By Dr. Shannon Sarrasin, ND
The digestive system is a major foundation for good health in the body. When digestive health goes awry, it can spark symptoms at a systemic level. As a Naturopathic Doctor, I direct my attention towards the digestive system when I see conditions such as skin rashes, asthma, arthritis, allergies, fibromyalgia, headaches, autism/ADHD and auto-immune conditions.
For starters, the digestive system is vital for providing a healthy nutritional foundation for the body. I would challenge the phrase “you are what you eat” with the more appropriate phrase “you are what you absorb”. If you are not breaking down food well, you will have compromised nutrient absorption. Nutrient depletion is a contributor to just about every health condition we know.
Signs that you are not digesting well include symptoms such as bloating/gas, vertical ridges or white spots on the nails, and a crack down the center of the tongue (to name a few).
Digestive impairment can set the stage for bacterial overgrowth, food sensitivities and a condition we call “leaky gut” which can contribute to systemic inflammation.
What is a “leaky gut”?
The term leaky gut is used to describe the phenomenon of intestinal hyper-permeability. When the gut is unhealthy or inflamed, the natural barriers of the intestine are broken down and food proteins from the gut (such as gluten or casein/dairy) can slip into systemic circulation. The immune system views the food proteins in circulation as invaders, and the resulting immune reaction triggers inflammation in the body.
This inflammation can affect the musculoskeletal system (arthritis, muscle pain), skin (eczema, psoriasis), respiratory system (sinusitis, asthma) or circulatory system (migraines). The burden that this creates on the immune system has been implicated as a cause or contributing factor to auto-immune conditions.
How do you know there is a problem?
For starters, we know there is a problem when there are symptoms of digestive distress. Symptoms are the body’s way of talking to you, telling you that something is wrong. Signs of an imbalance include constipation, loose stool, bloating, gas and heartburn. Inflammatory bowel diseases such as crohn’s, colitis, and poorly managed celiac are major contributors to leaky gut syndrome which commonly have systemic consequences. In some instances there is a lack of digestive symptoms, and naturopathic testing identifies a “leaky gut”.
Heal the Gut
It is recommended to work with a skilled practitioner to formulate an individualized treatment plan. Naturopathic testing may be warranted to identify food sensitivities, bacterial/yeast overgrowth or other contributing factors. I like to use the “4R” approach to healing the gut:
- Remove: Remove food sensitivities and offending foods from the diet. In some instances natural treatments are required to kill off any offending bacteria, yeast or parasites.
- Replace: If digestive juices are suspected to be low, our goal is to replete or replace them. Hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes or bile acids may be recommended.
- Re-inoculate: Perhaps one of the most important steps is re-inoculating the gut with a high quality probiotic.
- Repair: Various support is used to sooth and repair the gut. L-glutamine is an amino acid that provides fuel for replenishing the cells lining the digestive tract. Key nutrients in healing are omega 3 EFA’s, zinc, vitamin A, C, E, as well as herbs such as slippery elm.