By Dr. Natasha Turner ND
The digestive system is a set of organs responsible for food breakdown, nutrient absorption and elimination of waste. This intricate system is critical for hormonal balance because it controls its own functions via hormonal signals. Amazingly, over 30 hormone genes are currently known to be expressed in the stomach and the intestines, making your gut the largest endocrine organ in your body! The digestive system is also interesting because it involves both the nervous system and its cells as well as the activities of the endocrine system.
Your nervous system, especially the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) and sympathetic (fight-or-flight), influences digestion; however, your digestive system has its own nervous system too. It’s huge, with just as many nerves as your spinal cord! So, when you get a gut instinct, go with it.
Canadian Digestive Health Foundation states that more than 20 million Canadians suffer from digestive disorders every year. Canada has one of the highest incidences and prevalence rates of inflammatory bowel disease in the world, as well as one of the highest rates of IBS in the world. In the United States, The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases indicates that 60 to 70 million people are affected by some kind of digestive disorder or disease. Therefore, gut health should never be downplayed or overlooked, and it starts by recognizing the symptoms.
The foods you chose and the function of your digestive tract both strongly influence your nervous system and your endocrine system. Their effects can in turn alter your hormones, inflammatory response and – you guessed it – affect your ability to lose weight by influencing your appetite or cravings, and your ability to burn fat.
Good digestion offers many benefits for your overall health and well-being:
- Optimal nutrient absorption
- Effective elimination of waste
- Healthy immunity
- Healthy mind, mood and memory
- Glowing skin
- Appetite control
- Protection from the harmful effects of stress
To function at its healthiest, your digestive system needs:
- Relief from inflammation, food allergies or poor food choices
- Relief from the negative effects of stress and tension
- The right bacterial balance for immunity, and for ridding the body of excess estrogen
- Proper enzymes and acid levels for nutrient absorption
- Open communication with the nervous system and the brain to control appetite, metabolism and digestive functions
- The ability to “keep moving” so it can rid the body of hormonal waste, fat and toxins
The first step of your wellness plan should center around optimizing your sleep, stress reduction, conquering inflammation and improving digestion all at once. This is good news considering the astounding number of people who are plagued by lack of sleep, excessive stress, weakened immunity and poor digestion. The steps outlined here offer many other positive benefits, including more energy, glowing skin, stronger mental focus, less joint pain and stiffness and, of course, fat loss. The dietary process of this 4-week digestive reset is outlined in The Hormone Diet and The Supercharged Hormone Diet.
Seven Keys to Healthy Digestion
KEY 1: Reduce Inflammation by Removing Food Sensitivities
Food sensitivities or intolerances usually involve a different set of immune system antibodies called IgG antibodies. Symptoms are less intense and typically do not appear immediately but rather within 12–48 hours after eating the offending foodstuff. Heartburn, headaches, difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, looking tired even after enough sleep, an inability to lose weight, bloating and relentless water retention can all be related to food sensitivities or intolerances. Because the connection between the symptom and a specific food can be difficult to pinpoint, those who suffer these discomforts often go on feeling worse and worse as their immune system takes a constant beating.
Many of us with food sensitivities don’t even realize how bad we feel until the problematic foods are removed from our diet. Then suddenly getting out of bed becomes easier, our energy, mood and concentration improve and joint pain, headaches and sinus congestion disappear. During your anti-inflammatory detox, you will take these foods out of your diet for a specific period to give your body a break and a chance to calm down and detoxify. Slowly re-introducing each food after a 10-day break can allow you to connect particular symptoms with your food choices. With the proper guidance, you can identify your food sensitivities in just three weeks.
KEY 2: Reduce Bloating and Aid Nutrient Absorption by Replacing Enzymes or Acid Levels
Commonly known as stomach acid, hydrochloric acid (HCL) is essential for proper functioning of your digestive system because it activates digestive enzymes that break down your food for absorption. Many vitamins and minerals need stomach acid for optimal absorption, including magnesium, zinc, calcium, iron, biotin, vitamin B12, vitamin B6 and folic acid. Proper absorption of vitamins and minerals indirectly influences your hormonal balance because these nutrients are necessary for the manufacturing of your hormones, and for the elimination of hormonal waste with the help of the liver. Normal stomach acid also works to keep your digestive system free of bacteria, yeasts and parasites.
An estimated 30% of North Americans have low stomach acidity. Natural aging, a poor diet and chronic use of certain medications such as corticosteroids, antibiotics and antacids can impair your stomach's ability to produce acid. Certain medical conditions are also commonly associated with low stomach acid, including hypothyroidism, asthma, eczema, allergies, acne rosacea, adrenal dysfunction, osteoporosis, autoimmune disease, psoriasis and chronic hives.
