We rely on our bowels to perform two duties: to absorb the nutrients digested by the stomach and small intestines, and to keep foreign proteins and bacteria out. The bowels usually do a great job at both, as long as they are fed good, healthy foods, and the “upstream” organs are doing their jobs.
But I see many patients whose bowels are not doing these duties well at all, and it usually isn’t the fault of the bowel itself. In a common bowel problem called “leaky gut syndrome,” the lining of the gut is inflamed, and as a result becomes too porous, allowing proteins into the body that ordinarily would never be allowed in. This results in a state of chronic low-level alert for the immune system, because it senses an invasion after every meal. Because the immune system affects the whole body, when it is out of whack the results can be felt anywhere, not just in the abdomen.
A common result is allergies (a classic overreaction of the immune system), especially sinus congestion and pressure. Some cases of autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, also have been associated with this condition. A typical cause of leaky gut is gluten, the protein found primarily in wheat, but also in barley and rye. One part of the gluten complex, called gliadin, has been shown to cause “leaky gut” even in subjects who do not have celiac disease.
Another cause are anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen and toredol. Also, antibiotics can trigger this problem, primarily because they alter the normal balance of bacteria in the intestines. And, of course, stress will produce this effect as well.
Another stress on the bowel is a poorly functioning stomach and gallbladder. As I discussed in a previous column, a chronically stressed stomach will not produce enough acid, which leads to incomplete digestion. This can cause the poorly digested food to putrefy in the bowel, inflaming it and leading to gas and loose stools. If bile released by the gallbladder is inadequate, the result is poor fat digestion, often leading to constipation and more bowel inflammation.
But for most patients, their bowel symptoms are not clearly overactive (loose stools) or underactive (constipation). They have elements of both, called irritable bowel syndrome. This is a poorly defined condition characterized by alternating constipation and diarrhea, often with some pain as well. My first recommendation for these patients is to stop eating wheat and dairy products. This is one situation where white bread is not any worse than whole wheat; both contain a lot of gluten. The worst offender is pizza dough, because extra gluten is added to the dough to make it thicker. (Hopefully I didn’t lose too many of my readers with that sentence.)
For most patients with bowel problems, treating the bowel itself eases their immediate symptoms. The true treatment is eliminating any offending food from the diet, and then restoring stomach and gallbladder function to normal. Natural treatments are effective for these problems; I have found acupuncture to be great for reducing inflammation in the bowel, while also improving digestive function. There are also helpful natural supplements, including food-based as well as herbals.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.