Resolving Problems and Promoting Good Digestive Health

More and more research is beginning to highlight the digestive system as crucial to overall health in a range of the body’s systems and processes.

For example, researchers recently noticed that roughly 85% of children with Autism also exhibit some type of gastrointestinal distress, prompting the search for a link between the digestive system and this genetic developmental disorder.

Furthermore, we are finding that increased intestinal permeability, also known as “leaky gut,” is the root cause (or a major contributing factor) to a host of other health problems—many of which are seemingly unrelated on the surface. They include: skin disorders such as psoriasis and eczema, various autoimmune diseases, arthritis, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s Disease, kidney disease, obesity and diabetes.

For a holistic physician like myself, this doesn’t come as a big surprise. “We are what we eat,” after all.

Nevertheless, it’s good to get some encouragement from the research community, because now we can talk about what to do about it.

When it comes to the intestinal issues I’ve so often seen come into my office, two things come to mind: an imbalance or lack of intestinal flora and leaky gut. Let’s start with intestinal flora.

Your constant companions

It has been known for a long time that we depend on the activity of good bacteria to help us digest our food. But research into genetics is revealing even more fascinating and nuanced roles for these creatures.

It’s becoming clearer that these bacteria play the role of third-party communicator in our digestive tract, much like the telephone operators of the old days. They send signals to our DNA, prompting the creation of hormones, enzymes, proteins and more.

Some of these bacteria are so specialized to the human body that there is no way to get them externally. One type of intestinal bacteria can only be passed to a child as it passes through its mother’s birth canal, causing some to speculate that the rise in C-sections might correlate with the rise in various digestive conditions.

Ideally, we have 10x more bacteria in our gut than cells. That’s a lot! Low gut flora levels can lead to poor digestion, constipation, leaky gut, cramps, food intolerance and more. So it’s important to get the nutrients you need, as well as for your comfort, to maintain a healthy balance.

Here’s what you can do:

Eat dairy – Now this comes with some caveats. Too often these days, dairy products are heavily pasteurized and processed with heat or other chemicals. This can kill off or eliminate a lot of the health benefits, including gut flora. For good digestive health, you have to get raw dairy from grass-fed and high-density grazing cows (meaning they eat and live and spend all their time in the same fields).
Eat fermented foods. There are so many options. Fermented foods is how the majority of the human race up until this point has helped to maintain a good balance in their digestive system and how many foods were stored before refrigeration. The fermentation process cultivates orders of magnitude more good bacteria than any other natural process. Good options might be kimchi, tempeh, miso and sauerkraut.
Drink whey water. Simply the water left over after milk is curdled and strained, whey water can be used for baking, cheese making or simply drinking—and it’s chock full of good bacteria.
Live an active, outdoor life. Interacting with the world around us cultivates a healthy, balanced, holistic existence. The creatures in the air, water and soil are, for the most part, not bad for us. And in many cases, they are quite good for us. Don’t let our modern, hyper-sterile society make you weak. Which leads me to…
Avoid antibiotics when not completely necessary. These drugs kill all of our bodies’ bacteria, even the good ones. You have to replenish your gut flora after a round of antibiotics, which can be stressful on your body and time-consuming.

Your leaky gut

This disorder is essentially a constant aggravating of our immune system response mechanisms. The cells that compose the lining of our stomach and intestines are joined at the edges by what are called “tight injunctions.” They are tight because, under ideal circumstances, these junctions do not allow anything through them. However, suffers of leaky gut (especially in the more extreme cases) get a stomach and intestinal lining that looks like Swiss cheese. When this happens, undigested food, bacteria, toxins and proteins leak across the lining and into the and cause the body’s immune system to have an inflammatory response throughout the body. Without the proper bacteria in the gut, the digestive system becomes inflamed as well, leading to hormone problems and high food sensitivity.

Oftentimes, it is missed in a diagnosis and patients are considered to simply have a food allergy or even an autoimmune disorder.

The cause of leaky gut could be one of several factors, or a combination of things. Triggers include a diet composed with too heavy an emphasis on grains, some GMO foods (such as bt-corn) and pesticides, too much sugar, a high stress lifestyle, too much alcohol, overuse of antibiotics, a lack or imbalance of gut flora and the use of certain over-the-counter pain killers.

The outward expressions of leaky gut include headaches, general mental fogginess, memory loss, easily and quickly falling ill, constipation, excessive gas and diarrhea. Luckily, it’s something you can fix yourself.

  • Start with a fast. Talk to your doctor about the extent and length of your fast. However, this is almost a sure-fire solution. Fasting stops the inflammation because nothing goes in to your gut to exacerbate it
  • Cultivate that gut flora. Again, eat fermented foods, raw and grass-fed dairy and get outside into the natural world
  • Do a cellular detox. Regularly integrate antioxidants into your diet
  • Try to identify intolerance to foods. You can do this a couple of ways. Try keeping a food journal that includes what you’ve eaten, when and the way you felt at certain periods afterwards. Or, you can cut out a variety of food types, then slowly introduce them one-by-one to see how you feel differently
  • Get exercise to increase health and manage stress. Do things you enjoy and that relax you to manage stress
  • Drink bone broth tea
  • If it’s really bad, and it isn’t going away despite your best efforts, you can attempt a fecal microbiota transplant. This is the process of taking the fecal matter of a healthy person with a good stock and balance of gut flora and giving it to the patient in hopes of starting the process of re-growing a good bacteria network in the digestive system.

Both of these problems are manageable and could greatly improve your health if solutions are implemented. However, they aren’t the only issues that could arise in your digestive system. Proper digestive health and preventative care is important, even if you aren’t exhibiting any problems at all.

In general:

Avoid processed foods. Of course, we know they are bad, but it’s often the case that we don’t know quite how bad they are. Many processed foods (i.e., Aspertame and Splenda) are broken down in the body to become even more dangerous sub-components of their original form. Processed foods often cause a low-level immune response as well, which can weaken your immune system for when real dangers arise.
Avoid digestive aids, even over-the-counter drugs like Prilosec, Pepsid AC, Zantac and others. They disrupt the natural acid/base/bacteria balance in your gut.

Get Vitamin B12. It can be difficult to process, particularly if you are already exhibiting digestive problems. It comes in a variety of foods, but your best shot is to regularly eat seafood.

So, here’s to our single-celled friends and an impermeable intestinal lining. I hope you’ve learned the importance of maintaining your digestive health as well as what to do if problems crop up. Feel free to contact me with comments or questions.

Until next time,

Dr. Sarah Ernst