Functional medicine has long been aware that gut health is foundational to overall health. Although the reason wasn’t fully understood for decades, it was clear that the gut was the seat of the immune system and chronic inflammation. Recent research has paved the way for understanding just how integral gut bacteria is to health.
Improving gut health has always been and continues to be one of the first steps in managing a chronic inflammatory or autoimmune condition. But it’s a fallacy to think that everyone can follow the same gut healing protocol and get the same results.
Unfortunately, there is not just one diet, one type of probiotic, or one gut healing powder that works for everyone. A one-size-fits-all protocol can completely heal one person, create improvement in another, do nothing at all for a third, and perhaps make another even worse.
The basic foundation to repairing gut health includes removing immune reactive foods, stabilizing blood sugar, and creating a healthy gut microbiome. Even still, it is critically important to determine the underlying cause of the deterioration of the gut and address the root issue.
Examples of root causes of poor gut health
For example, when a patient presents with a symptom like constipation, it is important to investigate the underlying cause of the symptoms rather than offering a quick fix like a laxative. The same is true for any digestive complaints.
Different people could develop a digestive issue such as constipation for a number of different reasons:
- A past brain injury has dampened activity of the vagus nerve, which carries signals back and forth between the gut and the brain. This slows down motility of the intestines and causes constipation.
- The gut’s nervous system, called the enteric nervous system, has degenerated significantly due to chronic gut inflammation from immune reactive foods, too many sugars and junk foods, chronic stress, gut infections, or brain degeneration. Intestinal motility depends on a healthy enteric nervous system, and constipation develops.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) releases gases that shut down motility.
- Medications impact intestinal motility and cause constipation.
- Dysautonomia, a dysregulation of the central nervous system, prevents the body from getting into the “rest and digest” state that allows for healthy bowel function.
It’s also imperative to screen for more serious conditions like gastric ulcers from an H. pylori infection, intestinal permeability – or leaky gut – from damage to the microvilli of the small intestine, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease. These conditions must be considered when creating a customized plan for improving gut health.
Gut autoimmunity could be another root cause of gut issues and should be tested. (Cyrex Labs screens for damaged tissue to multiple organs of the body including the gut.) Autoimmune disease develops when the immune system targets the body’s own tissue as a threat, attacking and destroying itself. This damage causes symptoms as the function of the organ breaks down.
While it cannot be cured, it is possible for an autoimmune condition to go into remission for long periods of time. However, it’s important to manage expectations about your particular outcomes and the guidelines for evaluating your progress. Symptom flare-ups can happen unexpectedly making it critical for the person with gut autoimmunity to understand and accept that this is normal.
There is much we still don’t know about autoimmunity. For some people it’s easy to manage and for others it’s a constant battle. In these cases, the goal can be as simple as “more good days.”
The digestive system is one of the most fascinating, complex, and influential systems in the body. The more scientists learn about it, the more apparent it becomes that gut health largely determines the health of the rest of the body, including the brain.
Modern populations that mostly consume industrialized agriculture and processed foods are seeing a rise in chronic health conditions. This is due to the commercialization of cheap, processed, chemically laden, and highly sweetened “foods” – largely void of produce – which inflame and damage the digestive tract, decimate the gut microbiome (some researchers call it an extinction event), and ravage the brain.
Contact my office to learn more about how functional medicine can help repair and maintain gut health.