It has been said that inflammation is the cause of almost every disease and this is especially true when it comes to disorders of the gut. Intestinal inflammation not only causes GI upset and symptoms of discomfort but can also make it difficult to absorb nutrients from foods and supplements. If your GI tract is not functioning properly, it’s likely you’re not getting all the nutrients from your diet or supplement plan, which is why GI health is an essential part of whole body wellness. Without a happy, healthy, functioning gut, it can be difficult to achieve optimal health. Fortunately, naturopathic medicine has much to offer in this area and the approach to GI health is multifaceted, with a conversation on everything from probiotics and digestive enzymes to anti-inflammatory herbs and herbal antibiotics.
Demulcents & Anti-inflammatory Herbs
Whether you’re suffering from acid reflux, IBS, or frequent bloating, it’s important to use herbs that have soothing and anti-inflammatory properties but also work to heal the intestinal lining. In herbal medicine, we often categorize herbs based on their medicinal properties and this is where the “demulcents” come into play – herbs that are calming to the mucous membranes. I like to tell patients demulcents are to the GI tract what emollients are to the skin; just as you might apply a moisturizing cream to soothe cracked, irritated skin on a cold day, demulcents are ideal for irritated and inflamed intestinal tissue. If you can imagine the gelatinous fluid that oozes from the Aloe leaf, you have a good understanding of how these herbs can calm and soothe irritated tissue. Marshmallow, the name for the candy used to make s’mores, comes from the herb that most certainly came first. Although these herbs are useful in reducing inflammation, most GI protocols would be incomplete without a glutamine supplement to restore and regenerate new tissue. Glutamine, an amino acid, helps to promote healthy growth of the intestinal lining, serving as “fuel” for the enterocytes, cells that line the gut.
Enzymes & Digestion
When it comes to GI health, it isn’t all about the herbs. One of the most common symptoms I see in practice is bloating, and if they’re paying attention, most patients can pinpoint the foods that are the biggest culprits. When patients remove problematic foods like dairy and gluten but experience little relief, it becomes clear that something else is going on. Enzymes released from the pancreas help to break down foods, especially carbohydrates, and move the digestive process along. If these enzymes are not released properly or are insufficient, this can quickly lead to gas and bloating. I like to ask a lot of questions about the timing of symptoms and specifically which foods are causing the most problems because not all digestive support supplements are created equal. In some cases, patients will benefit from a formula that combines pancreatic enzymes with other natural agents, such as bile to improve fat digestion and Betaine HCl to increase stomach acid protein breakdown. An in-depth discussion on diet can help your doctor to choose the best formula for you.
Probiotics / “Commensal” Flora
You’ve probably heard about probiotics and the wonders these living bacteria can do for our digestive tracts, but most people are understandably unfamiliar with the term “commensal.” I like to start my conversation on probiotics by defining the term because I think it helps to put the importance of gut bacteria into perspective. Commensal comes from Latin, roughly translating to “coming together at the table.” This translation speaks to the symbiotic relationship between our bodies and the trillions of gut bacteria living inside our digestive tracts. We need them just as much as they need us to survive and imbalances in the levels of good flora, referred to as dysbiosis, can lead to a variety of symptoms. Choosing the right dose and strain of probiotics is essential in improving gut health and sometimes, more isn’t always better. An overgrowth in the commensal flora can cause bloating as these bacteria feast on foods you eat, fermenting them and forming gasses responsible for bloating. By ensuring the proper levels of healthy flora and digestive enzymes, we can minimize bloating and discomfort.
In some cases, the patient’s symptoms are less straightforward, and this is where advance stool testing can help narrow the focus and lead to a more advanced treatment plan. A comprehensive stool test can determine the levels of pancreatic enzymes and beneficial bacteria and whether there is an excess of fats and proteins in the stool, (an indicator of malabsorption). It’s not uncommon to see an imbalance in the gut bacteria, with either too much or too little of a specific strain of beneficial bacteria. Stool testing helps your doctor to determine which probiotic is best for you and whether it’s necessary to reduce the levels of gut bacteria using herbal antibiotics. What’s more impressive: the most comprehensive of stool tests will culture potentially harmful bacteria (and fungus) and test against a variety of medications and herbal antimicrobials to determine which treatment plan is most effective. While there are many herbs with strong antibacterial properties, stool testing through a specialty lab can help your doctor choose the most specific protocol for your condition.
Antonio Reale, ND, MS is a licensed natu-ropathic physician and nutritionist practic-ing in Wethersfi eld, CT. He specializes in personalized botanical medicine and is founder of The Herbal Room, a multidis-ciplinary wellness center with an in-house botanical dispensary. For insurance infor-mation and scheduling, visit: www.theherbal-room.com.