by Marcelle Pick, OB-GYN, NP
The major function of the digestive system is to break down food and provide a means by which the nutrients can be absorbed in the body. Nutrients that are liberated by this process allow the body to grow, heal and function on a day-to-day basis.
Unfortunately it is very common for this process to be disrupted (known as dysbiosis). A wide range of factors can influence how well the digestive system function — including dietary habits, medications, and emotional wellness — and most people are affected by at least one of these factors. In fact, an estimated two-thirds of women suffer from gastrointestinal problems, which often lead to malabsorption.
What makes this so important is that much of your health is riding on your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Healing the GI tract and ensuring that the digestive system is functioning properly is a necessary first step to reaping the benefits of good nutrition.
So let’s take a look at how a healthy digestive system works, and how this delicate process can be disrupted. This is the first step towards improving your digestive health.
The healthy digestive system
Digestion begins in the mouth, where the teeth break up food and mix it with saliva. Salivary enzymes initiate the breakdown of food into usable forms, particularly the initial digestion of fat and starch.
The stomach mechanically churns food, breaks up and emulsifies fat, and exposes the molecules to multiple enzymes such as hydrochloric acid and pancreatic juices.
The resulting semi-digested slurry is passed from the stomach to the small intestine, whose membranous surface could cover a football field if stretched flat. The small intestine is filled with billions of bacteria (some three and a half pounds — equal in size and functional importance to a major organ) some friendly, some not. Friendly bacteria promote good health and protect the body from the unfriendly bacteria.
Needless to say, a number of factors may go awry. Because the intestinal tract plays a key part in nutrient absorption, any problem there can affect the function of the entire body and our overall health.
When the intestines contain the balance of good and bad bacteria that is optimal for good health, they are described as being in a state of symbiosis. Alternatively, dysbiosis (a contraction of the term “dys-symbiosis ”) occurs when this balance is upset. Dysbiosis can result from a deficiency of good bacteria or an overgrowth of harmful organisms. In either case, organisms that are not usually predominant in the intestines, such as unfriendly bacteria, yeast (candida) and protozoa, actually induce disease by altering nutrition patterns in the body.
Dr. Leo Galland and a number of others believe, as I do, that optimal health requires that the intestinal flora maintain a healthy balance between allowing the more than 400 organisms that usually reside there and preventing the overgrowth of any particular one.
Signs and symptoms of dysbiosis, malabsorption and other GI problems
When the digestive system is out of balance, the following symptoms may occur:
- Bloating, belching, burning, flatulence after meals
- A sense of fullness after eating
- Indigestion, diarrhea, constipation
- Systemic reactions after eating
- Nausea or diarrhea after taking supplements
- Rectal itching
- Weak or cracked finger nails
- Dilated capillaries in the cheeks and nose in the non-alcoholic
- Post-adolescent acne or other skin irritations such as rosacea
- Iron deficiency
- Chronic intestinal infections, parasites, yeast, unfriendly bacteria
- Undigested food in the stool
- Greasy stools
- Skin that’s easily bruised
- Amenorrhea (absence of menstruation)
- Chronic vaginitis (vaginal irritation)
Some authors have speculated that other symptoms, such as impotence, loss of libido, infertility, muscle atrophy, cramps and joint pain, are also linked to malabsorption. A fair amount of research supports this connection.
What are the major causes of intestinal dysbiosis?
The delicate balance that makes up the ecology of the intestines can be disrupted fairly easily. Here are some of the most common factors that contribute to dysbiosis.
- Diets that are quite poor or imbalanced and lacking nutritional supplementation; imbalanced diets may be extreme in carbohydrates, fat, or animal products
- Food allergies or sensitivities (these may in turn be a byproduct of dysbiosis)
- Frequent antibiotic or drug therapy
- An immune system that is suppressed; this can occur for a number of reasons, including emotional stress
- Intestinal infections
- Parasite infestation
It’s important to emphasize that if our intestinal tract were balanced, infestation would rarely occur — even if we were exposed to parasites — as the immune system would work naturally to keep the parasite population under control and in balance. However, eating spoiled or heavily infested food will make even a healthy system sick.
Like your hormones, the flora in your digestive system are easily prone to upset and disruption by external sources. This is where stress, self-criticism, and anxiety come into play by changing the pH level (the acid/alkaline balance) in your intestines. The intestinal tract is noticeably one of the first areas of the body to react to fear or personal stress (think of the nausea and/or loose-bowel feeling that can accompany stage fright). In a balanced system, once the stress is reduced, the pH straightens out and symptoms may disappear. In a weakened system, such as occurs under unrelenting stress, the intestines stay irritated and contribute to chronic discomfort.
Why are women more prone than men to GI distress?
In the United States and other Western cultures, women are two to three times more likely to seek out medical help for digestive disorders than men. There is still a lot of research to be done on this topic, but preliminary data suggest that ovarian hormones (estrogen and progesterone) influence digestion.
Most of us are familiar with the bloated feeling that may occur around our period. Some of this feeling may be attributed to how slowly our stomach and intestines empty during the last two weeks of the cycle compared to the first two weeks. Research points to the fact that transit time slows significantly during the last two weeks of a woman’s monthly cycle (the luteal phase) with a marked rise in digestive complaints right before a period starts. Post menopausal women often see a similar delay. Based on this information, it appears that a decline in ovarian hormones is strongly linked to a rise in symptoms of GI distress.
Healing your digestive system is one of the simplest ways to see big improvements in your health — and there are many steps you can take on your own to get started.