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The Gastrointestinal Tract
Your digestive tract is essentially a series of hollow tubes and organs that include your mouth & teeth, esophagus, liver, stomach, pancreas, small & large intestine. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract breaks down foods by first using mechanical means (e.g., chewing) and then via the application of a host of complex chemical processes (from saliva to colon microbes). As food mixes with digestive juices, it travels along your digestive tract. Throughout the journey, large molecules of food are broken down into smaller molecules that can be used by your body as fuel. Digestion generally begins when food enters your mouth and ends in the small intestine. Waste materials exit your body through the anus.
The Two Aspects of Healthy Digestion
The process of digestion is both mechanical and chemical. The mechanical aspects involve chewing, swallowing and the wave-like movement of the smooth muscles along the GI tract, called peristalsis, which moves matter through the digestive organs. The chemical aspects of digestion include secretions of digestive enzymes from the liver and pancreas, which mix with food and help to break large food particles down into small molecules that can be absorbed into the blood.(3)
Secretions from the liver and pancreas are essential aspects of the digestive process, so inadequate secretions or poor function in either of these organs can negatively impact healthy digestion. In addition, the liver controls the food supply to the rest of the body and filters out toxins that we may have consumed.
Since the GI tract is the point of entry for the human body, everything eaten has an impact us. A very important physical function of the cells that line the gastrointestinal tract is as a sensory organ. By rejecting foods through objectionable taste, vomiting, diarrhea, or any combination of these symptoms, the sensing capacity of the GI tract can protect the body from toxins & pathogens. Toxins can include, but are not limited to, food additives, pesticides, and specific foods that induce a reaction from the GI tract.
Canada’s GI Health Crisis
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Each year more than 20 million Canadians suffer from digestive disorders. Canada has the highest incidence of gastrointestinal ulcers and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) in the world.(1)
There are five basic symptoms that, if persistent, can be associated with GI problems; nausea & vomiting, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and abdominal pain. It is important to address any of these symptoms and not over-look them as “normal”. Although common, these symptoms are an important indication that something in your GI tract is out of balance and needs attention. Over the last decade the prevalence of Canadians with a medically diagnosed bowel disorder has doubled (1), so do not suffer in silence, because you are not alone.
Factors to Consider
- Up to 42% of digestive disorders are now preventable.(1)
- Aging causes many people to experience problems with digestion. It is estimated that after age 40 there is an approximate decrease of 20-30% in the body’s ability to produce enzymes.(7)
- Poor dietary choices and eating foods that lack nutrition & enzymes stress the body and weaken the digestive function.
- GI symptoms can be your body’s way of communicating sensitivity to a particular food or food ingredient.
- The delicate tissues of the GI tract are protected by a mucosal lining. This lining can be disturbed and damaged by the long-term use of Aspirin and NSAID pain relievers, making one more susceptible to ulcers.
- Chronic stress, certain prescription medications and even chlorinated drinking water can disrupt the natural, friendly bacteria found in the digestive tract, creating imbalance in the digestive process.
Conventional Medical Treatment
Some of the most popular drugs prescribed to treat digestive complaints are Prilosec or Prevacid. These drugs are known as gastric acid-pump inhibitors because of the unique way in which they block the final metabolic step in the production of stomach acid. These drugs are quite expensive but are more effective in suppressing disorders associated with excess stomach acid production than the older class of histamine-2 receptor antagonist drugs sold under the trade names Tagamet, Zantac, Pepcid, and Axid. Drugs such as Tagamet inhibit stomach acid secretion whereas Prilosec and Prevacid suppress virtually all stomach acid secretion.
Most stomach ulcers are now considered to be caused by the Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria. Special antibiotic regimens are now the therapy of choice in treating ulcers. Drugs that reduce stomach acid are therefore more frequently prescribed to treat esophageal reflux, where stomach acid regurgitates into the esophagus to cause heartburn. If left untreated, chronic esophageal exposure to stomach acid can cause esophagitis and esophageal cancer.
Some people with mild esophageal reflux may be able to use natural therapies to promote youthful peristaltic action and push food more rapidly out of the stomach, thereby alleviating reflux back into the esophagus.
A Note on Ulcers
The medical community has discovered that H. pylori bacteria cause most stomach ulcers. Blood tests can reveal the presence of the H. pylori antibody. Special antibiotic combinations can be used to eliminate H. pylori bacteria from the stomach within a matter of weeks. Those who fail to eradicate H. pylori are at a far greater risk for contracting stomach cancer.
Nutritional Guidelines: Dietary Recommendations
- Food allergy or intolerance is sometimes the primary cause of GI tract problems. Chronic diseases can have their origin in food allergies. The dysfunction, discomfort, and disease associated with the GI tract can be the result of local immune responses to food selections or combinations of foods.
