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Holistic Approaches to Common Gastrointestinal Problems

by Emma Lane(more info)

listed in colon health, originally published in issue 217 - October 2014

GI Nation

We are a nation suffering from chronic health problems - sleep disorders, tiredness and mood swings to name but a few. On the surface, these may not appear to be gastrointestinal issues, but in fact many of these symptoms can arise from poor digestive tract function.

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How are Most Health Challenges Dealt With?

The most common response is to simply cope with health issues or try common over-the-counter treatments that will only temporarily cover up the symptoms. However, there is a wealth of options for restoring true health through natural approaches that create intestinal balance. This can affect and improve all aspects of a patient’s wellbeing.

Are Health Problems Coming from the Gut?

I’ve spent many years helping people identify and pinpoint the factors that may be sabotaging their health. I’ve seen patients recover from unresolved illnesses after simply identifying and dealing with the internal invasion of parasites, bacteria and fungi that have been making them sick. Often their symptom set had been mislabelled as allergies, hypoglycaemia, depression, chronic fatigue or IBS. Some misdiagnoses stem from the fact that poor gut health affects many other systems in the body. When the intestine is not able to function properly, our bodies can literally become malnourished even if we are eating well. We might eat healthy meals, but the gut is unable to absorb the nutrients thoroughly. This sets the stage for fatigue, poor metabolism, compromised immune response and a myriad of other whole-body ailments.

Holistic Approaches to Common Gastrointestinal Problems

Common Symptoms

The following are symptoms that many patients present to me each week in clinic; at first glance, many do not seem to be related to the gut but are in fact inextricably linked to gastrointestinal dysfunction.

  • Digestive difficulties;
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain;
  • Food sensitivities;
  • Feeling bloated or gassy;
  • Ulcers, heartburn, acid indigestion or GERD;
  • Diarrhoea, constipation, and/or irritable bowel;
  • Poor sleep;
  • Lack of concentration;
  • Frequent yeast infections;
  • Frequent colds, sinusitis, or respiratory infections;
  • Arthritis and other inflammatory problems;
  • Persistent unexplainable aches and pains;
  • Chronic fatigue;
  • Skin problems like acne, eczema and psoriasis;
  • Hormonal imbalances.

In fact, all of the above symptoms can be tied to a disruption in gut health and balance. In my experience, people struggling with these symptoms benefit from looking at their diet and lifestyle choices and seeking out an appropriately trained practitioner to help uncover and resolve the root cause. It could be a food sensitivity, a fungal overgrowth or a dysbiosis, or maybe a parasite has moved in as an uninvited guest!

Holistic Approaches to Common Gastrointestinal Problems

Combatting GI Issues

There are unique approaches to combatting each GI health issue, however these steps are the grounding of any treatment programme:

  • Build a platform of wellbeing by addressing areas of stress for the person and the body;
  • Remove the causative factors, for example food to which the person is reactive, parasites or excess sugar;
  • Where the body needs specific support, replace or boost what’s needed. For example HCL, digestive enzymes or good bacteria;
  • Provide nutritional support to help rebuild the tissue which has been damaged;
  • Address the individual digestive issues that are being experienced and support the body’s natural healing process by natural holistic means.

Let’s now take a closer look at some specific digestive issues that are very common.

It’s All Connected

The gut houses ten times more microbial species than the overall number of cells in the entire body. These microbial species break down food pieces into small nutrients that absorb into the bloodstream. They also help to detoxify the body and aid in immunity. The ratio of progenic (life-giving) to pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes should be 85:15. When this ratio gets out of balance it leads to chronic inflammation in the gut and subsequent digestive problems.

Holistic Approaches to Common Gastrointestinal Problems

What's Happening with our Digestive Systems?

Around 60% of our immune system is located in the gut, and the gut wall is the main interface between the external environment and us. When the intestinal lining is working correctly it only allows properly digested proteins, carbohydrates and so on to pass through. Anti-nutrients and other components in common foods can increase intestinal permeability and damage the gut wall. Lectins, lactose, gliadin, certain hormones and bioactive peptides seem to cause the biggest problems. These nutrients can be found in milk, wheat and other grains, potatoes, hot spices, legumes and alcoholic beverages. Sugar and other refined carbohydrates can also increase intestinal permeability by changing the gut flora. Birth-control pills, antacids and other pharmaceuticals have also been linked to increased intestinal permeability.

