Our gastrointestinal system is the gateway to our body. In fact, more than 70% of our immune system is present within our digestive system, having the role of preventing any external pathogens from invading the body from consumed food and fluid. However, food itself can be problematic if not effectively digested, leaking through the gut wall and leading to delayed hypersensitivity responses and other effects throughout the body.
Remember that whatever your state of health may be, a dysfunctional or diseased gastrointestinal tract will ultimately affect every system in your body, as it is through your gut that you absorb almost all of your essental vitamins, minerals and amino acids that are required to make your neurotransmitters, proteins, cell membranes and the like.
The Battle of the Bugs
Another amazing truth is that much of the work of your gastrointestinal system is done by billions of gastrointestinal microorganisms (‘bugs’) that must be in balance for effective gut function. In fact, we have more bugs in our digestion system than cells in our body! If an imbalance in gut bugs occurs not only is digestion affected, but also the delicate balance of immunity throughout the body.
And if it all goes wrong?
You become vulnerable to the varied gastrointestinal diseases that commonly afflict modern society: Coeliac disease, Lactose Intolerance, Other Food Intolerances, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Peptic Ulcers, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Acute Diarrhoea and Chronic Constipation. All these conditions may be associated with ineffective digestion and immune system dysfunction.
How can you keep your Digestive System healthy?
Firstly, ensure you follow a healthy diet and digestive practices (e.g. adequate chewing, non-hurried meals etc.). You should also be aware of the signs and symptoms of gastrointestinal dysfunction that may precede gastrointestinal disease by weeks, months and even years.
What are the Signs of Gastrointestinal Dysfunction?
Abdominal Discomfort/ Pain
Painful bowel motions
Excess Burping/ Flatulence
Inconsistent stools : loose, pebbly, foul-smelling, >3/day
Associated with use of Antibiotics, Antacids or Anti-inflammatory drug use
Where do you begin with Gastrointestinal rehabilitation?
Good digestion begins with slow eating in which you thoroughly chew your food. The benefits of this are two-fold; food is ground down mechanically and increased time in the mouth encourages satisfactory secretion of salivary enzymes to bring the chemical breakdown of foods.
What goes in, must come out!
Of course, before you go any further, you must make certain the other end is working. If you have constipation this is critical to clear before trying anything else.
Foods such as dried figs, apricots, prunes and other high fibre foods can be helpful. Good quality Probiotics, Liquorice tea (as long as you do not have High Blood Pressure), Olive and Flaxseed oil, Slippery Elm, Aloe Vera, Psyllium Husks and other fibre blends can be effective.
Another trick is to use high dose Vitamin C and/or Magnesium. Keep going with the Vitamin C until it enforces expulsion then cut back. You may need doses up to 40 grams daily short-term. Don't worry- You cannot over-dose! Your body tells you when you've had too much because it results in diarrhoea. Magnesium (chelated, 300mg or more) may also loosen stools.
What if you have Diarrhoea?
This depends if your symptoms are acute or chronic. If they are acute (i.e. Likely Viral illness or Food Intolerance), then we recommend keeping well hydrated and using good quality probiotics in order to regain a balance of gut bugs. If this does not help, then you may need to have your stools tested to identify any bad bugs that need to be eliminated.
If your symptoms are chronic, you should definately having your stools checked for pathological bugs and to exclude blood. Remember, a change of bowel habit with no obvious cause should always be investigated by a medical doctor. Chronic diarrhoea may also simply be due to lack of good gut bacteria and/or food intolerances, however, more serious diseases need to be excluded.
What Foods should You be putting in your Mouth?
Many gastrointestinal problems occur due to individual food intolerances. We strongly recommend anyone with gastrointestinal dysfunction and disease undertake a Food Elimination Regime. It is further suggested you read the section, Understanding Food Intolerances in the Healthy Eating Plans section to comprehend the significance of this condition.
Is there anything else You should do Before a Food Elimination Regime?
Good microorganism balance is essential to your health and cannot be under estimated. If you have any gastrointestinal symptoms, we advise beginning with a good quality Probiotic supplement containing a mixed organism count in the billions or even tens (and in instances of specific diseases, even hundreds) of billions of organisms.
In fact a proactive Preventative Health Programme might also include the use of an effective probiotic.
What about if You are taking Antibiotics?
Antibiotics unfortunately destroy all bugs, both good and bad. There is therefore no point using Probiotics with Antibiotics but it is very important to use Probiotics after the use of antibiotics to replenish those healthy gut bugs.
We recommed the concurrent use of a good yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisea, with antibiotics in order to reduce possible side-effects including thrush infections and diarrhoea.
Are Antibiotics always Necessary?
With cases of documented pathological micro-organisms grown from either sputum, blood, urine or stool cultures, antibiotics are almost always necessary. In other instances, where the underlying cause is not so clear and you are otherwise well, natural antibiotic herbs are often preferable to an empirical course of antibiotic drugs.
There are many herbs that may be chosen for their antibiotic, anti-viral, anti-parasitic and/or anti-fungal properties. These include garlic, olive leaf extract, goldenseal, barberry bark, wormwood, Echinacea, Paul d’Arco, Astragalus, wormwood, citrus seed extract and fresh coriander.
