Treating the Gut to Heal Chronic Illnesses

Do any sort of meaningful review of the latest scientific research and it becomes undeniably clear that a multitude of chronic health issues arise from within our gut.

Now I’m of the camp that believes most health issues first and foremost start in our minds: the choices we make in how we react to stress and what we eat, our past traumas, painful memories, negative thought habits, fears and anxieties trigger body-wide changes in our bodies like inflammation, headaches and pain, a weakened immune system, hormone imbalance, and impaired digestive function. But problems related to our gut (digestive system) can cause these very same issues, too. The gut spans from our mouths all the way down our esophagus, stomach, intestines, and rectum – and it all starts with what passes through our lips. Processed, inflammatory foods, toxic alcohols, and medications like antibiotics and common NSAIDs (ibuprofen), can damage the gut and disrupt the all-important balance of the good vs bad bacteria in our gut, collectively called our gut microbiota. 

The scientific research on the trillions of microbes and their genetic material that make up our gut microbiome is nothing short of astonishing and consistently points to the fact that the bacteria in our gut affects our health in wild and wondrous ways.

THE 7 WILD & WONDROUS THINGS THAT OUR GUT BACTERIA DO FOR OUR HEALTH:

  1. Immune regulation and pathogen resistance (fighting bad bugs, including the coronavirus)
  2. Regulation of autoimmune reactions
  3. Regulation of inflammatory processes
  4. Production of vitamins like vitamin K and the B vitamins (yes, bacteria make vitamins!)
  5. Digestion and nutrient absorption
  6. Metabolism and detoxification of foods and drugs
  7. Production of short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) (our good bacteria ferment plant fibers to produce SCFAs, which are then used as the primary source of energy for our intestinal cells, accounting for 5-10% of human energy needs! SCFAs are also anti-inflammatory.) 

When there’s an imbalance between beneficial vs detrimental bacteria in our gut, a multitude of health problems can occur, from sinuses to skin, from brain to joints, from digestion to fertility. This imbalance is called dysbiosis, and it’s primarily caused by a diet full of processed carbs and sugars, not enough fibrous plant food intake, hidden food sensitivities, antibiotics and meds, toxins, and of course, chronic stress. 

What’s so bad about dysbiosis? Let’s break it down. The technical definition of dysbiosis is a state in which the gut microbiota (made up of trillions bacteria, yeast/fungi, and viruses, but mostly bacteria) produce harmful effects.

Dysbiosis = a state in which changes in the gut microbiota harm our health

These harmful effects occur when there are:

(1) changes in the quantity or variety of the microbes inside the GI tract (we should have a wide variety and large quantity of beneficial bacterial species in your gut. Unfortunately, most people don’t because of antibiotics, meds, stress, and poor food choices); 

(2) changes in their metabolic activities (microbes have their own metabolism and produce compounds that are either helpful or harmful to us); and

(3) changes in their local distribution (i.e. microbes reside in the large intestine but if they creep up into the otherwise sterile small intestine it can cause symptoms like severe bloating after every meal, constipation or diarrhea, excessive gas, and abdominal pain).

When these changes happen to the microbiota and dysbiosis occurs, everything that our gut microbiota normally do to keep us in great health can go awry (read that list above again about the 7 main things our gut bacteria do for our health). Problems with digestion and elimination are the most obvious gut issues. But many times we can have gut dysbiosis and not have any GI issues. You might have problems somewhere else in your body, but it’s originating in the gut. How is this possible?

HOW PROBLEMS IN THE GUT LEAD TO PROBLEMS THROUGHOUT THE BRAIN & BODY

(1) Food allergens such as wheat gluten or casein from dairy, refined carbs and sugars, insufficient plant fiber, medications, stress, and toxins (you see this list again and again, right?) disrupt our gut microbial balance causing dysbiosis and inflammation

(2) our super-thin gut lining gets weakened, and “leaky gut” develops (aka intestinal hyperpermeability)

(3) Bad bacteria, undigested proteins, and toxins leak through your gut wall and into your bloodstream. Think of your gut as a sewage pipe. If this pipe gets damaged, gross stuff leaks out into the rest of your house via your bloodstream.

