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HEALTH CONCERN? BioHealth Health Concerns

Chronic Digestive System Disorders

Contributing Author: Kalish, Daniel D.C.

Daniel KalishFor two decades Daniel Kalish, D.C. has successfully treated patients with hormone imbalances, food cravings, fatigue, depression, digestive distress, and many other health complaints. Dr. Kalish founded The Natural Path Clinic California, where he led a staff of physicians, nutritionists, chiropractors, psychotherapists, physical therapists, personal trainers, massage therapists and acupuncturists for more than ten years. He currently maintains an active international phone consultation practice with patients and trains physicians in natural medicine. He has designed health programs for countless professional athletes including the world’s top skateboarders, hockey players, elite runners, tri-athletes, golfers, tennis players and world-class weight lifters. Download his ebook Your Guide to Healthy Hormones.

» Website: www.drkalish.com 

 

At first glance, there does not seem to be an immediate connection between the digestive and hormonal systems. But any type of inflammation in the digestive system will lead to increased production of cortisol, an anti-inflammatory hormone. Inflammation can damage the intestinal lining, impairing absorption of the biochemicals that are the raw ingredients for producing steroid hormones such as cortisol, estrogen, and progesterone, so that the body may not be able to produce as much of these hormones as it needs. Increased demand from inflammation and decreased supply from poor absorption combine to create a hormone imbalance. I have treated several thousand patients whose hormone imbalances were generated primarily by problems in the digestive tract.

People are often unaware of stress affecting their bodies. Besides the observable stress associated with life-altering events such as divorce, the death of a parent, financial problems, or the malfunction of an internal organ system, stress can be caused by everyday events such as a tense rush-hour commute or juggling a job and caring for children. Though largely unrecognized, this hidden stress has much the same effect on the body as observable stress, and can lead to digestive problems, which have an impact on the ovaries and adrenal glands.

We saw how gluten sensitivity also generates inflammation and tissue damage in the digestive system. So do infections in the digestive tract, and with surprising frequency patients I test turn out to have chronic, low-grade infections that show up as gas, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. Sometimes, however, even significant digestive system infections cause no obvious symptoms. What patients experience instead is weight gain, fatigue, or depression.

Unfortunately, as uncomfortable as these symptoms are, people usually learn to adapt to them by using antacids and other medications, or by avoiding foods that trigger obvious reactions. These subtle infections can rage on at a low level, continuing to damage tissues in the digestive tract.

Such damage impedes absorption of nutrients, depriving the body of what it needs to function well. If you lose nutrients that help regulate fat burning, for example, you will inexplicably gain weight; if you lose those that help give you cellular energy, you will feel tired; and if you lose the nutrients that feed the brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters or the nutrients that form sex hormones you will feel depressed. Such problems are the inevitable consequences of a long-term digestive problem.

Another consequence of untreated digestive infections affects the chemical messengers known as cytokines. These substances are produced by the body in response to infection, stimulating white blood cells to fight infectious agents. They also travel to the brain where they induce low-level fatigue and depression, a phenomenon we commonly experience with a cold or the flu. This protective mechanism helps slow us down when we are sick, so the immune system can fight the problem. Untreated, however, infections can lead to fatigue and depression that persists for years.

Of course, chronic infections also over activate the stress hormone system, exhausting cortisol reserves. This slows fat burning, while sluggish metabolism contributes to fatigue and depression.

A final connection between the mood and the gut is in release of the chemical serotonin. This well-known feel-good neurotransmitter is targeted by many antidepressant medications, yet few people are aware that 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is produced by cells that line the intestines while only 5 percent is produced in the brain. Damage to the gastrointestinal tract by food allergies or infections will destroy these serotonin-producing cells, and serotonin levels will drop.

In the gastrointestinal tract, serotonin promotes the motor functions of the intestines, leading them to contract and propel food through the gut in the process known as peristalsis. Lack of this muscular activity leads to constipation, and many people with digestive system problems go through alternating phases of diarrhea and constipation, usually accompanied by bloating, a cycle commonly known as irritable bowel syndrome. Zelnorm, a new drug used to treat irritable bowel syndrome, increases serotonin levels in the GI tract thereby stimulating peristalsis and helping to reduce the chronic constipation of people who have tissue damage in the digestive tracts. But this symptomatic relief does little to solve underlying problems.

