The Functional Medicine Approach
Scientific research increasingly reveals the importance of the digestive system to our overall wellness. While it is not surprising that people with digestive symptoms can be helped by focusing on restoring gut health, it is becoming clear that digestive disorders may underlie many other chronic conditions as well.
The core roles of the digestive system are to
- protect the body from ingested toxins
- absorb the nutrients that are essential to the body’s core physiological functions
- eliminate toxins generated by our own metabolism or by excessive exposure
When this system is not working well, immune, energy, mood, pain and detoxification problems often manifest.
Some common digestive issues include:
Dysbiosis: the gut’s microbial ecology is easily imbalanced by poor eating habits, alcohol, stress and certain medications, especially antibiotics and antacids. The resulting overgrowth of ‘bad bugs’ (fungi and bacteria) in the intestine creates a cascade of negatives for the body, including loss of nutrients produced by the ‘good bugs’ that are part of a healthy gut and accumulation of toxins that are the byproducts of the life cycle of the ‘bad bugs’. Additionally, nutritional deficiencies develop when these organisms get “first dibs” on dietary nutrients. Iron appears to be a common example.
Leaky Gut: breakdown in the perfect filter that usually characterizes the lining of the intestine causes the inappropriate absorption of large protein molecules. This usually elicits an immune response that can cause many symptoms.
Inadequate Digestive Products: low levels of stomach acid are not uncommon, even in individuals having symptoms of heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux. The pancreas or liver may produce inadequate amounts of bile or pancreatic enzymes and thus certain foods are inadequately digested – leading to nutrient malabsorption.
Poor Nutrition: highly processed foods and low levels of certain minerals and vitamins in some commercial foods may combine with extra high requirements (caused by stress and toxin exposure) to limit the body’s ability to cope with what would otherwise be a time-limited illness. The result may be chronic conditions that have no “diagnosis”, such as symptoms of fatigue or chronic pains or mood disorders.
Inflammation: both leaky gut and dysbiosis can result in increased activity of the GALT (gut associated lymphatic tissue). The resultant swelling, edema, and inflammation may further impair the intestine’s ability to fight dysbiosis and absorb nutrients. These factors rarely occur in isolation. Gut repair and restoration of normal function often relies on a comprehensive and coherent plan to correct the specific combination of factors playing a role in each specific patient.