THE DIGESTIVE SYSTEM
There is an old saying that “all diseases start in the colon”. That is a bit of an over-simplification but it is true that the health of your intestinal system is crucial to any quest for optimal health. This is a subject that most people like to shy away from but one that I feel is important enough to start off my series on “The Proactive Approach to Health”.
Our digestive system is essentially one big tube from our mouth to our anus but is made up of multiple parts each with specific functions. The most important of these are:
- Digestion of the food we eat
- Transferring the nutritional value of that food into the body
- Processing the waste from food and eliminating it from the body
- Serving as a drain pipe for waste produced as a result of metabolic functions in the body
- Serving as a drain for toxic substances absorbed through our lungs and skin, etc.
- Functioning as a first line of defense in the body’s immune system
As you can clearly see, these are all vital functions for life itself. Without absorption of the nutrients we consume, every cell in every organ will suffer from a lack of nutrition. Without good disposal of toxic waste we quickly create an environment that is ideal for bacteria as well as cancer.
Today it is estimated that over a 100 million people suffer from some sort of intestinal disorder, accounting for at least 50 million doctor visits per year at a cost in the billions. These include such things as:
-- Diverticular disease ( herniations of the colon)
-- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
-- Ulcerative Colitis
-- Crohn’s Disease
-- Colon/Rectal Cancer
Colon/Rectal cancer is the number one cancer among men and women combined in the United States today. Diverticulitis has gone from affecting 10% of the population 40 years ago to 90% of the population today over the age of 45.
In addition it is estimated that huge numbers of people have intestinal parasites which often create vague symptoms such as: nervousness, grinding of the teeth at night, aches and pains that move from place to place in the body, ulcers and various digestive pain, nausea or diarrhea, foul breath, fatigue, and insomnia. Candida albicans (a type of yeast) is also becoming recognized as a significant health problem with a host of symptoms such as: chronic fatigue (especially after eating), depression, bloating, gas, cramps, chronic diarrhea or constipation, rectal itching, memory loss, severe mood swings, recurrent fungal infections ( such as athlete’s foot), and extreme sensitivity to chemicals (perfumes, smoke, odors, etc.)
The most common causes are related to diets high in processed grains, over-consumption of meat and high fat foods, and a lack of fiber. On top of this most people live in a fast paced, multi-tasking, highly stressed environment where they get little or no exercise. Add to this coffee, alcohol, and medications (both prescription and over-the-counter) and you have a recipe for a colon problem.
Most problems start with decreased motility or what is most commonly called constipation. Some people don’t even recognize it as a problem. They think it is perfectly normal to only have bowel movements every few days or they are too busy to even think about it until clinical symptoms appear.
One of the primary jobs of the colon is to reabsorb and retain water from the feces to prevent dehydration. Feces are primarily a liquid when it leaves the small intestine and enters the colon. Fiber consumed in the diet is not digested by the body but ends up in the feces where it helps absorb and retain some of this water in the colon. In the process, it swells and puts pressure on the walls of the colon which initiate muscle contractions essential for the movement of waste products. It helps of course to drink lots of water as well, 6-8 glasses/day. When you don’t have this fiber, the feces become dry and hard and are difficult to move through the system. As motility slows, your colon starts to retain waste causing impaction into the walls of the colon. (It is not unusual for a person to retain 10-20 lbs of old feces for long periods of time). This causes increased pressure which results in small herniations known as diverticular disease. These pockets of waste become prime breeding grounds for unfriendly bacteria and the toxins being transported in the waste can be reabsorbed leading to self intoxication. As the system starts to back up, (similar to your kitchen drain,) retained waste starts collecting more and more waste including all of the lymph that has collected toxic waste from the blood and tissue for disposal. Harboring this toxic waste over long periods of time can lead to cellular changes and eventually cancer. There has been much discussion on just what is normal in the bowel movement department. The current theory is that it is normal and necessary to have at least 2-3 bowel movements each day.