The simple connection between chronic infections and chronic health problems has not yet been accepted by standard medicine, so these infections are rarely treated when detected. Yet every day by the dozens I see patients with chronic health problems improve from the diagnosis and treatment of chronic GI tract infections. Patients seem to understand the connection quite readily, because we can usually trace the development of their hormone imbalance and fatigue or other chronic symptoms. Typically, these symptoms coincide with a history of unusual stress, such as the birth of a child or death of a parent. During such stressful periods, immune function may dip thereby raising susceptibility to infections, at which point a single exposure to a “pathogenic” or unhealthy organism can infect a person and make her a chronic carrier.

The changes are subtle in the beginning phases of chronic digestive infection. There may be brief diarrhea, or the first occasional signs of heartburn that come and go. Once the low-level infection takes hold over the years, seemingly unrelated symptoms start to appear, such as weight gain, fatigue, and depression. These are often accompanied by digestive symptoms, but not always. Unless their symptoms become severe, people tend to dismiss the changes as “normal,” everyday discomfort. Ten, 15, or 20 years can go by before the hormonal system gets involved. At this point, a woman may experience symptoms of PMS, hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, insomnia, and the food cravings often experienced with peri-menopause.

Having worked with so many patients of different ages, I find the slow, insidious progression of these low-level infections to be quite predictable. I can usually determine when the infections were acquired based on a woman’s age and severity of her symptoms. On average, by the time I do a diagnostic evaluation, my patients have had the infection for 10-15 years. That seems to be the point when people can no longer handle the severity of their symptoms and finally seek professional help.

Robyn: I am a 27-year old woman, and for the last ten years I have been living a very compromised life. About once a month I experience extreme fatigue, along with swollen glands in my throat and underarms. Typically this is accompanied by a low-grade fever. I consider myself to be a healthy and strong individual; however, I have never been able to fight off this recurrent condition. When I was 17, I had mononucleosis, and it was around this time that my recurrent fatigue began, so I always assumed I had never recovered from the disease.

Dr. Kalish: When Robyn told me about her condition, I immediately suspected a parasitic infection. It is not normal for mono to turn into a chronic debilitating illness, and her monthly cycle of illness was a good indicator that she was harboring a parasite, as these infectious organisms can have three- to four-week life cycles. When I spoke with her further about the time ten years earlier when she had mono, I learned that she had taken a trip to Fiji immediately after her recuperation, probably when her immune system had not fully recovered.

Robyn: Dr. Kalish mentioned that he thought it was likely that I had a parasitic infection that was contracted through drinking water in Fiji. I was skeptical, because it was my understanding that parasitic infections were identifiable by gastrointestinal problems, which I had never experienced. But then he told me that obvious symptoms are not always apparent, and that my fatigue, swollen glands, and fevers were also indicators. Additionally he told me that although digestive problems are not necessarily apparent, people typically experience a few days of discomfort directly following exposure to a parasite. When I looked back at my vacation from so many years ago, I remembered that, in fact, was exactly what had happened to me.

Dr. Kalish: As soon as we determined that Robyn was likely to have a parasite, I ordered laboratory tests that confirmed my suspicion, and she was finally able, after all those years, to treat her infection with antibiotics.

It’s interesting to note that Robyn originally came to me seeking help with hormonal problems, specifically PMS. As I’ve discussed in this chapter, hormonal imbalances often result directly from stress. As it turned out, Robyn’s PMS symptoms were directly related to the long-term infection that was attacking her immune response and putting chronic stress on her body. Once we were able to eradicate the parasite and realign her hormones with natural supplement program, both her PMS and her recurrent illness vanished.

People understandably become upset when they are told that fifteen years of digestive problems have been traced to an infection that was never identified. Most doctors in the United States are unaware that chronic digestive-system problems and hormone imbalances have any direct connection to chronic infections, because they look only at the presenting symptoms. For weight gain, fatigue, and depression, doctors recommend low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets, exercise, or antidepressants – which make most of the hormone imbalances and digestive problems worse. By this time, the patient may be told that she is simply experiencing the symptoms of aging!

From my perspective people should get healthier as they get older. In fact, my healthiest female patients are what I call my “over-80 club.” They provide living proof that you can get healthier as you age. This group, all in their 80s, are sexually active, use no medications, exercise daily, and are emotionally vital and mentally sharp. They share certain lifelong traits: They are long-term exercise fanatics, follow good diets, have had rich and satisfying personal relationships, and are intellectually engaged in stimulating mental activities. They are in inspiration to me.