The difficulty, however, is that the choice of herb may depend upon the type of infection. A Comprehensive Digestive Stool Analysis or a Comprehensive Faecal Microbial Anaysisis are tests that may be used to identify particular gut bug(s). This should be requested and interpreted by an experienced integrative practitioner.
What about Heartburn? Do I need Antacids?
Here we find a major difference between most doctors and naturopaths. Doctors almost always consider heartburn to result from an excess of hydrochloric acid (HCl), whilst naturopaths see it the other way, too little hydrochloric acid.
Hydrochloric acid is required in the stomach to assist digestion and the reality is both an excess and an insufficiency of HCl is possible. Therefore there is an inherant risk that the inexperienced use of HCl supplements may worsen an excess, whilst the use of pharmaceutical antacids may actually worsen digestion despite masking the symptoms.
HCl supplements can be a successful choice but you should have a practitioner perform a functional assessment before usage. A better place to begin is with Probiotic supplementation followed by a Food Elimination Regime. If symptoms still persist, then further investigations may be necessary, including perhaps an Helicobacter pylori breath test, IgG Food Intolerance Test or a Gastroscopy.
What else can help with Digestion?
Digestive enzymes can be very effective in aiding Digestion. Commonly supplemented enzymes include combinations of Pepsin, Trypsin, Chymotrypsin, Amylase, Lipase, Lactase and/or HCL. They are particularly helpful during celebrations and holidays when it can be difficult to commit to a restricted eating plan.
It is important to note, however, that digestive enzymes are a "band-aid" that do not assist in long-term healing, rather simply masking symptoms. Unlike most nutritional/herbal regimes, they work immediately and are gone by the next meal.
What is ‘Leaky Gut’?
Leaky gut occurs when the stomach/small intestine literally leaks large maldigested food fragments through into the circulatory system. This allows food particles to enter the body causing a diverse range of symptoms.
What can you do about this?
Firstly, aim to stop the irritation of the gut wall. Trial a Food Elimination Regime, Probiotics and soothing herbal formulas such as Aloe vera, Slippery Elm and Psylllium husks.
Simultaneously feed the gut with rebuilding nutrients such as Glutamine, Glucosamine and Fish Oils to rebuild the cell membrane.
Do I need to do a Liver Detoxification?
Aren’t you doing enough by now?
Whether or not you believe in Liver Detoxification, the gut comes first. Solve the gut problems and, pharmaceutical and environmental toxins aside, most of the work is done. Remember, 70% of the immune system is in the gastrointestinal tract, so work with it first.
What about the effects of Pharmaceutical Medication?
Most medications can affect gastrointestinal functioning. Ask your doctor to review if any medication may be causing dysfunction in your gastrointestinal tract and discuss the alternatives. This may also require reconsideration of the treatments of any disease for which these medications have been prescribed.
Is Stress Important?
Have you ever had "butterflies" or "knots" in your stomach?
This is one part of the stress response; the slowing down of your gastrointestinal system. Stress reduces the quality of digestion and chronic stress can progress all Gastrointestinal Diseases.
The gastrointestinal system may be influenced by many psychological factors so review thoroughly if any of the following lifestyle factors may be relevant for you to address.
Effects Based Stress Managements Techniques including Relaxtion
Cause Based Stress Management Techniques
Achieving Work Life Balance
Learning to effectively manage Emotions
Prioritising Family and other Relationships (including healing old wounds)
Becoming connected with your community, environment and, if you are spiritual, the particular concept of God/Universe that matters to you.
What about Exercise?
Regular activity is important for the movement of food through the gastrointestinal system. However, you should not strenuously exercise within an hour of your meal times as the exercise response will prevent effective digestion.
What about Smoking?
Quit smoking as it may further the inflammation process.
This really is one of the most significant changes you can make in your life if you are a smoker. If you cannot quit without assistance, this being the majority of smokers, it may be sensible to join a multidisciplinary programme. Peer support is often essential to the success of any quit smoking plan.
Remember, however, that although pharmaceutical approaches that replace nicotine via chewing gum, patch or otherwise are helpful, eventually they must be weaned otherwise you may simply be trading the risk of lung cancer for other diseases.
What serious signs must I look out for?
You must immediately report blood and/or mucus in your stools to your Doctor.
What if I already have a significant Gastrointestinal Disease?
There are specific interventions for each of the diagnosable diseases, however the cornerstone begins with the guidelines provided above.
1. Follow healthy food behaviours e.g. slow chewing, whatever your condition.
2. Address Constipation if it is present
3. Trial a dose of good quality Probiotics
4. Identify Food Intolerances through a Food Elimination Regime
5. Consider the need to treat Leaky Gut
6. Investigate if in any Gastrointestinal Infections require treatment with select herbs
7. Use HCl and/or Digestive Enzyme Supplements sparingly and under supervision
8. Manage your Stress effectively and Quit Smoking
9. Review the use and need of any Medications that may have GI side effects
10. If all else fails, or if danger signs exist, seek further diagnosis