We’re all a collection of cells…cells that group together by specialty to form organs and tissues….cells that have the same basic needs for survival and optimal functioning we all have as living beings: constant supply of nutrients, water and oxygen, constant waste removal, and homeostasis…not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry. For any of these needs to be properly met, we must have a balanced, healthy digestive tract. For this and many other reasons, ensuring that this system is running properly should most often be the first order of business. That’s why over the past year, we’ve started using advanced stool (yes, poop) testing to guide patient care, even when there may be no digestive or intestinal symptoms present.
Here are just a few of the symptoms that often resolve once the GI tract is happy and healthy:
- Anxiety, depression or other mood disorders
- Water retention
- Skin conditions
- Weight loss resistance
- Chronic infections
- Hair loss
- Migraines and headaches
- Chronic pain
- GI symptoms such as gas, bloating, irregular stools, heartburn, etc
To understand why issues outside the GI tract can be resolved by optimizing digestion, let’s take a tour of the digestive tract so we can see the many places where things can break down and how they negatively impact our health.
Digestion begins in the mouth as food is chewed and mixed with saliva. Saliva contains amylase, a starch-digesting enzyme, and moistens our food to ease it down the esophagus. It’s important for food to be sufficiently ground up before swallowing to increase surface area, allowing digestive juices to further break foods down into their smallest components. Cells don’t eat meatloaf, butter or berries….they eat the amino acids, fatty acids and simple sugars these foods break down into. When foods are NOT broken down all the way, this can trigger food reactions since these foods are still “identifiable” as foreign by the immune system. One of the many jobs of the digestive tract is to remove the “identity” from the foods we eat by breaking them all the way down into their smallest, most generic building blocks.
Because starch digestion should begin in the mouth, if you’re drinking freshly made juice or a smoothie or shake, you should “chew” it to allow for saliva to mix with it before swallowing so you’re not bypassing this important first step in digestion.
Next stop is the stomach, where the pH should be 1.5-3.5, which is slightly less acidic than battery acid. Insufficient acid (hypochlorhydria) is becoming an increasingly common issue in our society for these reasons and more:
- Helicobacter pylori or other microbial imbalances
- Chronic stress that shifts the nervous system away from rest-and-digest into fight-or-flight
- Poor diet
- Eating on the run
- Food sensitivities
- Overuse of NSAIDs and antibiotics
- Use of acid-blocking medications
- Chronic intake of magnesium oxide or calcium carbonate (TUMS, some supplements)
Stomach acid is critically important to overall health because it:
- Sterilizes/kills harmful microbes in the food we eat
- Triggers dumping of alkaline bile and pancreatic enzymes to neutralize acidity of stomach contents and begin the next phase in digestion
- Chelates minerals for absorption
- Helps with vitamin absorption, especially B12 and folate
- Activates the enzyme pepsin to ensure proper protein absorption
- Melts proteins apart so enzymes can access and break the bonds between amino acid chains
- Tones the lower esophageal sphincter, preventing acid from refluxing into the esophagus
I always think of stomach acid as the bouncer at the door of a party, deciding who gets in and who doesn’t, but it’s way more than that. When proteins aren’t properly broken down, the body can’t heal damaged tissue, and we age more rapidly. Our skin loses elasticity, our joints lose their shock absorbing capacity and flexibility. When nutrients aren’t absorbed, cells malfunction and chemical reactions that require these nutrients cannot take place consistently. Calcium and iron are particularly reliant on stomach acidity for absorption. Without calcium, our bones begin to thin. Without iron, we can’t properly oxygenate cells. Low stomach acid can literally impact every cell in the body!
Next, food reaches the duodenum, the first turn in the small intestine, where bile and pancreatic enzymes mix with the food and stomach acid to neutralize acidity and finish dismantling the food into its smallest generic building blocks. If food was not thoroughly ground and/or if pancreatic enzyme dumping or bile output from the gallbladder are weak (usually due to low stomach acid), higher than optimal amounts of undigested foods begin their journey through the small intestine, fostering the growth of different types of bacteria and yeast.