- To narrow down “trigger foods” stick to simple, wholefoods in their natural state, without a long list of ingredients.
- If you notice a particular food bothers you, try eliminating it completely for a week and see if that improves symptoms, even if the offending food is generally recognized as “healthy”. Remember, everybody is different.
- Foods that are raw or lightly cooked retain their natural enzymes better than foods that have been highly processed or cooked at high heat. Aim to eat a higher ratio of “live” foods for added enzyme benefit – it can be as easy as a snacking on fruit or raw seeds & nuts, adding a big salad to your lunch & choosing lightly steamed veggies at dinner.
- Consuming lots of dark leafy greens can help keep the pH in your body alkaline and naturally reduce acidity. A diet high in fried foods, fatty meats & coffee will naturally fan the flames of acidity & inflammation in the GI tract.
Probiotics. Over time the good bacteria that live in our GI tract and aid with digestion can become diminished or eradicated due to chronic stress, prescription medication use and poor diet. Using supplemental probiotics can help restore good bacteria back into the digestive tract, promoting better overall digestive health, bowel regularity, and improved immunity.
Fibre. Although it is currently recommended that the typical adult diet consist of at least 35 grams of fibre daily, the average North American adult consumes a mere 12 grams per day. Dietary fibre slows transit time in the GI tract and stimulates growth of healthy bacteria. In elderly patients with acute disease, fibre was effective in reducing diahrrea. (4)
Milk Thistle. Our bodies incur toxin accumulation on a daily basis, to levels that can be dangerous to overall health. The human body does have the potential to naturally eliminate these toxins through organs like the liver. Milk thistle (silymarin) has shown positive benefits in supporting and protecting the liver and enhancing the detox process and waste filtration processes. (5, 6)
Zwell Lifestyle Recommendations
Sweat. Many researchers agree that Inflammatory Bowel Disease & colorectal cancer arise due to dietary, lifestyle and genetic factors. (8) Although we can’t control our genetics, we can modify our diet and exercise patterns to improve our health & reduce risk of disease. A sedentary lifestyle decreases bowel activity. Regular exercise is recommended to help prevent constipation from sluggish bowel activity. Even regular walking can be of significant benefit. (9)
Sleep & Stress. Stress and tension are big factors that affect irritable bowel syndrome. Our stress is reflected physically and plays a large role in IBS. (10) Becoming involved with yoga and meditation can be helpful. Our breath can also be a great help in promoting relaxation and restful sleep. When we become tense, we start to breathe shallowly and may even hold our breath. Emphasizing exhalation in the breath cycle is a physiological way to enhance relaxation. When one is experiencing abdominal pain consciously bring one’s attention to one’s breath. Breathe in and out slowly, evenly and continuously. Exaggerate the exhalation phase. Continue to breathe in this fashion until the pain has subsided.
CRON. Frequent consumption of fibre rich food such as pears, apples, oat bran, legumes, nuts and seeds will provide both the soluble and insoluble fibre. Fibre rich foods tend to be higher in nutrients and lower in calories than their low-fibre, processed food counter-parts. Increasing dietary fibre is of therapeutic benefit for most GI conditions, along with plenty of pure, clean water to help keep the digestive tract moving regularly.
Connect. Your digestive system is at work every minute of every day. It nourishes your body and mind fuelling your actions and thoughts. When it is not working properly, you may not feel well and your quality of life decreases. Although digestive problems like gas, bloating and constipation are overwhelmingly common, impacting two thirds of Canadians, these symptoms are a sign that something is out of balance in your digestive tract. Do not suffer in silence; seek professional help to get your digestion and quality of life back on the right track.
Safety Considerations & Contraindications
This information is meant for educational purposes and is not meant to diagnose, treat or cure disease. If you require medical attention, please seek a licensed health care provider.
Therapeutic use of natural food constituents (such as vitamins, minerals and herbal extracts) may potentiate the effects of prescription medications. Speak with a licensed health care practitioner about possible interactions.
Check with your health care professional before beginning any exercise or diet program.
These recommendations may not be suitable for children, pregnant or lactating women.
3. Anatomical Chart Company® 2002; Lippincott Williams & Wilkins)
4. Shimoni Z, Averbuch Y, Shir E, Gottshalk T, Kfir D, Niven M, Moshkowitz M and Froom P. The addition of fiber and the use of continuous infusion decrease the incidence of diarrhea in elderly tube-fed patients in medical wards of a general regional hospital: a controlled clinical trial. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. 2007;41(10):901-905
5. Milk thistle | University of Maryland Medical Centerhttp://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/milk-thistle#ixzz2oz6zALcc
6. NHPD Monograph on Milk Thistle. June 2009. – See more at:http://www.innovitehealth.com/products/product_details/2/17#sthash.Nmv3YDsU.dpuf