Last week, I gave a Digestion 101 talk, and it was yet another powerful reminder of how the digestive system impacts overall health. Unfortunately, it is a topic not commonly spoken about openly. But I can understand why.
Love your Digestive System
In general, I would argue that the digestive system does not get the love and attention that it deserves. There are no grand campaigns promoting its importance, nor is big money being raised to help find cures for digestive disorders that affect millions.
Fact: Over 20 million Canadians suffer from digestive disorders every year.
Digestion is neither sexy nor hip, and in actuality, few people speak openly about their own digestive symptoms. This isn’t surprising, though, because really, what comes to mind when you hear the word “Digestion”?
When of one of the primary outputs of digestion is a bowel movement—Yuck! Who wants to talk about that?
Actually, I do.
And so should you.
For the record, the digestive system is a beautiful thing.
Let’s Be Open about Digestion
If everyone was more open and honest, you would quickly realize that you’re not alone in your battle against digestion.
Here are some statistics (Canadian Digestive Health Foundation):
- Canada has the highest incidence of gastrointestinal ulcers and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) in the world
- Digestive disorders cost $18 billion (2000) annually in health care costs and lost productivity
- Each year nearly 30,000 Canadian’s die of diseases of the digestive system
Don’t forget. Since no one openly talks about their digestive woes, the size of the problem is definitely underestimated by the government, research and the general public.
Health Starts in the Gut
Health indeed starts in the gut. In the same vein, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, said, “All disease starts in the gut”.
Why? The food that you eat is essentially fuel and raw materials for your body. If you’re not giving your body the proper fuel and materials it needs, it is going to break down. The digestive system is what converts food into the energy and building blocks that your body uses to sustain, maintain and repair itself.
What’s inside is outside
You’ve probably never looked at it this way, but what’s inside your digestive system is actually technically outside your body!
The journey of food entering your mouth, going down your esophagus, and into your stomach, all of it entails food passing through, while being broken down. None of it actually penetrates your body.
It is only when your small intestines absorbs nutrients, allowing entry into your bloodstream, that “food” truly enters your body.
Your intestines, then, constitute an important barrier—the largest one, in fact—that separates you from the outside world.
Fun Trivia: The surface of your small intestine is 100 times the surface area of your skin.
What’s more surprising is that your gut lining makes up only a single layer of epithelial cells, that keeps out invaders, such as harmful microorganisms and toxins, from reaching your bloodstream.
When this layer becomes damaged, you will inevitably start presenting with digestive symptoms.
The Connection to your Immune System
Since the digestive system is the main route of contact with the external environment, every day it is bombarded by external stimuli. What happens when it comes into contact with dangerous pathogens? It stimulates the immune system.
It is for this reason that you don’t always get sick even if you swallow some bacteria with your food. You do your best not to, of course, by washing your hands, and thoroughly cleaning the surfaces in your kitchen. But nothing is completely sterile.
Did you know? The gut immune system contains 60-70% of the body’s immune cells!
According to Brandtzaeg et al. (1989), “The human intestine represents the largest mass of lymphoid [immune cell producing] tissue in the body. In addition, about 60% of the total immunoglobulin [antibody made by the immune system] produced daily is secreted into the gastrointestinal tract.”
It makes sense that the gut is supplied with such an arsenal of immune defences. Its protective function is critical to well-being!
And this is just the beginning. Gut health has also been linked to mood (anxiety and depression), skin conditions, migraines, systemic inflammation, autoimmune disease, allergies and childhood conditions such as ADHD and autism.
Unless you have an infection, your treatment course may not be so straightforward. A stool test will determine if your diarrhea is due to a bacterial, fungal, or viral infection, in which case antibiotics are prescribed. Even in these situations, although the correct antibiotic will clear the infection, it can cause further digestive upset by disrupting the gut flora equilibrium. Supportive treatment is often required to return your digestive system to optimal functioning.
If you have been suffering with digestive symptoms for a while and have tried many treatment plans to no avail, there is something else to consider. Your gut is not simply an organ of digestion. It is also a sensory apparatus with a nervous system of its own, with the ability to secrete its own neurotransmitters.
Is it any wonder that you get “butterflies in your stomach” when you are feeling anxious, or you experience a “gut-wrenching” sensation when confronted by emotionally upsetting events?
The gut nervous system is intimately connected to the brain’s emotional centers. Our gut feelings are part of the body’s normal response to the world.
In a stressed-out society such as ours, the connection can easily be made that diseases of the digestive system, in addition to being caused by disturbed physiology, are also expressions of stressed lives. When mental and emotional factors are involved, you can appreciate why treatment is not so clear-cut and requires a thorough intake and greater awareness of your self as a whole.
Final Toast to the Digestive System
Your digestive system deserves your love and concern because it is responsible for feeding and protecting your body. In a society dominated by stress, fast food, chemicals, and nutrient-devoid products, it is not surprising that so many of us suffer from digestive symptoms. We are putting junk into our bodies, with the added havoc of stress.
What’s one way to monitor the functioning of your digestive system? Observe your stool. For information on what your poo says about you, click here.
That’s a good start, but it may not be enough to solve your digestive problems. Luckily, naturopathic doctors are well-trained to provide high quality care when it comes to addressing digestive concerns.
Don’t be embarrassed!
Book an appointment with me and let’s have an open conversation about one of the most underrated, yet most fundamental, systems in your body. Together we will explore, dissect, and ultimately create an individualized treatment plan to address your health needs!