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Understanding Gastrointestinal Health


What Are My “Gut Feelings” Telling Me?

Healthy gastrointestinal function is critical to overall health, a fact long recognized in Ayurvedic medicine (from India)  as well as Chinese medicine and other traditional healing systems.

Healthy function of the entire body depends on a critical balance of incoming supportive nutrients along  with production of  digestive acids and enzymes, as well as the vital  role of friendly, helpful bacteria in the GI system. 

The gastrointestinal GI) tract consists of a tube running from the mouth to the anus about 15 feet long. Along with contributing organs including the liver, gallbladder and pancreas.  Because of the anatomy created by the fingerlike projections in the small intestines, called villi, the total absorption area is about the size of a tennis court!

Each part of this tube has a different function. Most people associate the organs involved only with the “mundane” tasks of digestion and elimination. However, whatever effects gastrointestinal health also effects immune system function, nervous system function, as well as hormonal function throughout the body. It is really our first immune system and our first nervous system!

You have “gut feelings” because the GI tract is loaded with neuron cells that release the same neurotransmitters found in your brain: serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and nor-epinephrine. Greater than 70% of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut, not in the brain!

Anything irritating or harmful in the GI tract will send a message through its nervous system contributing to you feeling irritated, angry, anxious, or depressed. On the other hand, substances that are nourishing, calming, soothing and healing to the gut will help you feel calm, relaxed and happy. The GI tract also responds to external stressors and our own emotional states. When you have a “gut feeling,” pay attention!

In addition to neurotransmitters, 80% percent of our immune system cells line the gastrointestinal tract, creating a protective, impermeable barrier. Damage by unhealthy bacteria, viruses, parasites, alcohol, caffeine, excess sugar, anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, as well as many food substances (of which we are unaware), will activate the stress and immune response mechanisms in the body.

In turn, this immune activation may lead to distant, or systemic (whole body) symptoms and diseases which may not seem to be related to the GI tract at all these may include unexplained infertility, arthritis, heart disease, skin diseases, allergies, etc. (See Inflammation and Auto-immune disease.)

Damage increases permeability of the GI tract, often referred to as “leaky” gut syndrome. Rather than foods and/or toxins being appropriately broken down for absorption or elimination, undigested food proteins/toxins/bacterial chemicals “leak” through the damaged barrier directly into the blood stream. These food intolerances create inflammation and stress hormones in an “alarm” response for the body, tax its detoxification abilities, and can lead to auto-immune diseases.

The answer is to heal the GI tract through the 4R’s of gut health while at the same time supporting detoxification and eliminating food toxins. See the Cleanse and Clear program for help.

Optimizing Gastrointestinal
Health with the 4R Program

4 R Program: Remove, Repair, Restore, Replace

To optimize, heal and restore critical GI function, it is useful to think in terms of the 4 R program as described by the scientists and researchers at the Institute of Functional Medicine( The four R's stand for Remove, Repair, Restore and Replace.

• Remove stressors and potential antigens and toxins. Utilizing an elimination diet to identify possible food intolerances and allergies. Additionally remove alcohol, caffeine and refined sugars as well as overly processed foods full of chemical additives. Avoid the use of antibiotics, antacids and anti-inflammatory drugs. Work on mediating or removing emotionally toxic triggers. Instead choose a diet rich in whole unprocessed foods and fiber, from organic sources if possible.

• Repair damaged intestinal mucosa with optimal nutrition, resting the cells, and providing substances that promote tissue healing in the gut. These substances include L-glutamine, quercitin, gamma linoleic acid (GLA), aloe vera, licorice root, tumeric, and omega 3 fatty acids.

• Restore a healthful bacterial balance to the GI tract using high quality beneficial probiotic bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria along with the prebiotic fibers such as fructooligosaccharides (FOS) -- food substances for the beneficial bacteria to flourish. Healthy intestinal bacteria are critical for proper immune system function, detoxification and elimination, hormonal balancing and preventing the overgrowth of unhealthy toxin producing bacteria and yeast. Unfortunately the rampant overuse of antibiotics and high sugar and fat diets has created a toxic soup of unhealthy GI flora in many individuals.

• Replace digestive secretions that are suboptimal such as digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid, and bile salts. Abnormally low levels of stomach acids and digestive enzymes effects the absorption and utilization of nutrients, leading to issues of maldigestion, malabsorption and nutrient deficiency, manifested in symptoms of gas, bloating, fullness and diarrhea or constipation.

In Summary, for Optimizing GI Health

1. Follow the 4R program -- Remove, Repair, Restore, Replace.

2. Remove caffeine, alcohol, refined sugars and processed foods and bad fats (all irritate and create inflammation in the gut).

3. Remove foods that you know you are sensitive to. Consider an elimination diet to identify what you may be intolerant of. The most common food intolerances are wheat (gluten) and cow's milk(casein) products.

4. Replace digestive enzymes and acids as needed.

5. Restore probiotics daily such using lactobacillus acidophilus/bifidus.

6. Repair with healthy fats such as fish oils, nut oils and GLA (borage seed oil).

7. Eat whole foods, unprocessed, lightly cooked and organic if possible

8. Remove antibiotics and non-steroidal anti- inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, aspirin and Tylenol.

9. Be aware that many other medications affect the GI tract- i.e. osteoporsis meds, antidepressants, acid reduction medications.

10. Repair with herbs such as garlic, aloe vera, oil of oregano, and turmeric, nutrients such as L-glutamine, quercitin, fish oils, as well as specifically formulated low antigen medical foods to help promote healing. (Ultraclear Plus, UltraInflamx, Advaclear, Endefen, Glutagenics all by Metagenics)

11. See the Cleanse and Clear program workbook.


Healthy Bacteria-“Probiotics


Understanding the function of healthy bacteria

Critical to optimal health is the role of friendly,healthy bacteria (“probiotics”) in the gut. Including Lactobacillus acidophilus, bifidus and others.

 We have over four pounds of bacteria in our body, mostly in the intestines;  that’s 100 TRILLION bacteria! (We only have10 trillion cells that make up our bodies).  These healthy bacteria were evolved in symbiotic relationship with our bodies over the past million years, functioning like an organ in themselves.

 They are critical to providing nutrition for the cells that line the GI tract, for detoxification, hormonal balance, production of certain vitamins, absorption of nutrients, immune system support, exclusion of harmful bacteria and proper elimination! 

When we disturb these healthy bacteria by killing them off with antibiotics, or creating a hostile environment from a poor diet and chemicals, overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria and yeast becomes a problem.

Unhealthy bacteria produce toxins causing putrefaction (foul gas production), fermentation (yes, like alcohol) and other reactions that stress the body.

Taking quality probiotics to help restore normal GI bacterial flora can make a huge difference. Metagenics UltraFlora Plus or Shaklee Optiflora Pearls are good options.

Additionally, restore healthy bacteria by avoiding the use of anti-biotics and minimizing sugar, alcohol and processed foods. Anti-yeast herbs such as oil of oregano and garlic can help (Metagenics Candibactin).

As a physician I have learned both personally and professionally that creating a healthy gastrointestinal tract is the key to ALL other systems in the body. The functional medicine approach is scientific, integrative and holistic. It’s not alternative — it's scientific biochemistry!

Copyright 2006 - 2009, Margaret Christensen, M.D.