Gut Permeability
A disrupted intestinal barrier allows increased passage of unwanted food components, bacteria and viruses. Certain bad bacteria contain a substance in their cell wall called lipopolysaccharide (LPS). LPS binds to cells lining the gut and increases synthesis of pro-inflammatory substances. This interaction immediately causes the immune system to become inflamed. Chronic low-level inflammation drives heart disease, cancer, type 2-diabetes and autoimmunity. Increased intestinal permeability has also been connected to a variety of skin conditions, gastrointestinal problems, mental disorders and other ailments.

Gut flora is vital in development of both the suppressive and aggressive part of the immune system. It provides energy for our gut epithelial cells, and the bacterial layer supports a healthy intestinal lining. A diverse gut flora is also needed for proper digestion. Antibiotics, a western diet and other factors can damage gut flora and therefore intestinal permeability.

Prevention and Treatment

Eliminate foods that you may be reactive to; some people will be more sensitive to certain foods than others. Eliminate refined sugar and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from your diet. One of the primary causes of poor digestion for many people is processed foods, and particularly those that contain high amounts of refined sugar and GMOs. Since roughly 60% of the body's immune system resides in the gastrointestinal tract, exposing it to high amounts of processed carbohydrates in the form of refined sugar puts excess stress on the immune system, which in turn triggers a potentially disease-causing immune response.

Likewise, GMOs have been shown to severely disrupt bacterial balance in the gut, which over time can lead to autoimmune disorders and food allergies. A 2011 study found that GMO components actually embed themselves throughout the digestive tract and become permanent, reproducing fixtures inside natural bacterial colonies. Thus, it is important to avoid GMOs as much as possible and preserve your digestive health by eating only certified organic and certified non-GMO food products.

Probiotics

Avoiding pharmaceuticals will also be important in preventing intestinal permeability. Probiotics from fermented foods and supplements will promote healthy gut flora and intestinal lining. In addition, prebiotics, soluble fibre that feeds beneficial flora, can be found in onions, leeks and apples.

Anti-inflammatory foods reduce inflammatory activity in the body and help heal the gut. Great anti-inflammatory foods include coconut products, avocados, olive oil, berries and phytonutrient rich vegetables. Healthy meat sources such as grass-fed beef, wild game, wild salmon, organic poultry and organic eggs are great as long as the gut can tolerate them effectively.

Gut Flora Imbalance

A common reason that you are not able to digest food properly is bacterial imbalance in your intestinal system. An ideal ratio for a properly functioning gut is 85% good bacteria to 15% bad, and when this is accomplished the good bacteria flourish and are allowed to do their job of digesting and absorbing certain starches, fibre and sugars. Unfortunately, a lifetime of habits littered with antibiotics, sugar, alcohol, toxins and 'dead' food has destroyed the proper balance we require for good digestion.

Balance Gut Bacteria with Bio Cultures

In order to better understand how the human digestive system works, it is helpful to think of it as a complex and delicate ecosystem in which living organisms coexist with one another in a healthy balance. And in order for this ecosystem to thrive, there must be enough of each kind of species present to not only keep the others in check, but also to support the full spectrum of life that is necessary for the ecosystem to exist.

Nutritionally, this is a beneficial bacterium, which populates the gut and regulates the proper absorption of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Beneficial bacteria also help ensure that toxins, allergens, yeasts and harmful microbes are blocked from taking over and assimilating throughout the body. For this reason, it is absolutely vital that you regularly feed your body plenty of healthy beneficial bacteria such as acidophilus, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium to help promote regular bowel function and boost immune health. These helpful bacteria increase the absorption of nutrients, alleviate the symptoms of lactose intolerance and fight cancer growth. These bacteria crowd out or kill off disease-causing bacteria and produce natural antibiotics.

