Digesting the Digestive System

I often hear patients express a desire to ‘health their gut’ as a means for achieving their health goals. In naturopathic medical school I often heard the phrase ‘health starts in the gut’ or ‘treat the gut first’. Treating gut health has become popular, but what does it really mean? According to online ‘experts’, it can mean many things ranging from drinking cups of bone broth daily to downing special ‘gut healing’ powders. Let’s break this down a little bit and start with why digestive health is so important.

The main function of our digestive system is the breakdown and assimilation of nutrients. We use these nutrients as the building blocks for our tissues, as cofactors for reactions, and as the fuel we run on. I am sure you have heard several tired analogies around nutrition and your health. But food really is the gas we put in our tank. If that gas is full of preservatives, sugar, highly refined carbohydrates, dyes, etc., it can seriously clog your engine (I couldn’t help myself!).

Another aspect of digestive health is that the majority of our immune system resides in our gut. This is a major training ground for our immune system. Our immune cells are learning how to fight and what to fight. If they are trained well by the beneficial flora (microbiome), they can better recognize self and non-self tissue. This is a big deal for folks predisposed to allergies and autoimmune disease.

Which leads me to another important aspect of your ‘gut’, the microbiome. I could spend an entire article singing the praises of a healthy microbiome. In short, these little guys make short chain fatty acids that keep your colon healthy, make vitamin K, likely ‘talk’ with your central nervous system, play a role in keeping pathogenic flora out of your gut, keep the lining of your gut intact, and the list goes on.

Once I ask a few more questions of the patients inquiring about ‘healing their gut’, they often follow it up with an explanation that they suspect ‘leaky gut’. The technical term for leaky gut is intestinal permeability and it’s still not recognized by most conventional gastroenterologists. The official test used in research is to drink a large sugar molecule, too large to be absorbed by your intestines, and then check the urine for presence of this sugar. The test isn’t very helpful in clinical practice because it just tells you that intestinal permeability is present and that’s it. The biggest misconception I hear is that it takes months to heal a leaky gut. The cells that make up our intestines turn over often, every three days in fact. My approach is to reduce or eliminate the culprits damaging the lining rather than flooding your GI with nutrients/supplements to ‘heal’ the gut. We’ve been a little brainwashed into thinking we need to take things to make use better.

When your intention is to work on your digestive health, you want to consider a few things before you jump on the supplement train:

  • What are you putting in your gut? This includes food, alcohol, NSAIDS, antibiotics…

  • Are you taking time to chew your food?

  • Are you consuming the right blend of fibers/prebiotics to support a healthy microbiome?

  • How is your current stress and past stress impacting your microbiome and digestive capability?

  • What is your breathing pattern and posture like? Are you using your diaphragm and giving your body the space it needs to do its job?

  • How often are you physically active? Fun fact: physical activity can beneficially alter your microbiome.

Most folks who make their way to my office have complex and complicated digestive concerns. That does not mean we skip the basics listed above. If you don’t have a strong foundation, it’s very challenging to heal. Often the root causes of even the most complicated conditions can be an issue with one of the basics. For example, a sluggish gallbladder can put you on the path to SIBO especially when combined with chronic stress. Don’t even get me started on how strong the connection is between chronic stress and IBD. Holistic medicine incorporates all of the lifestyle basics with the most current research on nutrients, botanicals, and functional testing to help guide a person back to wellness. For digestive health, this may include functional stool testing, prescribed diets, targeted probiotics, specific nutrients/herbs and more. With so much information at our fingertips, it’s tempting to try and tackle your health challenges alone, but I highly recommend working with an experienced provider. In addition to providing you guidance from education and experience, you gain a cheerleader in your corner.


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