The gastrointestinal tract is one of the most complex systems in the body. It is often at the center of many chronic diseases. A healthy G.I. tract digests and absorbs nutrients from foods, removes toxins and ensures a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria. It serves as a protective barrier from the outside world. When any of these functions are disrupted, it negatively impacts your health. A breakdown in G.I. function can lead to many common conditions such as indigestion, acid reflex, and irritable bowel syndrome. Over time, continued G.I. problems can lead to more severe conditions that you may not relate immediately to the health of your G.I. system. Conditions such as anxiety, asthma, eczema, thyroid dysfunction, and obesity even atherosclerosis and many autoimmune diseases. These conditions are often treated in isolation simply addressing symptoms and not always looking at the root cause. The functional medicine approach is different in that it looks at the intricate link between each body system and seeks to understand their connection to get to the root cause of dysfunction. To find the root cause it is important to start with the gut by building a solid foundation known as the pillars of G.I. health. Digestion and absorption, Elimination and Detoxification, Microbial balance, and Gut barrier function. Together these pillars build a strong foundation for optimal health.
Let’s start with the first pillar digestion and absorption. From the time, we start thinking and smelling the aroma of food the digestive process begins. Gastric juices, enzymes, and hydrochloric acid are released simultaneously to initiate the breakdown of protein, fats, and carbohydrates to use for energy and extract nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Poor dietary habits, stress, and certain medications can alter digestion leading to malabsorption, increased risk for foodborne illness and chronic constipation or diarrhea. By making just a few lifestyle adjustments such as choosing whole Foods over processed foods, eating meals with friends and family, being mindful of portions, and chewing food thoroughly you’ll be off to a good start in providing your digestive system with the right ingredients for optimal function.
Moving onto the second pillar elimination and detoxification. The liver is the body‘s primary detoxification organ and works closely with the G.I. tract. The detoxification process requires a variety of nutrients including B vitamins, vitamin C, minerals, and abundance amino acids. There are three primary categories of toxins: environmental toxins such as pollution, internal toxins such as harmful hormones and metabolic byproducts, and lifestyle toxins from things like cosmetics. These toxins require the liver to filter and eliminate them from the body via the stool or urine. Increased exposure to toxins, frequent use of medications, and overconsumption of high calorie nutrient poor foods diminish our detoxification potential. When toxins are not processed appropriately, they are attracted to the fatty tissues of the body where they are stored. This can lead to unexplained weight gain, mental fog, mood changes and hormonal imbalances. It is crucial to consume nutrients that help with detoxification, avoid medications when possible that deplete nutrients critical for detoxification, sweat regularly through exercise, drink plenty of water typically half your body weight in ounces per day, and have regular bowel movements to ensure your body is detoxifying and eliminating properly.
In our next pillar, let’s talk about barrier function. The gut barrier is an intricate tightly regulated protective layer of cells that permits the entry of nutrients into the bloodstream while keeping harmful substances such as bacteria, viruses and undigested food particles out. This delicate membrane of specialized cells is susceptible to damage from stress, pathogens, and toxins. A breach in the barrier known intestinal permeability are often referred to as leaky gut syndrome can lead to vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, a weakened immune system , and negative food reactions. A compromised immune system that is continually exposed to bacteria, toxins, and undigested food particles becomes aggravated creating chronic inflammation spreading throughout the body that can lead to autoimmune diseases. To maintain and heal this protective barrier it is important to identify and eliminate negative food triggers such as gluten, dairy, and soy, reduce stress levels and when possible limit the use of certain medications.
For our final pillar, let’s take a look at microbial balance. Your large intestine contains the gut microbiome, an advanced ecosystem that contains over 100 trillion microscopic organisms. These organisms complete any unfinished digestion and produces essential vitamins that are critical to our long-term health and vitality. When your gut microbiome becomes unbalanced, it is termed dysbiosis. Dysbiosis can lead to infections or an overgrowth of pathogenic and other organisms, which adversely impacts your health. Long-term dysbiosis can have dramatic and long lasting affects including mood disorders and weight gain. To increase beneficial bacteria and restore the balance limit antibiotic exposure from both medication and food sources, reduce stress levels, and avoid any excess sugar and processed foods in your diet.
Your G.I. tract is an amazing organ system that breaks down food, absorbs critical nutrients, serves as your first line immune defense, and protects you from disease. Understanding how to take care of your G.I. system and making healthy lifestyle choices will help you revitalize your health and maintain optimal wellness. Ask us about the pillars of G.I. health program and take the first step in improving your G.I. health. Because it all starts and ends in the gut. Gut health is all health.