Holistic Approaches to Common Gastrointestinal Problems

Indigestion

Indigestion is such a common complaint that it should be discussed in more detail. People often see the term ‘indigestion’ as a way of referring to upper abdominal pain and/or heartburn that could be accompanied by a feeling of having a stomach full of gas, bloated sensations after eating and difficulty swallowing, Medical terms used to describe this phenomenon include gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD), and functional dyspepsia (FD).  Have you noticed how young people in good health never seem to have indigestion? It is because their stomachs make enough acid to digest their food. But as we age, our stomachs make less and less acid. By the time we are 60 years old, our stomach acid has dropped by up to 75% from when we were 20.

If we are making significantly less stomach acid, then why do we take medications to reduce the production of acid when we experience gastroesophageal reflux disorder? Maybe it isn't an overproduction of acid in our stomachs but rather a lack of it. There is a lot of advertising to convince us that we need the latest and greatest antacid when in fact we usually need more hydrochloric acid.

How the Stomach Works

At the top of the stomach is a flap known as the lower oesophageal sphincter (LOS), which has a one-way action that allows food and liquids into the stomach. With sufficient pressure in the stomach, the LOS remains closed and everything stays in the stomach and out of the oesophagus. As we age and our stomach acid levels decline, the valve may begin to weaken without sufficient pressure to keep it closed, especially when we lie down. The result is a nasty acid burp, acid reflux, heartburn, GERD and oesophageal eroding. Because this tastes, smells, feels and burns like acid, we have been told (erroneously) to reach for the antacid for relief.

Insufficient Stomach Acid
Acid reflux is usually a symptom of too little stomach acid that results in poor digestion, gas, bloating and elimination problems. Without enough digestive acid in the stomach, proteins and minerals are not properly broken down, pathogenic bacteria that is normally burned up by hydrochloric acid slips past the stomach and into the bowels while fungus that normally resides in the intestines overgrows the stomach, oesophagus and mouth. To make matters worse, without enough stomach acid, the pancreas and gall bladder are also inhibited, bringing on a real health crisis.

The Role of Stomach Acid

The stomach's hydrochloric acid (HCL) is made by the parietal cells in the stomach. The body takes sodium chloride (salt) and breaks it down into HCL and sodium bicarbonate. HCL sterilizes food, ionizes minerals and makes pepsin to break down proteins in the food while the sodium bicarbonate flushes acids out of the connective tissues. With too little HCL comes septic processes in the tissues such as: pyorrhoea, dyspepsia, appendicitis, boils, abscesses, pneumonia and even gall bladder and pancreas trouble, which can lead to diabetes and gallstones.

Since HCL and sodium bicarbonate are made from salt, low salt diets and processed-demineralised table salts drive the body into acidosis while starving the stomach of what it needs. Consuming a premium mineral salt, like Himalayan or Celtic sea salt, is very important for digestive health.

Holistic Solutions for Heartburn

Try consuming either the juice of half a lemon mixed in water or up to two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, again in water, 10-15 minutes before a meal. If the acid problem goes away, this means that you don't have enough stomach acid to do the job. If the acid problem worsens, there may be an ulcer or other inflammatory process going on that needs attention.

Another excellent digestive support is Swedish bitters, either in a base of spring water or vegetable glycerine; this can again be taken 15 minutes before the meal to help stimulate the digestive juices and processes.

Taking an HCL supplement like betaine pepsin gentian HCL with meals will help provide the stomach with the acids necessary to break down nutrients. Don't take it though if the HCL results in heartburn. Where there is a need for HCL supplemental support, it is best to work with a practitioner.

Take a Look at the Diet

A great first step in improving digestion is changing the diet by taking out any common dietary causes of GI irritation. These include overeating, and high intake of fried foods, chocolate, mint, gluten, carbonated drinks, coffee and alcohol. In many cases it has been found that simply reducing the amount of causative foods from the diet or completely eliminating them could relieve people of their GERD.

Cephalic Response

I always ask my patients, “Do you eat in a calm, quiet environment?” Do they help stimulate the digestive processes before they start to eat by thinking about the food, smelling the aroma of the meal, spending a couple of minutes looking at the food? If they do not, they are reducing the ability to digest optimally as all the above help switch on the digestive juices and processes.

