The GI tract has never been my favorite topic to talk about, yet when it comes to wellness and the body functioning at its very best the GI tract is where every patient MUST start. This goes for everyone even when there is no doubt that your main health issues and concerns seem unrelated. The reason for this is that the GI tract or the gut is your main way to get treatments we may require for other issues into the body. You must be able to digest and absorb well if you have any hope of getting treatment for other issues into the body where they can be effective. Just think about it. The GI tract is given the enormous job of sifting through everything we consume and sorting out what is good and what is bad, what is a nutrient and what is a toxin and what is important to absorb and share with the rest of the body and what must be isolated and not allowed in.
By now most people know that the GI tract is line with healthy bacteria that keep the gut and the body functioning well. As a matter of fact, you have more bacterial DNA in your GI tract than you have of your own DNA in your entire body. The bacteria in the GI tract weighs about 3 pounds. Eighty percent of the immune system is in the gut in the form of Peyers patches. Seventy percent of your serotonin is made in the gut and 80% of your vitamin K (a key factor in clotting cascade) is made by the bacteria in the gut. So although this is not a terribly fun topic, it is a critical one when it comes to keeping the body in tip-top shape.
Many of the things that can go awry in the GI tract have to do with the bacteria that line it. First, you can have good bacteria but way to much of it. When this happens the bacteria that usually lives down by the colon (large intestine) works its way up into the small intestine. This is called SIBO or small intestine bacterial overgrowth and it can cause dysfunction such as malabsorption and villus atrophy. Another issue that can arise in the GI tract is dysbiosis. Although the term literally means bacterial imbalance, it can also mean the growth of bad or pathogenic bacteria. These bad actors can cause inflammation, mucosal disruption and micro-ulceration or breakdown of the GI tract surface cells. Finally, yeast overgrowth can be an issue causing puffiness, bloating and fatigue. All of the above can lead to more severe issues like:
- Food allergies,
- Immune system overstimulation,
- Systemic and local inflammation,
- Malabsorption of nutrients with subsequent micronutrient deficiencies,
- Maldigestion which can lead to macronutrient absorption issues,
- Intestinal hyperpermeabilty commonly referred to as leaky gut.
What is listed above are just issues that can occur when the GI tract gets unhealthy but what isn't listed are all of the symptoms and health issues that can accompany an unhealthy GI tract. Symptoms that are often vague and nonspecific like:
- fatigue and lethargy,
- weight gain and difficulty losing weight,
- water retention and overall puffiness,
- autoimmune issues,
- increasing food hypersensitivities,
- silent inflammation that can lead to many systemic disorders,
- insulin resistance or pre-diabetes.
All of these issues listed above are just the tip of the iceberg. A rule of thumb in integrative and functional medicine is to "always start with the gut". The gut and the bacteria that line it are critical to the health of the rest of the body. Gut health starts at birth and starts to affect our overall health the moment we are born through our developmental years and beyond. The good news is testing for GI tract issues is simple and inexpensive and getting and keeping the gut, and the bacteria that line it, healthy is not difficult. A healthy gut is the key to overall wellness. This is one issue, when properly addressed, it will change your life.
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