I’ll spare myself some 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 on white 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.
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. Inflammatory bowel syndromes (Crohn’s 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 Michael Gershon, M.D. (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 moodstabilizing neurotransmitter serotonin is 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, R.N.—a nurse who for years has been helping children with autism heal by addressing their gut-related issues—wrote in a 2011 article in The Autism File: “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 healthcare providers today (such as functional medicine practitioners, doctors of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda) 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 Pepcid AC, Prilosec, Zantac, etc.) is the key to minimizing symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion and GERD. However, Joseph Mercola, D.O., and many other naturally oriented doctors have been informing us for years 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.” For example, heartburn comes from stomach acid regurgitating into the esophagus.
Dr. Mercola 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-20s 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 30s, when I began working with Sidney Baker, M.D., that I began to learn about other factors that influence digestion. Dr. Baker (a graduate of Yale Medical School, pediatrician, author and co-founder of the Defeat Autism Now! movement) taught me about the role yeast overgrowth (caused by stress, eating too much sugar, and recurrent use of antibiotics) plays in symptoms such as gas, bloating, weakened immunity, fatigue and mental fogginess. He was also an expert in identifying and treating parasites (which had somehow taken up residence in my GI tract!) and the critical role probiotics (friendly bacteria) play 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 will 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, I resolved my digestive problems; 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 malady.
Eventually, I discovered information on the importance of digestive enzymes (which assist in breaking down foods and absorbing 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 also on what you digest and absorb. Enzymes, such as proteases (which break down protein) and 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 fresh-squeezed organic vegetable juices, I often recommend a comprehensive digestive enzyme such as those made by Houston Enzymes (houstonenzymes.com) to be taken with each meal, after the first few bites of food. After starting a regimen of digestive enzymes, many individuals report improved mental clarity and a decrease in bloating, gas and fatigue.
Another area to explore if gas, bloating and other signs of poor digestion persist is IgG (delayed-reaction) food allergies or sensitivities. An effective and inexpensive way of identifying if one or several foods may be causing symptoms is to eliminate the common culprits (dairy, gluten, soy, eggs, sugar, etc.) for a period of 10 days or two weeks, and then reintroduce them one at a time. Another option is having a specialty lab perform an IgG food panel. This is a blood test that must be ordered by a physician. It is helpful in pinpointing which foods may be causing delayed reactions (meaning that one or two days after you eat a certain food, 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 problematic gluten can be. Once I eliminated gluten (the protein in wheat, barley, oats and rye) 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 can irritate 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. I’ll have 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 Ayurvedic practitioner told me, “The digestive tract is 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) 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 for a healthy GI tract. Probiotics not only crowd out bad organisms, such as yeast and bad bacteria, but they also increase immune function in the intestines, protect against food poisoning, eliminate toxins (including heavy metals), synthesize B vitamins, regulate bowel movements, and limit bacteria that produce cancer-causing nitrates. Homemade kefir is the least expensive, most concentrated means of acquiring your daily probiotic needs.
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 midday and consuming a lighter meal later is actually more in line with the natural rhythm of digestion. Eating close to bedtime is also not recommended. 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 healthcare provider will test to see if yeast overgrowth (also called candida) is an issue. Stool test kits from specialty labs like Genova Diagnostics (gdx.net) will provide a comprehensive overview of the status of your digestive tract and check for yeast, parasites, friendly bacteria and nasty pathogenic organisms. Information on candida detection and treatment can be found online at wncwoman.com, in the 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 test for IgG food allergies or sensitivities. The typical allergic reaction is IgE mediated (meaning it causes an immediate reaction, such as when you eat a shrimp and quickly break out in hives). However, IgG food sensitivities are much harder to track, because they cause a delayed reaction. When you drink milk and are bloated two days later, or eat soy one day and the next day you are tired, it’s hard to pin the culprit down.
Gluten 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. I discuss the problems caused by gluten, scientific research substantiating the benefits of removing it from one’s diet, and practical steps for cooking without it in an article at SOKHOP. You can read it at tinyurl.com/sokhopgluten.
For lower GI issues, such as IBS, consider adding a high-quality source of omega-3 fatty acid (like fish oil) to the above recommendations. This will help reduce inflammation.