Diagnosing Chronic Infections
In evaluating a new patient I always focus on the time period when the person first experienced hormonal or digestive symptoms, or when weight gain, fatigue, or depression became noticeable. This can go back as far as childhood. When I ask what the patient was going through when symptoms first appeared, they often mention moving, traveling abroad, starting a new job, or a meal in a restaurant. We talk about the level of stress they were under to see if their immune system was under duress.

There are usually clues as to the origin of digestive problems. Most cases involve food allergies or gluten intolerance, along with exposure to an infection-causing organism. In some cases, there is Candida yeast overgrowth in the digestive tract. Candida can be triggered by birth control pills, excessive sugar or carbohydrate intake, alcohol consumption, or antibiotic use.

Pathogens, which are organisms that cause these digestive system infections, include bacteria, parasites, and yeast overgrowth. Patients with severe health problems often have more than one, because a GI tract weakened by food allergies or gluten intolerance is more likely to contract a chronic infection. And any type of pathogen will damage tissue in the digestive system. Inflammation, malabsorption of nutrients, and the food cravings that develop from a damaged gut all trigger a protective hormonal system response that affects the female hormones. That is why it is crucial to treat the hormonal system using an integrated approach that evaluates all the body systems and can diagnose the problems in each.

I do come across patients who have eaten a good diet their entire lives and do not have any digestive problems. For these women, the normal decline in estrogen and progesterone that begins in the 30s can trigger symptoms, but far less severe than in women with a history of digestive-system problems. Such women typically respond within a few weeks to adrenal hormone programs and natural plant-based female hormone treatments. For everyone else, a comprehensive program addressing all three body systems and tailored to each woman’s individual needs is essential for restoring balance and good health.

The gastrointestinal tract, like other major organ systems, must maintain a delicate balance to function properly. The “intestinal flora” or healthy microbial organisms that line the intestine play a key role in our ability to derive nourishment from the food we eat.

The largest components of healthy intestinal flora are bacteria, which are single-celled organisms that perform many important functions. Intestinal bacteria synthesize and supplement the vitamins essential to maintaining good health. They convert dietary fiber into fatty acids needed for nourishment. They degrade dietary toxins and crowd out pathogenic, or “bad” bacteria to prevent them from harming the body. Finally, these bacteria stimulate the immune response, allowing us to fight off disease. It is astonishing to know that four-fifths of the body’s immune system is housed in the intestine.

While “good” bacteria perform all these useful functions other bacteria also can cause great harm when the gastrointestinal system is not working well. “Bad bacteria” can destroy vitamins and create toxins, inactivate digestive enzymes and convert bile or food components into chemicals that promote disease. Abnormal immune responses provoked by intestinal bacteria have been linked to inflammatory diseases of the bowel.

Interacting with bacterial colonies are colonies of yeast, which the bacteria help to keep in check. When bacteria fail to keep yeast from expanding their territory, yeast overgrowth causes significant irritation in the gut. A major cause of yeast infections is overuse of antibiotics, which kill off the bacteria needed to control yeast. Intestinal yeast infections can cause weight gain, fatigue and foggy thinking.

Parasites are a third group of intestinal tenants, but they appear to have no redeeming value and can cause serious harm. Most people think of parasitic infection as a Third World problem, but it is surprisingly common in the West. Giardia Lamblia, a parasite that infests North American lakes and streams, causes chronic diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and bloating — the same symptoms as irritable bowel syndrome. Many patients infected by this common parasite are given a diagnosis of IBS and fail to receive the proper treatment. By the time a correct diagnosis is finally made, the intestinal irritation caused by Giardia infection can be extensive and can last for months after the parasite is treated. Power Healing by Leo Galland, M.D. is a good source for further information on this topic.

Intestinal infection often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years. Failure to receive proper treatment can lead to excessive intestinal permeability, which is also referred to as “leaky gut syndrome.” While the healthy intestine selectively absorbs nutrients and seals out toxins likely to cause harm, a “leaky” intestine can allow too many substances to pass through its walls. Leaky gut syndrome can over stimulate the immune response, promote allergies and autoimmunity, and allow excessive absorption of toxins. Beyond causing abdominal symptoms, it can cause symptoms throughout the body, including fatigue, joint and muscle pain, headaches, and other symptoms. Leaky gut also can be caused by overuse of alcohol or NSAID’s (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen) and gluten intolerance as well as by infection, so it is important to determine the cause of the permeability rather than simply treating symptoms.