Gut health has really come into fashion in the last few years. What can be misunderstood is that the health of your gut has impacts far beyond local digestive problems like GERD/acid reflux, SIBO, IBS - gas/bloating, diarrhea/constipation, or IBD - Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s disease.
A healthy gut prepares and absorbs the nutrients we need to function and live. Every single part of our body needs nutrients and our digestive system works very hard to mechanically and enzymatically break down the food we eat into particles we can absorb and use. We also have help from the symbiotic (I’ll help you and you help me) bacteria in our microbiota to make nutrients accessible to us.
Our digestive tract also serves to keep out toxins and bacteria/virus/parasites that may have come along for a ride with the food or water we ingested. Ironically substances we have swallowed are still considered outside of us as they move through our digestive tract. To avoid “bad guys” getting inside of us, our intestinal wall is selective like a bouncer at a posh party. The guests must be invited. No invitation, no entrance. A similar phenomena happens in the kidneys called selective reabsorption. It says, “I’ll take you and you.. you,” while unknown and potentially harmful substances leave our body. Our brain has protection too called the Blood Brain Barrier.
Its a good system. Take in what we need and keep out what can harm us. So what has happened? Why has the digestive system run amok with so many people?
Terrible food - We evolved in relationship with the edible substances around us. Today mass produced food is - well terrible. Organic may seem shi shi foo foo but it simply means produced without the use of: antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, high fructose corn syrup, artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically engineered ingredients, sewage sludge and irradiation. Big Food is both lacking in nutrients and containing toxins.
Heartburn medications such as Prilosec and Zantac. These antacids were designed to be used for a maximum of 2 weeks to allow an ulcer to heal. Now I have patients who have been taking them for years! A PPI can knock out acid production for 24 hours. As a result, when someone swallows a piece of chicken after taking Prilosec, there is no hydrochloric acid (HCl) to denature the proteins and expose their bonds to allow enzymes to turn them into polypeptides (a substance the small intestine is able to further break down into amino acids). In addition we are lacking the acidic environment needed to kill bacteria such as H.Pylori that likes a near neutral pH (Testerman and Morris, 2014). Now we have undigested food and bacterial overgrowth, a perfect combo for damage.
NSAIDs - Believe me when I was having humdinger headaches my last year of graduate school I was thankful for these! So why would I be motivated to discontinue taking them when they were so good at treating pain? For one, they change the makeup of our microbiota, meaning the ratio of good and bad is out of balance (Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania). NSAIDs also cause increased gut permeability - remember we want our gut wall to be very strict about who gets into our blood stream. Plus they interrupt the formation of the protective gastric mucosa making us vulnerable to GI bleeding and ulcers.
Antibiotics - We know from literature dating back thousands of years and current research, that we need to be careful using antibacterial/antiviral/antiparasitic herbs or pharmaceuticals because we can cause permanent damage to our health.
Toxins such as Glyphosate - this is a whole article in itself. Think damage and lots of it.
Alcohol - Too much causes dysbiosis (not a good ratio of friendly to unfriendly) and damages the gut wall.
Modern grains - Developed to produce a greater yield, this tough crop is hardy and difficult to digest causing injury and ensuing inflammation.
Stress - It activates the sympathetic nervous system taking us out of the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system.
Once we have damage - something that is pretty easy to acquire considering how common place the above are in our society - what happens? Why are its effects so vast?
Two reasons: we don't have enough of what we need and we have too much of what we don’t need.
At different times pop media will highlight a specific substance like neurotransmitters that can be affected by faulty digestion. “Oh I need to heal my gut because I won’t have enough neurotransmitters”. In reality your whole body is vulnerable to nutrient deficiency. For example, friendly bacteria eat insoluble fiber in the gut. One of the byproducts (their waste product) is Short Chain Fatty Acids. SCFAs provide nourishment for our intestinal lining. If we don’t eat enough fiber or have enough “good bacteria”, our gut wall doesn’t have the nutrition it needs and becomes weak and ineffective. Interestingly SCFAs, in addition to feeding our gut wall, favor T cell differentiation into T regulatory (Treg) cells (Haghikia et al, 2015). Treg cells are immune cells that keep watch over immune reactions. They might say “take it easy!”; an important job because too much of an immune response is what causes excess inflammation.
This leads us to our second point, a faulty wall and an overstressed immune system. When something gets through the wall uninvited it is an invader, an antigen. The immune system mounts an attack against these unwanted guests and soon we have excess inflammation. Excess inflammation causes damage which leads to more inflammation because the immune system has to clean up and soon we have disease. Allergies are an exaggerated immune response to other. Autoimmune symptoms/disease are an exaggerated immune response to self.
Eventually our primary immune response becomes depleted and our secondary immune response is on high alert and trigger happy. What ensues are chronic infections, allergies, autoimmune symptoms like brain fog and fatigue, autoimmune disease like type 2 diabetes and cancer - our immune system is overwhelmed and can’t keep up to kill off aberrant cells (abnormal cells that can grow rapidly to form tumors).
So as you can see its not a single system that is affected with symptoms like GERD or bloating. Its the whole kit and kaboodle. With nutrient deficiency and antigen overload, we open ourselves up to a whole host of disorders and disease. It’s a mess that must be cleaned up if you have any hope of healing or preventing disease. And that my friends is why its so dang important.
- Dr. Laura D Varga, DAOM
Testerman T. and Morris J. (2014) Beyond the stomach: An updated view of Helicobacter Pylori pathogenesis, diagnosis, and treatment. World J Gastroenterol. 20(36):12781-12808.
Haghikia A., et al. (2015). Dietary Fatty Acids Directly Impact Central Nervous System Autoimmunity via the Small Intestine. Immunity 43, 817-829.
Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. "Anti-inflammatory drug and gut bacteria have a dynamic interplay." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 January 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160104132151.htm>.