The stomach has ways of telling us when we’ve made a mistake. If we eat something that doesn’t agree with us, we might get symptoms like bloating, nausea, discomfort, or pain. That’s usually when we reach for one of the many remedies that can alleviate the situation, from over-the-counter antacids to home remedies such as peppermint tea. In a short time, we get relief.
But sometimes, digestive discomfort doesn’t ease up. In fact, more and more people today are suffering from chronic, long-term digestive problems that force them to endure ongoing pain, discomfort, irregular bowel movements, and other difficulties. Unlike occasional indigestion, these chronic digestive troubles appear to defy conventional treatments.
However, all is not lost. Today, there are a number of safe and effective integrative therapies available that can help repair and rebuild the digestive system. From time-honored botanicals and targeted nutrients to specialized enzymes and probiotics, these and other adjuncts help improve not only digestive function, but also overall health and vitality.
Health Begins in the Colon
Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying, “Death begins in the colon.” In integrative medicine, we often say instead, “Health begins in the colon.” This sentiment reflects age-old principles held by traditional medical systems from around the world, which position digestive health as the key to longevity and vitality. A large and fast-growing body of published data has substantiated this critical link, demonstrating the direct relationships between digestion and cognitive health, immune response, hormone balance, and more. So when we experience persistent gut symptoms, it’s critical we take action.
One of the first steps toward repairing digestive health is to look at what it is we’re trying to digest; in many cases, digestive difficulties and other ongoing health issues are a direct result of inflammatory reactions to common trigger foods such as gluten, corn, eggs, or dairy. These inflammatory responses, termed “food sensitivities,” may not cause full-blown allergic reactions, but they nevertheless trigger fiery flare-ups that damage the digestive wall over time, which leads to leaky gut syndrome.
The 4-1-1 on Food Sensitivities
Food sensitivities are problematic because they can be difficult to diagnose. Consider the array of potential symptoms: rashes, diarrhea, constipation, achy joints, exhaustion, asthma, sinusitis, migraines, and depression. Any one of these issues could be caused by a dozen or more different conditions.
A closer look at the biology behind food sensitivities gives us more insight into the issue. Food sensitivities are akin to an autoimmune response, with the immune system treating certain food items as foreign invaders. As the immune response continues, the small intestine becomes inflamed, and over time, the chronic inflammation makes the intestinal lining more porous. Sometimes these cells can no longer form an effective barrier between the gut and the blood stream. When that happens, undigested proteins, pathogens, and molecules that would normally stay isolated in the gut leak into the blood and act as antigens that create an abnormal immune response.
This is leaky gut syndrome, and it can affect numerous organs and systems throughout the body. With the immune system on constant alert and chronic inflammation setting fires in the gut, the body becomes vulnerable to allergies, autoimmune conditions, and a number of other degenerative issues related to chronic inflammation. Without intervention, the problem usually gets worse.
For those facing food sensitivities and leaky gut syndrome, the first step toward regaining good health is to identify the foods that are causing the problem, then eliminate them.
The Usual Suspects
By now, we all know at least one person who has reduced or eliminated gluten from their diet. Gluten is a protein found in certain grains—such as wheat, rye, and barley—that can generate significant inflammatory reactions and sensitivities. Dairy can also be problematic, as some people have trouble digesting the proteins in milk, cheese, etc. (However, it’s important to note that because it’s fermented, yogurt is an exception.)
Other common problem foods include:
- Corn (including anything with high fructose corn syrup)
- Sugar and other sweeteners
Prescription drugs, alcohol, and caffeine can also cause problems. Stress can be a contributing factor as well—inflammatory stress hormones worsen any existing problem.
Eliminate Trigger Foods, Eliminate Symptoms
With so many different foods putting us at risk, figuring out which ones are damaging the gut can be tricky. There are a variety of lab tests that can help us figure out which foods are the culprits. But before you start performing labs, I recommend trying an elimination diet.
Going on an elimination diet is a pretty simple process: First, eliminate all common suspect foods for two to three weeks and see whether those changes reduce symptoms. Keep in mind, your symptoms may worsen in the first few days of eliminating problem foods. Give yourself at least two weeks to reset your digestive system, emphasizing green vegetables, high-fiber foods, soups, and plenty of fluids to help flush things out. After two to three weeks, you can begin to add each suspect food back to your diet, one at a time every few days, and monitor your reactions. If your symptoms reappear, you know the most recently introduced food is likely causing the problem. (Helpful hint: If you find you have trouble keeping track of what you eat or your symptoms, try keeping a food journal!)
The Healing Process
Eliminating food(s) that your body finds problematic is an important start, but you still need to actively heal the gut. There are a number of supplements that can help.
Probiotic foods, such as yogurt, kefir, and kimchee, can help restore probiotic bacteria and keep your gut flora in balance. Foods that are high in omega-3s, such as salmon, chia, and flax seeds, are also beneficial because they can reduce overall inflammation. Additionally, bone broth from organic meats and grass-fed beef are recommended for healing the digestive lining.
Taking digestive enzymes will also support intestinal healing. Alphagalactosidase, protease, amylase, and lipase break down food and aid nutrient absorption. The mineral zinc is necessary to support immunity, but it can also boost digestive health and may even decrease intestinal permeability. L-glutamine is also an effective supplement that can help repair the digestive tract.
One of my top recommendations for rebuilding digestive health is EcoNugenics’ Integrative Digestive Formula; it contains targeted botanicals, minerals, enzymes, and medicinal mushrooms from both the Chinese and ayurvedic traditions to help restore digestive function and nutrient absorption, while also alleviating occasional indigestion, nausea, and discomfort.
Because food sensitivities trigger such vague symptoms, people often just learn to live with them. This is, however, both unnecessary and dangerous. By making the effort to identify and eliminate problem foods, we can take a big step toward restoring digestive health and overall wellness.
By Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc