Digestion and Functional Medicine

Importance of Healthy Digestion

The foundation of good health lies in proper digestive function. All other health factors can be undermined if you don’t digest and absorb nutrients well. Assimilation of vitamins, minerals, proteins and essential fatty acids from the foods you eat and the supplements you take is required for optimum health. Any therapeutic program you may use will be of limited value without good digestive function.

Digestive Function Lab Testing
The first step is to take a look at how well your body is digesting by performing an at-home test for pathogens and parasites. There are several different types of Functional Medicine tests that are available to assess the function of different organs of the digestive system.

Digestive Enzymes
The inability to digest protein may reflect a deficiency of stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Without sufficient enzymes your body cannot break down the food you eat for assimilation. Low stomach acid and low digestive enzymes are common problems due to our poor diets and high stress levels.

The enzymes present in raw fruits and vegetables help us digest foods more easily. However, these enzymes are destroyed in the cooking process. Your body’s own production of digestive enzymes will become depleted if you eat too many cooked foods. When your digestive enzymes decrease, your body’s other enzymes which are critical for proper immune regulation and systemic cellular processes get pulled from the blood stream back into the digestive system. This pattern leads to depletion of your enzyme reserve in other body systems not directly related to digestion. Enzymes are involved in every process in your body and depletion of enzymes is a depletion of health.

Effects of Low Enzymes
If you have low levels of digestive enzymes, the food you eat is not completely utilized. Any foods you don’t digest because of insufficient enzymes become toxic to your body. These partially digested foods provide a substrate or fuel supply for harmful microorganisms like yeast, bacteria, and parasites. Health sustaining enzymes are abundant in raw and lightly cooked vegetables and fruits, and these should be part of your daily food intake.

Replenishing Enzymes
If you have depleted your reserve of digestive enzymes through poor eating habits you can support your digestion with digestive enzymes until your reserve is built back up. The right dietary supplements will help keep you in a rebuilding state. Supplemental enzymes will help you to properly digest protein, fats, and carbohydrates, which are essential to maintaining stable blood sugar and overall health.

Dysbiosis and Hidden Digestive Problems
Poor digestion is also a result of dysbiosis, an imbalance in the healthy organisms that inhabit the intestinal tract. Dysbiosis can be caused by parasitic infections, bacterial overgrowth, or invasive yeast often referred to as Candida. Hidden or subclinical inflammatory conditions can also interfere with digestion and cause dysbiosis. ‘Subclinical’ refers to problems that are frequently not detected because they do not cause obvious symptoms. The digestive test kit will assess pathogenic and parasitic infection.

Leaky Gut Syndrome
Another common manifestation of digestive stress is “Leaky Gut Syndrome,” where the integrity of the intestinal lining is compromised and is no longer as discerning as it should be between what is absorbed into the blood stream and what is kept out of the blood stream. Therefore, molecules “leak” into the blood that should not be present and are attacked by our immune system causing inflammation and tissue damage. When food antigens “leak” into our blood stream the immune system thinks they are a foreign invader and mounts an immune response that we experience as an allergic reaction. Yeast and bacteria can also “leak” into the blood stream and cause significant immune system activity.

Gluten and Dairy
Food sensitivities are a common cause of hidden or subclinical inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. For example, some people are sensitive to grains containing gluten such as wheat, barley and rye. Others react to lactose found in milk and dairy products; many people react poorly to soy. These types of hidden food reactions are frequently found in people with chronic health problems. The food sensitivity test, or GI/Gluten food profile allows you to determine if food related problems are a significant factor in your overall health picture.

Many people think of parasites as a problem that only occurs when traveling abroad. However, through recent improvements in diagnostic testing methods, doctors are now discovering high levels of parasite infections in the United States. Parasites are usually acquired by self-inoculation. This can occur when you eat at restaurants where the staff has poor hygiene, or when you eat from salad bars and buffets where food is left sitting out. Handling money, shaking hands with people and using public restrooms are all ways we are exposed to potential parasitic infections.

Protecting Against Parasites
When several people are exposed to the same pathogen, or infectious organism, one person may be able to fight it off while another may become infected. This has been widely seen in the press with various bacterial organisms, most notably the toxic E. Coli outbreaks. The E. Coli bacteria is found most often in beef products and has caused severe digestive illness and, in rare cases, death. While many people are exposed to the same tainted meat, some people react more severely than others. This difference in susceptibility to intestinal pathogens such as E. Coil is a reflection of the status of SIgA, or first line mucosal immune defense.

When you have strong mucosal immunity (normal SIgA production), the lining of your gastrointestinal tract is able to defend you from invading pathogens. Research studies have shown that if you have lowered mucosal immunity you will have a decreased ability to fight pathogens successfully.

To combat this growing problem with weakened immunity and parasitic infections, new technologies have been created to detect these infectious organisms. One such test, called a stool antigen test, is highly effective in determining acute and chronic parasitic infections that were previously undetected with older testing methods. Bacterial overgrowth and invasive yeast and fungal infections of the intestines are also frequent causes of digestive stress. These too require additional testing to assess.