Muscular contractions (called peristalsis) keep the food moving along unless there are bacteria present creating toxins that paralyze this motion, causing constipation. This is referred to as SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), and is associated with mood disorders, malabsorption and increased systemic toxicity.
The lining of the small intestine is ONE CELL thick and resembles shag carpet. If you were to flatten this lining out, it would cover an area the size of a tennis court. That’s a lot of fragile intestinal lining to keep healthy and intact, and in fact, leaky gut is something we see commonly in our practice. When the GI lining is leaky, microbes, toxins and undigested foods migrate into the bloodstream where the immune system can exhaust itself trying to protect the body from all of these foreign substances. Glyphosate from Round-up and gluten are two substances that are commonly known to open up the tight junctions that make up this important barrier. (Why eating organic whenever possible is a great idea, and why many feel better on a gluten-free diet.)
In a healthy gut, the lining of the small intestine turns over completely ever 3-5 days, but in an unhealthy GI tract, it can take as long as 2-3 weeks!
Between the microvilli that make up the shag carpet lining of our intestines should be a thick mucosal barrier that provides haven for friendly microbes and protects that fragile one-cell-thick lining. Often when microbial imbalances are present, the mucosal barrier has been damaged and eroded. We have found that by providing nutrition for mucosal and intestinal barriers prior to treating GI infection, there is less likelihood of side effects from the treatment.
As food is digested, nutrients are absorbed across the lining of the small intestine and taken via the portal vein directly to the liver. The liver must then sort out toxins from nutrients, store glucose and nutrients for future use or shuttle to different areas of the body, detoxify harmful substances, produce different types of proteins for healing and repair throughout the body and help with digestion of all foodstuffs, all the while continuously filtering toxic substances from the blood for removal via the stool. When the GI lining is leaky, and/or waste isn’t being efficiently carried out of the body (constipation), the liver starts to get congested, eventually resulting in systemic toxicity.
When waste exits the small intestine, it passes through the ileocecal valve into the large intestine, where electrolytes and excess water are reabsorbed, creating a formed stool that is then moved into the rectum, triggering the urge to defecate. This movement of waste is reliant on sufficient fiber for “traction” as well as proper hydration. When hydration or fiber are insufficient, the body will rob the stool of as much fluid as it can, or stool simply takes too long to move through, allowing for too much water to reabsorbed, either of which can cause the stool to be dry, hard or pelleted and difficult to pass. This then creates a toxic environment in the GI tract, fostering the growth of undesirable microbes that prefer a more sluggish, dirty environment…sort of like a neighborhood that has inconsistent trash pick-up and therefore draws scavengers such as raccoons and rats.
What we most commonly see in our practice is people eating what we call the White-Yellow-Brown Diet. Eggs, cheese, bread, meat, nuts, milk…you get the idea. Fiber and nutrient density are often lacking, which sets the stage for dysfunction, toxicity and infection. Next, antibiotics are taken to handle the infections, which cause further imbalance in the GI tract. Since 70% of our immune response originates in the GI tract, and most of our serotonin is made there, continuing down this path will typically result in a treadmill of medications that act to further imbalance the GI tract and/or cover up the symptoms of dysfunction. Over time, the growing dysfunction and digestive weakness causes systemic toxicity and inflammation and sets the stage for chronic and degenerative diseases.
Patients are often AMAZED at how quickly they begin to notice improvement when beginning a protocol that addresses their specific GI imbalances, sometimes in as little as 2-3 days. Click here to learn about the advanced DNA stool testing we utilize, and check out these related links:
Taking Stock on Bone Broth
Nutty Cacao Bar Recipe (using bone broth)
Yet to come:
Drilling Down on H Pylori
How a Ketogenic Diet can Benefit your Microbiome
The Oral Microbiome and its Relationship to Heart Disease
Patty Shipley, Naturopath, RN, Herbalist
Meet Patty Shipley