By: Maureen McDonnell, RN
I think I’ll spare myself the embarrassment and not share with you the nickname my friends gave me in high school as a result of my digestive problems (hint, think: Blazing Saddles). I now know that the diet of my youth—which consisted of: bologna sandwiches on Wonder 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!
Seems 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 ( Crohns 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 university, it wasn’t until years later that I began to understand just how significant the digestive tract was to proper immune function, one’s mental status and overall health. I found it astounding when I met Dr. Michael Gershon, MD (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 mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter Serotonin was 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, behavior and general health.
I had no idea for most of my life (including many years as a nurse) 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, RN, (a nurse who for years has been helping children with autism heal by addressing their gut related issues) recently wrote in an international magazine article: “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 healers today such as Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda practitioners 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 that 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 compromise proper digestion and lower our defense against bacteria and other germs. Pharmaceutical companies have spent a lot of money promoting the idea that taking proton pump inhibitors, and H2 blockers (such as Pepsid AC, Prilosec, Zantac) is the key to minimizing symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion and GERD. However, physicians such as Dr. Mercola, and many other naturally-oriented doctors now understand 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” (hence heartburn from stomach acid regurgitating into the esophagus).
Joseph Mercola, MD wrote 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, Dr. Mercola 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 20’s I began the process of changing my diet. I started out by eliminating most 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 30’s when I began working with Sidney Baker, MD, (a graduate of Yale Medical School, pediatrician and co-founder of the Defeat Autism Now! Movement) that I began to learn about other factors that influenced digestion. Dr. Baker taught me about the role yeast overgrowth (caused by eating too much sugar, recurrent use of antibiotics and stress) played in symptoms such as gas, bloating, weakened immunity, fatigue and mental fogginess. He was also an expert in identifying and treating parasistes (which had somehow taken up residence in my GI tract!) and the critical role probiotics (good friendly bacteria) played 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 form) which in turn weakens your overall immune system’s ability to defend itself.
As his nurse and lucky recipient of Dr. Baker’s brilliance and tutelage, my digestive problems resolved and 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-day malady.
Eventually, I discovered information on the importance of digestive enzymes (which assist in the breaking down of food, and absorption of nutrients). Although they remain intact when food is raw, enzymes are easily destroyed by heating 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. But health is not just dependent on what you eat, but 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 or fresh- squeezed organic vegetable juices, I often recommend a comprehensive digestive enzyme such as those made by Houston Enzymes.com. These are to be taken with each meal (after the first few bites of food.) After starting digestive enzymes, many individuals report a decrease in bloating, gas, fatigue and improved mental clarity.
Another area to explore if gas, bloating and other signs of poor digestion persist is IgG (immunoglobulin) food allergies or sensitivities as these can often be a relevant piece of the puzzle. Some individuals find eliminating the common culprits (such as dairy, gluten, soy, eggs, sugar, etc) for a period of 10 days or 2 weeks and then reintroducing them one at a time, to be an effective and inexpensive way of identifying if one, or several of the foods may be causing symptoms. Another option (which is more expensive but can be very helpful) is having a specialty lab (such as Genova Diagnostics here in Asheville) perform an IgG food panel. This is a blood test that must be ordered by a physician. It is helpful in pin-pointing which foods may be causing delayed reactions (meaning you eat a certain food one day, and one or two days later, you experience bloating, skin rashes, fatigue, headaches, weight gain, etc).
In more recent years, I discovered I was sensitive to gluten (the protein in wheat, barley, some oats and rye). Once I eliminated it from my diet, I witnessed additional positive changes in my health including increased energy. For some individuals, gluten becomes an irritant to 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 not eating protein and carbohydrates at the same meal and eating fruits alone. More information on this technique in future articles
Changing my diet (which included avoiding gluten, using better food combining principles, , avoiding foods I tested positive for in an IgG blood profile), getting rid of yeast, killing that lovely parasite and adding a few supplements ( digestive enzymes, probiotics, Omega 3 fish oil and a good multi) did the trick for me. Suffice it to say, that even though I don’t adhere to a strict regimen 100% of the time, the nickname assigned to me during my youth is no longer relevant.
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, I would strongly recommend investigating this approach with a naturally oriented physician and trying some or all of the suggestions below. As one local Ayurvedic Practitioner (John Immel of JoyfulBelly.com in Weaverville) said to me in a recent interview: “The digestive tract is both 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 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 not drinking liquids with your meals (especially milk). Instead consume adequate fluids (mostly water) in between meals.
Try adding a comprehensive digestive enzyme taken after the first few bites of food with each meal. Although the pancreas is supposed to be the main supplier of digestive enzymes (along with raw food), the pancreas gets overworked in high-carb diets, causing it to decrease its production of enzymes.
Probiotics may be the single most important supplement to take in supporting the health of the GI tract. They not only crowd out bad organisms such as yeast and bad bacteria, they also increase immune function in the intestines, can help protect against food poisoning, synthesize B vitamins, regulate bowel movements, limit bacteria that produce cancer causing nitrates and help eliminate toxins.
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 mid-day and consuming a lighter meal later in the day is actually more in line with the natural rhythm of digestion. Eating close to bedtime is also not recommended as 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 health care provider will test to see if yeast overgrowth (also called Candida) is an issue. Stool test kits from Genova Labs (GenovaDiagnostics.com) will provide a comprehensive overview of the status of your digestive tract and check for yeast, parasites, good friendly bacteria and nasty pathogenic organisms. Information on Candida detection and treatment can be found at www.wncwoman.com, 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 do testing for IgG food allergies or sensitivities. The typical allergic reaction is IgE mediated (meaning it causes an immediate reaction. You eat a shrimp and get a hive). However, IgG food sensitivities are much harder to track as they cause a delayed reaction. You drink milk and 2 days later you might be bloated or have a headache. Or you eat soy one day and the next day you are tired.
Gluten, which is the sticky protein in wheat, barley, most oats and rye 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. An article which discusses the problems caused by gluten, scientific research substantiating the benefits to some of removing it from one’s diet, as well as practical steps for cooking without it can be found at www.sokhop.com/why-is-everyone-going-gluten-free-296S.
For lower GI issues, such as IBS, in addition to the above mentioned recommendations, you might add a high quality source of Omega 3 (like fish oil) as this will help reduce inflammation.
And always remember: “The Road to Good Health is paved with Good Intestines”
Email Maureen at firstname.lastname@example.org