A well-functioning digestive system is the key to good health. This perspective was pervasive in my medical training since Naturopathic Medicine. With its emphasis on diet and nutrition, naturopathy has long/historically recognized how important is it to restore digestive health. Modern day research is confirming how extensively the digestive system influences the rest of the body. The gastrointestinal (GI) system has been called the second brain with its influence on neuro-transmitters, it is home to three-quarters of the body’s immune cells and more than 400 species of micro flora. Therefore, treating digestive system disorders as quickly and thoroughly as possible is critical. Many people learn to live with/control their symptoms by taking ant-acids, laxatives or avoiding certain foods. That may allow them to live with the condition, but they are not changing the root cause, which may contribute to more serious consequences.
Since the digestive system provides the human body with the nutrients to build and maintain all of the physiological and biochemical functions, getting these required nutrients is paramount. Unfortunately, eating well is not necessarily enough to assure the body is receiving optimal levels of nutrients. These following factors need to be occurring to create optimal GI health, especially as we age since there is a natural decline in many of the digestive structures and functions:
- Digestive enzyme secretions must be at appropriate levels for optimal digestion. If they are not (which occurs as we age) we may need to add digestive enzymes that are active and stable throughout a broad pH range. These will provide support of carbohydrate, protein, fat and fiber digestion.
- These essential nutrients must be effectively assimilated. Proper assimilation occurs when the integrity of the small intestine lining is intact. If the lining is not intact, intestinal permeability occurs. Avoiding foods the body is sensitive to is critical, as well as taking nutrients that can improve mucosal barrier function.
- Motor functions of the gut must propel food, waste products, organisms, and xenobiotics through the digestive tract. Many people with degenerative disorders have a history of constipation, which can respond well to natural fibers, herbs and proper exercise. Our bodies and the bacteria, yeast, parasites that may inhabit our gut produce endotoxins that must, as a normal part of digestive function, be eliminated. The food we consume is the most abundant source of xenobiotics (substances foreign to the body), and our liver and intestines play a critical role in metabolizing and eliminating these substances. Specific amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and herbs are available that support optimal eliminative functions of the GI tract and liver.
- Eliminate overgrowths of intestinal yeast, pathogenic bacteria or parasite. Many people struggle with this aspect of intestinal imbalance and many herbal formulas are helpful in ridding the body of potentially harmful organisms.
- Re-establish a healthy balance of intestinal micro flora. Of utmost importance is maintaining adequate amounts of normal intestinal flora (e.g., Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria) to protect bacterial balance in the gut and support a balanced gut-associated immune system. Probiotics that can effectively colonize in the GI tract may be a necessary supplement as well as including fermented, cultured foods in one’s diet.
- Identify and address any underlying stress that may be affecting the GI system. Emotional issues surrounding food and nourishment may be eased with emotional counseling, homeopathic or herbal remedies, or acupuncture.
Many digestive conditions resolve with these basic therapies, but if more specific testing is required or more individualized therapy is indicated there are many options to restore digestive vitality.