by Chris D. Meletis, ND
Maintaining good GI function is
foundational to all other
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Often, we don't pay attention to our intestinal health unless we develop an obvious gastrointestinal disease. Yet, the GI tract is the absolute barrier between the burdensome outside world that enters our bodies in the form of foods and contaminates (herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals and an array of other health saboteurs) and our well ordered 75 trillion cells that work in harmony to sustain our existence.
Therefore, regardless of whether an individual has any overt signs of gastrointestinal dysfunction, fortifying the GI tract enhances the ability for nutrients from food and supplements to be most optimally absorbed. Some 60 to 70 million people are affected by overt diagnosable digestive diseases. Tens of millions of others suffer from subclinical GI health issues that alter their ability to absorb nutrients from their diet and supplements, ultimately undermining even the most proactive individual's attempt to truly take care of his or her health. Annually, an astounding 234,000 people die from GI diseases including cancer. Yet far more people (14 million per year) end up in the hospital from nonfatal GI conditions.
Diagnosed GI health conditions are just that: confirmation of disease being present. This means that there is officially enough symptoms and a confirmatory diagnostic test to document dysfunction. However, it can take tens of thousands if not millions of cells to be sufficiently damaged prior to having the ability to perceive there is a problem. Proactive GI health care is of paramount importance in the endeavor to minimize the risk of becoming one of the 6 million diagnostic and therapeutic in-patient hospitalization procedures conducted annually--or one of the approximately 45 million outpatient visits.
Proactive Approach to GI Health
Without optimal health in the alimentary tract there cannot be true wellness elsewhere. For the body to heal and wellness to prevail, toxic waste absorption must be minimized.
Though the entire GI tract works in symphonic harmony, we must limit ourselves in this article to the large intestine's anatomy and physiology. The large intestine is approximately 5 feet in length and is comprised of four segments: the ascending colon (8 inches); transverse colon (18 inches); descending colon (approximately 12 inches); and sigmoid colon (18 inches). The large intestine absorbs about 90% of the water content it receives from the small intestine. If this slurry of food material and moisture remains in the colon too long, excess moisture is absorbed and toxins and waste burden are reabsorbed disproportionately, irritating the colonic lining. This is why, when individuals fail to have 2-3 bowel movements per day, they feel ill and tired. Furthermore, their stools are harder and drier, for the body has reabsorbed the toxic wastewater. This process of absorption and reabsorption serves as the mandate to nourish the GI tract daily, even when not experiencing GI distress.
A Life-Sustaining Function
The healthy intestinal lining is a selective barrier that normally only allows properly digested fats, proteins, and starches to enter the bloodstream. The colonic lining that comes in contact with food, bacteria, toxins, and other pathogens is called the mucosa and is an epithelial (single layer of cells) lining that regenerates every 3-8 days. For proper maintenance of this nutrient-dependent barrier, sufficient substrates for healing, repair and regeneration must be present.
Nutrient absorption across this GI interface that also protects against harmful agents occurs via a few mechanisms. Diffusion is the process by which nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, sodium, chloride, and free fatty acids diffuse through intestinal cells. Active transport allows for amino acids, fatty acids, glucose, minerals, and vitamins to cross through cells.
Tight Junction is a third way substances can pass into the circulatory system from the intestines. The tight junction spaces between cells that line the intestines are normally sealed. However, when the intestinal lining becomes irritated, the junctions loosen and allow unwanted larger molecules in the intestines to pass through into the blood. This can trigger immediate damage and immune system reactions since these large molecules are perceived as foreign. Much like the initial crack in a large dam, without immediate repair, progressive damage occurs to the intestinal lining, eventually allowing disease-causing bacteria, undigested food particles, and toxins to pass directly into the body. A cascade of events ensues as the immune system becomes involved in generating antibodies and cytokines that produce oxidative damage--localized irritation and inflammation throughout the body. This process increases inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP), a known risk factor for cardiac damage, and in this case serving as the proverbial coal miners' canary alert that preemptive action is required. This inflammation can result in IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and colorectal cancer.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
Disturbance of the tight junctions contribute to leaky gut syndrome (LGS). The symptoms that can arise range from subtle to severe depending on breach of the integrity of the intestinal natural defenses. Individuals with LGS can experience one or more of these symptoms: abdominal pain, anxiousness, asthma, chronic joint pain, chronic muscle pain, confusion, fuzzy or foggy thinking, gas, indigestion, mood swings, poor immunity, recurrent infections, skin rashes, diarrhea, poor memory, constipation, bloating, fatigue and feeling toxic or hung-over.