The signs and symptoms of low acidity in the stomach include:
- Bloating, belching and gas, especially after meals
- Heartburn or reflux
- Multiple food allergies
- Feeling nauseous after taking supplements
- Weak, peeling and cracked fingernails
- Redness or dilated blood vessels in the cheeks and nose
- Adult acne
- Hair loss in women
- Iron deficiency
- Undigested food in the stools
- Chronic yeast infections
Is your HCL Low?
One simple way to check for low HCL is to look at your fingernails. If you see length-wise (not sideways) ridges, chance are your stomach acid levels are low. However, I recommend a more specific test that is easy to use at home: the HCL challenge using Betaine HCL. The great thing about this test is that it identifies and fixes the problem. Another option is to take two capsules of a digestive enzyme that includes pancreatic enzymes and betaine with meals.
KEY 3: Re-establish Healthy Bacterial Balance
These days we are constantly bombarded by commercial messages urging us to fight germs and rid ourselves of bacteria; however, in the right places and amounts, bacteria are very valuable to our health and wellness. These beneficial bacteria, also called probiotics, are found mostly in our digestive tract. They actually colonize our system just days after birth, especially when we are breastfed.
The maintenance and protection of our healthy bacteria through proper nutrition and, if necessary, supplementation, is very important to good health. Under normal circumstances, friendly bacteria found in our digestive system live with us in symbiotic harmony, but factors such as poor diet and medications (such as birth control pills, antibiotics and corticosteroids) can upset this balance and lead to a host of difficulties.
We now know these live microorganisms are cancer-protective, immune enhancing, and anti-inflammatory. Other documented benefits of probiotics include:
- Relief of digestive system upset – all types of digestive symptoms including diarrhea, adverse reactions to antibiotic therapy, constipation and food poisoning can be relieved by probiotics.
- Fat storage – research completed at the Department of Genomic Sciences at the University of Washington found increased fat storage in rats that lacked probiotics. The correct balance of intestinal flora seems to limit fat storage by repressing the expression of a protein called fasting-induced adipocyte factor (FIAF).
- Hormonal balance – bacteria in the digestive tract play a hugely important role in the breakdown of excess estrogen. If you are taking the birth control pill, be sure to use a probiotic supplement regularly.
- Vitamin production and nutrient absorption – probiotics improve digestive function and assist with the synthesis of several vitamins including vitamins K, B12, B5 and biotin.
- Prevention of yeast infections – if you are a woman with recurrent yeast infections, the bacterial balance in your large intestine is likely compromised. Probiotics can prevent infections and yeast overgrowth by blocking harmful bacteria from attaching to intestinal walls and by helping to maintain the appropriate intestinal pH.
- Bad breath – eating plain organic yogurt or taking probiotic supplements for six weeks or more can help fight certain chemicals in the mouth that contribute to bad breath and gingivitis.
- Inflammation control – probiotics are proven to be beneficial for relieving symptoms of inflammation including arthritis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
- Allergy relief – allergy-based symptoms such as eczema, seasonal allergies, asthma and hives have been found to improve with probiotic supplements. Supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding may also prevent these types of symptoms in infants.
- Prevention of colds and flus – daycare- and school-age children who take supplements of acidophilus and bifidus are sick less often. What a plus! When they do come down with diarrhea, colds or flus, the duration of their symptoms is shorter. Supplementing the diet with beneficial bacteria also stimulates immunity in adults by increasing the activity of cells that consume invading organisms and by increasing the production of white blood cells and cytokines, which are produced by immune cells to boost our infection-fighting capability. These probiotic effects strengthen our resistance to bacterial and viral infections while also alleviating allergy symptoms. Even those suffering from autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis may benefit from the use of probiotics.
KEY 4: Resolve Inflammation and Poor Immunity by Repairing the Digestive Tract Wall
The competency of the entire wall of the digestive tract is dependant upon healthy food choices, bacterial balance, sufficient enzymes and acid levels and inflammation control. An imbalance in any one of these important factors may result in an irritation of the digestive tract wall. When that happens, tiny holes may form, which allow for partially digested material, toxins or bacteria to pass through. In the short term, this problem, also known as leaky gut syndrome, causes symptoms of digestive upset, gas, bloating, pain, weakened immunity and allergy symptoms. In the long term, a compromised digestive tract wall can lead to weight gain, obesity, allergies, depressed immunity, autoimmune disease, ADHD, depression and joint inflammation or disease.
