Have you ever wondered why your Naturopathic doctor is always talking about digestion and nutrition, no matter what health complaint you come in for? The health of your gastrointestinal tract is definitely important for your digestion, but also for:
- immune system
- autoimmune status
- thyroid health
- joint pain
- skin health
- hormone balance
Yes, it does seem like it’s related to everything, but how? As a Naturopathic doctor, the aim in working with a patient is to find and treat the root causes of illness. When we trace many health issues and imbalances backwards, we often arrive at the digestive tract. And, when we treat the gut there is a huge trickle effect upwards of improved health.
I’ll explain with two examples:
1. A 25 year old woman with chronic yeast infections and irritable bowel syndrome comes to the clinic, and she also mentions that she struggles with PMS quite severely too. My starting point would be to rebalance her intestinal flora with a yeast cleanse and lots of probiotics, as the irritable bowel is also often caused by too much yeast. In this case, the patient had an additional side benefit of the yeast treatment of much less PMS and reduced menstrual cramps, but why? The reason her hormonal issues improved is that hormones are broken down in two steps, first in the liver and second in the colon. If the digestive tract is not functioning optimally, the body cannot detox and eliminate hormones very well, leading to symptoms of a hormone imbalance. Also the chronic presence of yeast in the body was creating inflammation – too much inflammation turns up the intensity of pain signals with menstrual cramps. It is very common in treating conditions of ‘hormone imbalance’ that we never actually address the hormones directly.
2. A 42 year old patient comes to the clinic with bi-weekly migraines, depression and chronic constipation since childhood. Since I recognize the role of the intestinal tract in migraines and mood disorders, I would likely start with adjusting this patient’s diet and digestion first. Again, in many cases when you start with the gut, the other health issues improve too. In this particular case, a food intolerance test revealed a very high gluten-intolerance (which is one of the main causes of chronic constipation in children). After 2 months of strict gluten-avoidance (along with some extra vitamin B12 since gluten intolerance interferes with B12 absorption), the migraines have stopped and there is a clear improvement in my patient’s mood. The inflammatory reaction to gluten and irritation of the intestinal lining were very much behind the migraines and mood disorder.
Other interesting facts:
- The gut has ten times more microbes than it has cells. These helpful microbes perform a multitude of beneficial tasks: they produce vitamins, help absorb nutrients, train the immune system and ward of harmful pathogens.
- Taking probiotics in pregnancy reduces allergy risk in babies.
- Food intolerances are highly associated with weight gain – foods that cause inflammation in the body affect weight and metabolism.
- Children who have been on lots of antibiotics (for ear, tonsil or bladder infections) are more likely to be overweight as teenagers (yeast overgrowth affects appetite and cravings for sugar and carbs).
- High intestinal yeast overgrowth is associated with endometriosis (and clearing yeast results in less pain)
- Children with autism have been shown to have abnormal bacteria in the gut. These bacteria produce waste products that are carried in the bloodstream, affecting organ systems including the brain and, in turn, behaviour. (http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v3/n1/abs/tp2012143a.html).
- Antibiotics disrupt gut flora in infants – levels of healthy bacteria are still abnormal after 8 weeks! (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121108195409.htm)
- Fascinating new study shows that taking probiotics through yogurt and changing intestinal flora affects brain function specifically regarding emotion and sensory processing (read more here: http://www.uclahealth.org/body.cfm?id=403&action=detail&ref=2191)
- Overall, most adults who eat a North American diet and have been on an average number of antibiotics in their lifetime will have some degree of imbalance in their intestinal flora. Most people eat too many white carbohydrates, and treats are so readily available. This combined with the rise in food intolerances, especially in the past 20 years, has created a huge degree of gut imbalance.
A starting point would be to test for food intolerances, and to take on a plan of rebalancing your intestinal flora. Typically this means avoiding sugar, yeast, white foods and all sweeteners for a period of time (one month or more), using supplements to kill of bacteria / yeast /parasites that don’t belong, and also using a high-potency probiotic supplement to replenish. In some cases, this is followed by a supplement plan for intestinal repair.
Dr. Shawna Darou
You may be amazed at how much of a difference a healthy gut makes to your overall health!