Nutritional Support for the Colon
Specific supplements, taken together, can deliver critical building blocks for daily repair of the GI tract and also help soothe irritation that arises from innate colonic function.
* Glutamine - Glutamine is the most abundant free amino acid in the body. Though it is classified as a non-essential amino acid, glutamine is absolutely essential for maintaining intestinal structure. Glutamine serves as metabolic fuel for enterocytes that line the colon and affect cell proliferation. The GI tract has the largest demand for glutamine in the body.Insufficient glutamine can present with atrophy, ulceration, and necrosis of the colon lining.
* Deglycyrrhizinated Licorice (DGL) - Most of the research on deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) has been focused on upper GI health, including ulcer healing. Colon health is directly dependent upon the proper functioning of the entire GI tract. DGL seems to be similar to carbenoxolone, a semisynthetic derivative of glycyrrhetic acid used outside the U.S. for treating gastric and duodenal ulcer disease. DGL utility is not limited to upper GI health; in the clinical setting it has demonstrated great utility in lessening intestinal irritation and related symptoms.
* N-acetyl Glucosamine - N-acetyl glucosamine is the acetylated derivative of the amino sugar glucosamine. In inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), N-acetylation of glucosamine is relatively deficient, possibly reducing the synthesis of the gastric and intestinal mucosa's protective glycoprotein cover.
* Marshmallow - Marshmallow leaf and root contain mucilage polysaccharides that soothe and protect mucous membranes from local irritation by creating a protective layer. The mucilage properties can also have antimicrobial, spasmolytic, and wound-healing effects.
* Berberine - Maintaining healthy GI flora is essential. Berberine possesses antimicrobial effects including antibacterial, antifungal, antimycobacterial and antiprotozoal activity. Berberine has demonstrated activity against Staphylococcus aureus, E.coli, Candida albicans, Giardia lamblia and more. Berberine also helps control inflammation in the GI tract by selectively inhibiting cyclooxygenase (COX)-2 expression and blocking the proinflammatory cytokines interleukin-1 (IL1)-beta and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha.
* Cabbage - Historically called vitamin U, cabbage does not meet the official criteria to achieve vitamin status. However, cabbage constituents offer significant protection to the GI tract and thus the body in general. Individuals who consume large amounts of cabbage and other Brassica vegetables have a lower risk of developing stomach and colorectal cancer. In 1952, 100 peptic ulcer patients drank four glasses of fresh, raw cabbage juice daily. Patients indicated dramatically reduced pain, while x-rays demonstrated significantly reduced healing time. Cabbage also possesses antioxidant effects.
* Slippery Elm - The inner bark of slippery elm contains mucilage constituents that are demulcent and emollient. When used internally, slippery elm preparations trigger gentle stimulation of nerve endings in the GI tract, leading to mucous secretion that coats and protects the delicate lining of the intestines from ulcers, excess acidity, ingested irritants and toxins.
* Phosphatidylcholine - The clinical importance of phosphatidylcholine (PC) is illustrated by a 2007 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study showing that patients with ulcerative colitis can benefit from PC supplementation. It was shown that low levels of PC in colonic mucus are a likely contributory factor involved in the development of ulcerative colitis. This research correlates with the findings in clinical practice that when PC is supplemented it supports the GI function and cellular synthesis.
* Gamma Oryzanol - Gamma oryzanol contributes ferulic esters extracted from rice bran oil that possess antioxidant properties. It is highly regarded in Japan to promote a healthy gastrointestinal environment. There appears in animal models to be a modulation of pituitary secretion, inhibition of excess gastric acid secretion, and inhibition of platelet aggregation. There is also evidence of cholesterol-lowering properties by decreasing cholesterol absorption from the gut.
Maintaining healthy GI function is foundational to all other health pursuits. Even those fortunate enough not to suffer from GI dysfunction should take steps to protect healthy GI function, which is critical for sustained healthy aging. Clinical practice and testing clearly demonstrate it is the rare individual who has a totally pristine GI tract. Optimal absorption of nutrients from foods and supplements consumed depend upon optimal GI health. Use of specific nutrients to protect, soothe, and support the colon is the first step toward health optimization for the entire body.
Dr. Chris D. Meletis is the Executive Director of The Institute for Healthy Aging. His personal mission is to "Change America's Health One Person at a Time". Learn more about his work at www.theiha.org.
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