Several supplements can help repair a damaged digestive tract wall. These include glutamine, deglycrrhized licorice (DGL), aloe vera, plantain and marshmallow. With the exception of glutamine, these products are known as demulcents because they help coat and heal the digestive tract wall. There are a few products available that contain a blend of these ingredients in an easy to use powdered form including glutagenics (metagenics) or GI Revive (Designs for Health) or in capsules - Gastroease (Biomed). Most if not all of us can use help to repair our gut wall, which is why I have recommended gut-healing and detoxifying fiber supplement as part of your detox protocol. For your gut to completely heal, these soothing products should be taken regularly for at least four months.
KEY 5: Reduce Negative Effects of Stress on Digestion
Several nerves connect the nervous system of our digestive tract to the central nervous system (CNS) and, vice versa, the CNS to our GI tract. Through these cross connections, sensory information can be provided to the GI tract and CNS, and the CNS can affect our GI function. Nevertheless, remember what happens to the central nervous system when we are stressed? Digestion takes place when the rest and digestive system is stimulated. When the fight or flight nervous system is stimulated by stress, digestive function effectively shuts down, as blood flow to the area is redirected to our limbs for “escape”. Chronic stress is known to bring on symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and to exacerbate symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Ongoing stress also sensitizes our gut and contributes to inflammation, which leads to more food allergies.
In a study published in the British Medical Journal (February 2007), researchers found irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients were significantly more likely to report high levels of stress and anxiety. They were also prone to be driven individuals who would carry on, regardless of their level of discomfort, until they were forced to rest – a pattern of behavior known to worsen and prolong the condition.
Stress, anxiety, depression or sleep irregularities can definitely cause symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, including gas, bloating, cramping or alternating diarrhea and constipation. Determining which comes first, the emotional state or the digestive symptoms can be difficult. Those who suffer from IBS may learn as children to cope with stressful situations by developing digestive symptoms. Other research suggests that in general, IBS sufferers have difficulty adapting to life situations, but this is difficult to assess. It’s essential to control your cortisol by calming your mind and body at the same time, herbal medicines like Relora and theanine can be very helpful in as little as two weeks.
KEY 6: Eliminate the Bad Bugs in Belly
Antibiotics can disrupt our healthy bacterial balance by killing off our beneficial bacteria together with the bad, infection-causing bacteria, leaving the perfect environment for yeast and other harmful bacteria to grow and flourish. Harmful bacterial or yeast can also grow with use of the birth control pill, immune compromise, steroid medications, diabetes and excessive consumption of sugar, carbohydrates or alcohol. Symptoms of yeast or bacterial imbalance include:
- Depression and irritability
- Brain fog and poor concentration
- Bloating and gas
- Cravings for sugar and sweets
Less obvious symptoms of also include the following:
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Nasal congestion
- Rectal itching
- Recurrent sinus infections
- Recurrent urinary tract infections
- Recurrent vaginal infections
There are different strains of harmful yeast and bacteria, which means that not all cases will respond to the same treatment. Using a combination of anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agents for at least four to six weeks is the best approach. Be sure to remove sugar, vinegar, fermented foods, mushrooms and any product containing yeast from your diet.
Key 7: The Relationship between Liver and Bowel Function
Fiber consumption and bowel function are essential for maintaining a healthy, happy liver. The liver, you will recall, is the major detoxification and fat-burning organ in the body through a complex set of biochemical pathways. The liver pumps excess fat and waste products into the small intestines through bile. If your diet is high in fiber, unwanted fat will be efficiently carried out of the body via the bowel. If your diet is lacking fiber, some of the fats (especially cholesterol), hormonal waste and toxins that have been pumped into the gut by the liver will circulate back to the liver. This process occurs via a circulatory system that absorbs fluids from your digestive system and sends them back to the liver. The liver recycles the entire bile pool back into the small intestine six to eight times a day.
Supporting the process of waste elimination is essential for maintaining heart health, especially if you are overweight or currently have high cholesterol. A compromised liver filtering system, damaged by toxins or clogged with excessive waste material, will be far less effective in removing fat and cholesterol circulating in your bloodstream. Your levels of HDL (good) cholesterol produced by the liver, which scavenges the bad cholesterol (LDL) from the blood vessel walls, may also decrease with compromised liver function. Ultimately, poor liver function increases your risk of cardiovascular diseases and weight gain.
Classically, fiber is split into two categories based on its solubility in water:
- Soluble fiber dissolves in water and can be metabolized by the "good" bacteria in the gut. Soluble fibre is fantastic for lowering LDL cholesterol and stabilizing blood sugar and preventing constipation. You can find it in oatmeal, flax seed, barley, dried peas, oranges, apples, and carrots. (Regular Girl, coconut fiber bar or Solufiber)
- Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water. Insoluble fibre helps to bulk up our stools, keep the bowels moving and speeds up transit time of food through the digestive tract. You can find it in seeds, nuts, dark green leafy vegetables, and wheat bran. (Clear Fiber –contains both soluble and insoluble fiber).