My article below has been published and retrieved from the Naturopathic Currents website:
What is the Digestive System?The gastrointestinal (digestive) system is complex. The process of digestion follows sequential steps and must function properly in order for the body to get the nutrients it requires for optimal health. Digestion begins in the mouth: Salivary enzymes help degrade food, and teeth aid with the mechanical breakdown. The food bolus then passes down a muscular tube called the esophagus, which transports food from the oral cavity to the stomach. Here, various enzymes and secretions such as hydrochloric acid break down food particles even further. As soon as food leaves the stomach, it enters the small intestine. Most nutrient absorption takes place in the small intestine, whereas waste is formed and stored in the large intestine. The pancreas also plays an important role in secreting digestive juices and enzymes into the small intestine in order to help break down food into smaller molecules that can be absorbed. The digestive system is not only responsible for the digestion and absorption of nutrients from food, but there are many other health benefits noted for having a healthy, functional digestive system.
The Digestive System and Overall Health/WellbeingDid you know that approximately 70% of the immune system is located in the gut? The importance of the gastrointestinal system is testified by the huge amount of immune cells that reside within it. Gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) is the prominent part of mucosal-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) and represents almost 70% of the entire immune system; in the lamina propria, there are about 80% of all plasma cells responsible for IgA antibody production. The gastrointestinal system therefore plays a central role in immune system homeostasis. It is therefore important that the gut is healthy and functional in order to defend against invaders.
Meanwhile, the digestive system produces approximately 95% of the body’s serotonin. Serotonin is involved in mood regulation. People who have compromised digestion may therefore also complain of irritability or display signs and symptoms of anxiety/depression.
Causes of Poor Digestive HealthMultiple factors contribute to poor digestive health. Physicians must consider physical health, but also look at possible mental/emotional causes as well.
Poor Diet: Unhealthy eating habits can contribute to symptoms of gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort/pains, and change in frequency and/or consistency of bowel movements. An unhealthy diet is also a significant contributor to a variety of health conditions we see today, including but not limited to diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and hypertension. Processed, refined foods contribute to inflammatory processes within the body. What we put into our bodies is important—foods can affect mood as well as immune health.
Stress: The state of our emotional/mental health powerfully influences gut function and flora—the mind/body connection is important. The relationship between environmental or psychological stress and gastrointestinal distress is complex and bidirectional: stress can trigger and worsen gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms, and vice versa. The digestive system has an enteric nervous system which controls peristalsis—the movement of materials through the colon. Under constant stress, blood is diverted away from the digestive tract; as a result, food is not digested, and we do not assimilate nutrients properly. Lack of blood flow affects gut motility, gastric secretions, and mucosal permeability. We often recognize the mind-gut connection as a “gut feeling” which ranges in presentation from butterflies in the stomach to anxiety-induced nausea.
Medication/Antibiotic Use: Some prescription and OTC drugs negatively impact the population of beneficial bacteria in the gut. The intestinal tract has a relative ratio of good and “bad” bacteria—medications (such as antibiotics) can wipe out the population of good bacteria. This leads to a predominant population of “bad” bacteria which increases the risk of infection, toxin buildup, inflammation, and allergies. The bacterial flora is disrupted by antibiotics, infection, chemotherapy, and radiation. This disruption has profound effects on the protective barrier and results in overgrowth of pathogens and the invasion of toxins.
Low Stomach Acid: Hydrochloric-acid production tends to decline with age. Hydrochloric acid is important for digestion to occur in the stomach. Insufficient levels of stomach acid can contribute to symptoms associated with digestive upset, such as bloating, gas, indigestion, belching/flatulence, a sensation of fullness after eating, acne, and rosacea.
Intestinal Hyperpermeability: When the epithelial barrier of the intestine is breached, food particles and other substances “leak” through and enter the bloodstream, triggering immune responses and possibly contributing to the development of autoimmune disease. When someone presents with an autoimmune condition, it is important to assess digestive health. Many factors such as gastrointestinal infections and stress appear to increase intestinal permeability. Symptoms of intestinal hyperpermeability include abdominal pain, joint pains, brain fog, gas, indigestion, mood swings, skin conditions, and changes in bowel frequency/consistency.
Food Intolerances/Allergies: These are highly individualized and vary from one person to the next. These foods cause inflammation in the intestinal lining and compromise the integrity of the mucosa. Food allergies are generally more severe and involve IgE-mediated antibody responses. On the other hand, food intolerances are IgG-mediated and cause delayed symptoms. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about ways you can assess for food sensitivities and about how you can heal the intestinal tract. Signs and symptoms of food intolerances include, but are not limited to, bowel changes/irregularities, skin conditions (e.g. eczema), headaches/migraines, fatigue, irritability, brain fog, and joint pains.
Natural Treatments to Optimize Digestion:Probiotics/Fermented Foods: These replenish the population of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system, providing optimal defense against pathogens/toxins that contribute to inflammation and infection. The vast majority of the immune system is located in the gut, and beneficial bacteria are crucial for proper immune function. There are many different strains of probiotics, and research suggests that each unique strain comes with its own set of unique health benefits. Fermented foods also contain probiotics; these foods include yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha tea, kefir, and miso soup. Speak with your naturopathic doctor to determine which probiotic is indicated for you.
Oligoantigenic/Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Aim for nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables; whole, gluten-free grains; and lean hormone-free meats. Avoid refined sugars and simple carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, baked goods…). This diet includes foods that are hypoallergenic in nature. It eliminates adverse food reactions and allows the intestinal tract time to heal. Speak to your naturopathic physician for complete information and to find out ways you can implement this diet into your lifestyle.
Omega‑3s: Omega‑3 fatty acids are known for decreasing inflammation in the gut; they also suppress proinflammatory cytokine production. Cytokines are chemical messengers that coordinate the whole immune system. Omega‑3 fatty acids have been shown to delay the onset and improve the progression of autoimmune diseases by upregulating protective antioxidant pathways.
Glutamine: It downregulates inflammatory mediators in the gastrointestinal system by stimulating the protective stress response in gut cells. Glutamine also helps increase integrity of tight junctions in the small intestine, increases mucosal thickness, decreases permeability, and decreases bacterial adherence and translocation.
Common Digestive ConcernsConstipation--Infrequent bowel movements resulting from slow intestinal motility. When stools move slowly, more water is absorbed from the stools, and this causes them to become dry and hard. People will often experience pain in the rectum during bowel movements, and abdominal pains and/or bloating as the quantity of stool increases.
Diarrhea--Frequent, loose stools as a result of increased intestinal motility. People may experience an urge to defecate, as well as abdominal pain/cramping as pressure builds within. Nutrients are not absorbed properly when transit time is increased, and this can result in malabsorption. Malabsorption over a period of time can lead to weight loss and fatigue. Dehydration is possible after experiencing bouts of diarrhea.
Dyspepsia--An umbrella term for a subset of symptoms. These symptoms include heartburn, abdominal bloating, nausea, early satiety, and/or excess burping/belching.
ConclusionThe digestive system is complex. If any of the organs involved are compromised, digestion becomes impaired. The gastrointestinal system does more than just digest food; it is also involved in mood as well as immune health. There are ways to be proactive when it comes to the health of the digestive system: proper diet, stress reduction, avoidance of medication (if possible), and supplementation all impact the health and function of the digestive system.
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Ashley Kowalski is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor in Embrun, Cornwall, and Ottawa. She is currently accepting new patients.