Optimizing Gut Health
Discussing conventional medicine’s compartmentalized approach vs naturopathic medicine’s integrated systems approach to digestive health
Naturopathic medicine sees your digestive system as one component of a fascinating integrated system. Your gut does much more than digest your food — it supports your health from your immune system to your mood and your complexion. This is a primer on how we see your tummy.
The GI tract is not an isolated system
In the conventional model of medicine, the body is segmented into its respective parts, and individual specialists focus on diagnosing and treating specific areas. But this specialization can interfere with seeing the bigger picture. The body’s systems do not function in isolation, rather our body functions as a WHOLE, and dysfunction in one area can have drastic impacts on the other systems.
The gut and your immune system
When it comes to any health concern, it is important to understand the powerful effects of gut health on the rest of the body. The system most significantly impacted by gut is the immune system.
Eighty percent of the immune system is wrapped around the intestines, and any sort of infection, inflammation, or food sensitivity can trigger an immune response with consequences such as reduced immunity, chronic inflammation, and autoimmune disorders.Eighty percent of the immune system is wrapped around the intestines, and any sort of infection, inflammation, or food sensitivity can trigger an immune response... Click To Tweet
For this reason, as a Naturopathic Doctor, I feel that the health of the digestive tract should be a primary focus in almost every patient. In addition to the connection with the immune system, the gut has prominent impacts on skin health and mental health.
Treat the ROOT CAUSE rather than the gut symptoms:
We’ve been conditioned to want to control our symptoms with the use of a pill, including gut symptoms. Unfortunately, fast and easy symptom management WITHOUT also addressing the root cause allows progression of the underlying disorder. Pursuing true health care is not as simple as following a flowchart. It is not enough to give a laxative for constipation, Beano for gas, Imodium for diarrhea, or steroids for inflammation. Masking the symptoms does not effect a cure. These medications never address the WHY, nor do they achieve remission. Rather, you are left dependent on a pill to control your symptoms for life, without treating the cause.The health of the digestive tract should be a primary focus in almost every patient. Click To Tweet
How we approach digestive health:
It is not enough to get a patient to a more “manageable state,” especially when it comes to the health of the digestive tract. Because the digestive tract plays such a pivotal role in our overall health, it is essential that it is functioning at its optimum. Therefore, we look at all of the following areas when treating the gut:
Improve Digestion and/or Absorption
Improper digestion and absorption will not only cause GI symptoms, but can also leave the individual with insufficient nutrients. Vitamin and nutrient insufficiency can lead to a number of critical conditions; therefore, it is crucial to address this as soon as possible.
This can happen for a variety of reasons. The most common are: deficient stomach acid, issues with the release of bile from the gallbladder, and insufficient pancreatic enzymes. Poor nutrient absorption can also be caused by blunting of the intestinal villi due to food intolerances, gastroenteritis, and other intestinal conditions.Inflammation in our gut can lead to destruction of the intestinal lining, Crohn’s disease, Colitis, systemic inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Click To Tweet
Reduce Gut Inflammation
Inflammation in our gut can lead to destruction of the intestinal lining, leading to conditions such as Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis. It can also lead to systemic inflammation (which is the number one risk factor for cardiovascular disease).
We have 10x as many bugs in our gut as we do cells in our body! These bugs are crucial to our overall health, and finding the appropriate balance is key. Dysbiosis is the term we use when the microbiome has a higher concentration of pathogenic or “bad bugs” compared with commensals or beneficial bacteria. They each have their function, and the goal is to create a healthy thriving ecosystem. Antibiotic use can have quite drastically negative results on the balance of this ecosystem; therefore, it is quite common in our society to find people with a less than optimal balance, and it is important to restore the microbiome after antibiotic use through proper foods, nutrition, supplementation and lifestyle.
The gut is meant to be sealed off from the rest of the body. Unfortunately, there is an epidemic of what we call “leaky gut.” Leaky gut is a term that is used to describe the lack of integrity between the tight junctions of the intestinal walls, which are responsible for holding the cells of the gut lining together. This makes a leaky barrier between what is in the gut and the bloodstream, allowing for large undigested food particles and bacteria to translocate into the bloodstream. Because these particles should NOT be in the bloodstream, the body treats them as pathogens and the immune system is triggered. This is a MAJOR cause of many autoimmune conditions and systemic inflammation. Leaky gut has causes and cures, and you can help your body heal leaky gut.
We de-worm our animals, but we never think about de-worming ourselves. Whether it be parasites, pathogenic bacteria, or yeast — we see it ALL the time on stool panels. These guys are tricky to catch and many tests offered in the conventional world don’t have the sensitivity or breadth of information that we offer in our office. If you have an infection in the gut it is CRUCIAL to treat; however, in order to know what to treat, we must conduct proper testing.
Advanced Gut Health Testing:
The first step in improving gut health is assessment. We can talk to you about lifestyle issues such as stress and gut health, sleep and gut health, and the best foods for improving gut health, but that’s only part of the picture. Here are some of the ways we test your intestinal health:
Comprehensive Stool Panel
This is my favorite place to start with a patient specifically coming in for gut dysfunction, as it gives a COMPLETE picture of the digestive health issues listed above. Our stool panels not only have the highest sensitivity when it comes to testing for pathogens (parasites, yeast, bacteria), but they also evaluate digestive function (ability to properly break down food), inflammation/immune function, gut microbiome, and intestinal permeability.
Tests for Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth — a common cause of post-meal belching/flatulence/bloating and what is diagnosed as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). It can present with constipation, diarrhea, or both!
Organic Acid Tests
Looks at indirect markers of gut health through urine metabolites. This test is particularly helpful in chronic illness with neuro/mental health symptoms or a suspicion of environmental toxicity. Gut health is directly connected with serotonin production, and can be a factor in depression (learn more about the gut/brain axis at Wikipedia).
Food Allergy Panel
Not often utilized, as trying an elimination diet is the gold standard and it is FREE, but for those that are data driven, it can be extremely helpful to see which foods your immune system is currently reacting to.
Address the root cause rather than suppress symptoms
Comprehensive Plan Effectively addressing gut disorders takes a COMPREHENSIVE plan. One or two nutritional supplements isn’t going to fix your gut health. We need to consider diet, lifestyle, supplementation, and sometimes medication. Often, treatments will occur in stages, and new things will be introduced and taken away as a patient progresses. The ultimate goal is to get the patient to a place where they are supplement/medication FREE and can enjoy a diverse diet.
If you’d like to discuss your symptoms or testing options, schedule an initial consultation. We can discuss your health concerns and allow you to determine whether you’d like to move forward with testing or treatment. Contact us to schedule an appointment.
Written by Dr Ari Kasprowicz-Calhoun, ND