pull apart. As these cells pull apart and the natural barrier of your gut is disturbed, food particles, pathogens, and endotoxins can freely travel between the cells (instead of being processed through the cells) where they have direct access to the blood and immune system. This is known as leaky gut syndrome.
It is the presence of foreign compounds from the gut in the bloodstream that can stimulate inflammation in other parts of the body, and the result is an “itis”–thyroiditis, arthritis, sinusitis. Endotoxins, if not eliminated from the body by the liver, can also deposit in fat tissue, leading to weight gain and muscle leading to pain and weakness.
If you heard that your digestive system is at the root of illness and UN-wellness…now you know why!
What Causes Digestive Disturbances?
The major cause of dysfunction within our digestive system is our diet. Our diet is laden with sugar, which is pro-inflammatory. Our diet contains multiple sources of highly processed, refined and allergenic foods, including gluten, dairy and processed meats. Our diet is covered with pesticides, chemicals and other toxins. And our diet is nutrient poor. This undermines the proper functioning of our digestive system. Add stress and busy lifestyles, which oppose optimal digestive function and you see how easy it is for imbalances to occur. Now add medications, such as antacids, anti-inflammatories, steroids and an over-zealous prescription of antibiotics and the snowball of dysfunction grows larger as it rolls faster down the proverbial mountain of illness.
How Can I Heal My Gut?
A healthy gut starts before birth by maintaining a healthy microbial maternal environment. The infant is first inoculated with good bacteria as she travels through the birth canal. Then, through skin to skin contact and breast feeding, her gut and immune system continue to mature. Avoiding unnecessary antibiotics and medications is extremely important. Sitting down for dinner, chewing food properly and not being rushed are dining skills that should be re-adopted from earlier generations. This places your body in a state of “rest” to digest, which is the opposite of stressed!
The Four Pillars of Healing the Gut
If you suffer from digestive dysfunction, there are four pillars that need to be addressed to gain back your gut’s vitality.
- Remove: Remove the injurious foods, chemicals and toxins your digestive system is exposed to.
- Replace: Replace the healing nutrients and enzymes that your body is not adequately producing. Also, replace the refined, processed and chemical-laden diet, with a whole foods diet—food is picked from a tree, plucked from the ground or shot in a field.
- Reinoculate: Reinoculate the friendly gut bacteria.
- Repair: Repair the gut lining and eliminate inflammation.
As you embark on treatment and dietary changes to heal your gut, it is important that you see it as a journey. You will be given the tools to optimize your digestive function and re-establish a healthy norm. These tools are not only meant for you to feel better, but to maintain your digestive health. Knowing the various causes of impaired gut function, you can prevent digestive imbalances from occurring again!