(4) Your immune system notices these foreign molecules in your blood, determines them to be foe rather than friend, and goes into defend and attack mode.

(5) When the immune system ramps up like this, there is always the release of inflammatory cytokines into the bloodstream. Too much can cause a cytokine storm where inflammatory reactions are heightened and prolonged. This inflammation is the source of many chronic illnesses that can show up in any part or system of the body and even pass through the blood-brain barrier, affecting your brain function, focus, and mood.

(6) Risk of autoimmune disease increases because as your immune system ramps up to attack, it can misfire or “cross-react” and start attacking the body’s own tissues.

Ok, so we know that it’s ultra important to keep the gut non-leaky, uninflamed, and full of beneficial bacteria that produce good vitamins and healing SCFAs for us. How do we do achieve this? How do we heal dysbiosis and leaky gut? The key is going back to the cause. Do you remember the most common root causes of dysbiosis?

ROOT CAUSES OF DYSBIOSIS

  1. Processed, refined carbs and sugars
  2. Lack of fiber from whole plant foods
  3. Hidden food sensitivities
  4. Antibiotics
  5. Common pain medications like ibuprofen and other NSAIDs
  6. Toxins
  7. Stress

I help my patients with all of these issues using a holistic, science-based Functional Medicine approach. Functional Medicine looks at root causes, connects all the dots in the various systems of your body, and treats you, the patient, as a whole person (mind-body-spirit) in the context of your personality, habits, life history, and lifestyle, rather than seeing you in parts (treating just your head for headaches, just your stomach for stomachaches, etc.).

Conventional medicine says ‘Diagnosis then Adios!” – slapping a label on your symptoms, covering them up with medications, then bidding you farewell within 15-minutes. (ex: a diagnosis of arthritis treated with naproxen and cortisone shots).

Functional Medicine asks:

WHY do you have have these symptoms?

WHICH systems are out of balance and miscommunicating with each other?

WHAT happened in your life to trigger this?

HOW can we rebalance your body so that your innate healing processes can occur?

HOW can we optimize your diet and lifestyle to secure lasting, lifelong health? 

I run specialized Functional Medicine lab tests to find hidden food sensitivities that most physicians and allergists never check for. I also test for parasites, viruses, yeast, and dozens of bacterial strains, both beneficial and pathogenic. If I suspect that bacteria have migrated up into your small intestine I’ll run a SIBO breath test. If you’ve had significant antibiotic or NSAID use anytime in life, I may run an intestinal permeability test and/or a highly specialized antibody panel to determine if your gut wall is intact or if it’s become “leaky.” This antibody test can also show if the immune system has fired up its defenses excessively or inaccurately, thus detecting autoimmune disease in its earliest stages, years before conventional labs can detect it. And of course, there’s the DUTCH test – a patient favorite – because it measures levels and rhythms of stress hormones, sex hormones, and brain chemicals that show how stressed or overactive your brain is functioning, and consequently how that can impair digestion, fertility, sleep, and immune function.

These lab results take a deep dive into the inner workings of the individual patient and reveal what’s really wrong “under the hood.” It’s superior diagnostics. And with this data, I’m able to determine what’s imbalanced or dysfunctioning inside a patient’s brain and body, including their gut, and then create a comprehensive lifestyle, diet, and nutraceutical treatment plan that may include SCFAs, antimicrobial herbs, and gut-healing nutrients to correct these imbalances. I especially love helping patients reset their stress response so they can get out of “fight-or-flight” mode and begin to feel calmer and think clearer. The mind-brain-gut axis is a powerful connection, and the more relaxed and optimistic you are, the healthier your gut will be. The spiritual principle of being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” holds true in medical science, too. 

I encourage you to make up your mind to heal. To take care of that nagging health condition once and for all. To no longer accept feeling tired, irritable, and uncomfortable and to begin to believe that you CAN have great energy, you CAN have better, more stable moods, You CAN feel less pain and discomfort, and you CAN get better… and better… and better. It all starts in your mind… and in your gut.