The medical community hints that one should increase their fiber but their main focus is to get you in for a colonoscopy on your 50th birthday to screen for intestinal disease. Don’t get me wrong. This is probably a good idea considering most diets but there are some great proactive things you can do to prevent disease before it starts. The following are some suggestions:
- Make an effort to cut down on processed grains (white flour, white rice, simple sugars, pasta etc) Old habits are hard to change, especially diet related but if you can keep such foods to occasional treats instead of a steady diet you will do your colon a huge favor. There has been much publicity about the benefits of a low-glycemic diet (low sugar, low simple carbohydrates) for general health. The benefits of this diet for the colon are immense. We will talk more on this subject in a future letter.
- Increase your fiber intake ( I recommend taking one and a half Tbs. of ground flax seed 2x/day) It is a great source of fiber as well as omega 3 fatty acids which I will also talk about at length in the near future. Although flax seed does contain omega 3s it is not a substitute for taking a good fish oil supplement which is a much better source for the valuable EPA and DHA molecules.
- Take a good probiotic formula on a regular basis. (Probiotics are the good bacteria in your GI that are essential in digestion as well as keeping the bad bacteria in check.) Anyone who is drinking chlorinated water (or taking showers in hot chlorinated water) or has taken antibiotics most likely has a shortage of probiotics. You can get them in capsule form or in a liquid concentrate at any health food store. For those of you have access to Mannatech, they make a great probiotic called GI-Pro. Taking digestive enzymes can also be very helpful. Most or all of the natural enzymes in our food are destroyed when we cook the food, another benefit to eating raw fruits and vegetables (or juicing).
Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to increase intestinal movement! We will be talking a lot about the dreaded (E) word in letters to come!
For many, taking the steps above will be enough to wake up their colon and get it moving but some will need more than this. For those there are some excellent herbs that both stimulate and cleanse the intestinal tract. Look for a formula that contains the following: Cape Aloe, Senna, Cascara Sagrada, Barberry Rootbark, Ginger Root, African Bird Pepper, and Fennel. You can make this formula up yourself by buying the herbs and putting equal amounts in a capsule but it is much easier to buy them in a ready-made formula. I recommend one from Health Freedom. Start with one capsule/day at dinner and increase to 2 or 3/day or until you get the desired results. You can stay on this formula for several weeks if needed.
This formula will stimulate peristalsis as well as halt putrefaction, disinfect, and soothe and heal the mucous membrane lining of your entire digestive tract. It will also help improve digestion, relieve gas and cramps, increase the flow of bile (thus cleaning the bile ducts and gall bladder), destroy Candida albicans overgrowth, and promote a healthy intestinal flora.
In addition, it is recommended that 2-3 times/yr you use a strong purifier and intestinal vacuum to help draw old fecal matter off the walls of the colon and out of any bowel pockets. This formula is also good at drawing off toxins and heavy metals (such as mercury and lead) as well as drug residuals left behind in the colon. The formula should contain such herbs as Apple Fruit Pectin, Montmorillonite Clay, Slippery Elm Inner Bark, Marshmallow root, Fennel Seed, Activated Willow Charcoal, and Psyllium seeds and husks. Traditionally you should take this formula for two weeks. It is most often found in a powder form and the dose is 1 tsp 5x/day between meals. It is best to take with 8 oz. of fresh squeezed juice that you make as this has the most enzymes which are incredibly helpful. Follow that with 8 oz of water. Some recommend you do this on a juice fast (fruits and veg.) but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. I would recommend eating lightly as the more your body has to digest the less energy it can expend on cleansing. This is an excellent formula for any inflammation of the bowel such as IBS or diverticulitis.
Another thing most people would not think of when it comes to digestion is spinal function. If you have lower back tension and segmental dysfunction, inflammation around the nerve roots that exit this part of the spine can affect the flow of nerve energy to the bowel and thus affect its function. Of course, a visit to your trusted Chiropractor should be your first thought!
If you are currently diagnosed with a bowel disease, I would recommend you work with a good Naturopath to help you with dose and frequency. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to contact me by phone or email. I will be following this up with the closely related subject of Probiotics and Enzymes in the near future.
Yours in Health,
Dr. Roy Murrell, DC 200 NE 20th Avenue, Suite 140 Portland Oregon 97232 - disclaimer - 971-312-9497