Utilize Digestive Enzymes

Another functional cause of indigestion is the lack of digestive enzymes from the pancreas. When abdominal bloating and discomfort, heartburn and gas formation occur within 15 to 30 minutes after eating, this could be attributed to a lack of hydrochloric acid secretion. If these symptoms occur after 45 minutes, this could be a sign of a lack of pancreatic enzymes. Products that contain digestive enzymes are most effective for the treatment of pancreatic insufficiency.

OTC and Prescription Drugs: Do they Worsen Indigestion?

Many experts are of the opinion that prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs used for indigestion, rather than curing the condition, actually cause more problems. Acid-blocking drugs are among the most popular among these, and usually work by blocking what is considered to be the most important digestive process: the secretion of hydrochloric acid inside the stomach. However, these drugs also block digestion of the food eaten. These drugs, in turn, are associated with a lot of side effects such as diarrhoea, nausea and constipation. There are many things to consider when looking to alleviate GERD, these are just some of the basics and it’s clear that patients do need adequate support from their health practitioner for a proper resolution to the problem.

Bibliography

Lipski E. Digestive Wellness 4th Edition. McGraw Hill. New York. ISBN 978-0-07-166899-6. 2012.

Mullin G. Integrative Gastroenterology. Oxford University Press. New York. ISBN 978-0-19537110-9. 2011.

Campbell-McBride N.  Gut and Psychology Syndrome. Medinform Publishing. Cambridge. ISBN 13: 978-0-9548520-2-3. 2010.

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Gillespie S and Pearson R. Principles and Practice of Clinical Parasitology. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Chichester. ISBN: 0-471-97729-2. 2001

Baron S. Medical Microbiology 4th Edition. University of Texas Medical Branch. Galveston. ISBN: 0-9631172-1-1. 1996.

Pizzorno Jr J, Murray M and Joiner-Bey H. The Clinician’s Handbook of Natural Medicine 2nd Edition. Churchill Livingstone. Missouri. ISBN: 978-0-443-06723-5. 2008.

Pedersen M. Nutritonal Herbology, A Reference Guide to Herbs. Wendell W Whitman Company. Warsaw. ISBN: 1-885653-07-7. 1998.

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Published Journal Articles

Saxelin M. Probiotic Formulations and Applications, the current probiotics market, and changes in the marketplace; a European perspective. PubMed. 2: 76-9. 2008.

Selhub E, Logan A, Bested A et al. Fermented foods, microbial and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry. Journal of Physiological Anthropology. 33:2. 2014.

Ji, Sayer. The Dark Side of Wheat: New Perspectives on Celiac Disease & Wheat Intolerance. Journal of Gluten Sensitivity. Santa Rosa: www.celiac.com. 2008.

Fasano A, Shea-Donohue T. Mechanisms of disease: the role of intestinal barrier function in the pathogenesis of gastrointestinal autoimmune diseases. Nat Clin Pract Gastroenterol Hepatol.  416-22 2005 Sep;2(9):.

Clemente MG, De Virgiliis S, Kang JS, et al. Early effects of gliadin on enterocyte intracellular signalling involved in intestinal barrier function. 218-23. 2003 Feb;52(2):...

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About Emma Lane

Emma Lane ND Dip NT CMTA C.H.E.K IV HLC3 PEA RSA – Founder and Director of the Lane Wellness Group – has more than 29 years’ experience in the industry, working as a Naturopath, Naturopathic Nutritionist and Functional Medicine Practitioner. Emma has two busy practices in the north of England and central London and is also the founder and director of Integrative Health Education and PCI Europe. Emma regularly lectures around the world and is passionate about sharing her knowledge with other practitioners. She works closely with Dr Omar Amin, a world-renowned professor of parasitology. Emma is qualified to practise across a wide range of natural health sciences including Naturopathy, Naturopathic Nutrition, Functional Medicine, Neuro-linguistic Programming, Timeline Therapy, Hypnotherapy, Auricular Acupuncture, Functional Corrective Exercise, Sound Therapy and Energy Healing. For further information please contact Emma via https://www.energizemindbody.com; Lane Wellness group - http://lanewellnessgroup.co.uk; Holistics Online - https://www.holisticsonline.com/index.php?route=common/home

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