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HEALTH CONCERN? BioHealth Health Concerns

Digestion, Absorption, and the Unglamourous Intestines

Contributing Author: Riendeau, Claire N.M.D.

Claire RiendeauDr. Claire Riendeau is a naturopathic doctor specializing in nutrition and functional medicine, with many complex cases involving long-term chronic infections and environmental toxicity. Claire has earned two doctorate degrees, Doctor of Naturopathy and Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, is certified in Metabolic Nutrition and holds a Diploma of Homeopathic Medicine. She is a member of the American Naturopathic Medical Association and the International Foundation for Nutrition and Health. She is a widely sought out lecturer and provider for environmental illnesses such as Lyme disease.

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Intestinal function has an indisputable lack of glamour, and seems reason enough for most people to never give the importance of intestinal health a second thought. This is unfortunate and needs to change. The reality is that healthy intestinal function is critically important to overall health.

Common sense dictates that good health requires good nutritional habits, proper digestion, and absorption. Proper nutrition is essential to helping us prevent disease and illness. The foods you eat act not only as the fuel for your body, they also provide the building blocks that construct you. What you eat plays an important role in determining both your immediate and long-term health. Digestion is the mechanical and chemical breakdown of the food that you eat. Then there is absorption, which is the process of bringing the nutrients from your GI (gastrointestinal) tract into the rest of your body’s tissues. Even though you may eat healthy foods, maybe even organic foods, you may not always get the maximum benefit from them. Why? Because the body can utilize only what it can absorb.

Your GI tract is a “tube” starting with your mouth, includes the throat, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (colon), and rectum, and ends at the anus. In total, the length of this intestinal plumbing approaches thirty feet! Protruding from the inside wall of the intestine are finger-like structures called villi, with additional extensions from the villi called microvilli. Together, they increase the intestinal absorptive capacity by 30 and 600 fold, respectively, and increases the absorptive surface area to the size of a tennis court!

Certain of our habits have contributed to the deterioration of this absorptive surface in an alarming percentage of the population. These habits include the widespread consumption of a diet high in refined simple sugars and fat, and the use of alcohol, antacids, pain relievers, and antibiotics, among others. More recently research confirms that certain foods can also destroy the villi and microvilli in certain individuals, specifically gluten-containing foods. These are assaults to the GI tube, resulting in damage and inflammation to the tissue, which then cannot perform its job of absorption. This is where the expression “you are what you absorb” can be better understood. Without proper absorption, the building blocks necessary for health are missing, and eventually there is the expression of disease.

The following will probably be new information to you. Think of this analogy: you have an “outer skin” protecting your blood and organs from penetration of harmful organisms. Unless you cut yourself or break the integrity of the skin—such as with a syringe—your insides are protected. You also have an “inner skin.” That inner skin is the GI tube just mentioned and it serves as a physical barrier, called the “mucosal barrier.” It is important to remember one odd fact: the inside of this GI tube is considered the outside of the body. This is not a misprint. The food sitting in your intestines is still considered outside the body. Why? Because it hasn’t been absorbed into the bloodstream yet and therefore it is not part of your body.

As the internal condition of the intestine becomes compromised, its role as a physical barrier is also compromised and there is increased permeability, also known as leaky gut syndrome. Having leaky gut is like having a screen door with large holes in it that allows pests into your home. With leaky gut, the lining of your intestine becomes overly permeable and molecules that were not intended to cross into your blood stream enter, or leak in. This leads to a great deal of stress on your immune system as your body tries to handle these uninvited guests.

Leaky gut is linked to many of the following conditions: IBS or irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, chronic colitis, Candida albicans, esophageal reflux, and malabsorption syndrome. Also linked to leaky gut are chronic allergies, hepatitis, weight gain, skin disorders such as psoriasis, dermatitis, and acne, headaches, arthritis, depression, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune disorders, and even cancer. Many of these conditions exist today in epidemic proportions.

Many of us are unaware that the “mucosal barrier” also serves as an immunological barrier, meaning that it houses part of your immune system—some say up to 70% of our immune systems. This immunological barrier is known as your “mucosal immunity.” Specialized immune cells line the mucosal barrier, called immunocytes. These cells produce sIgA (secretory IgA), which are “soldiers” that protect you in the event of invasion. Secretory IgA prevents the uptake of viruses, bacteria, and toxins into the rest of your body by facilitating their transport out of the body. However, a deficiency of sIgA resulting from deterioration or inflammatory conditions of the intestine, leaves the door wide open for pathogens such as parasites, bacteria, viruses, yeast, and fungus to take hold. This can also lead to a leaky gut condition and the same issues mentioned above. A tell-tale sign of low sIgA is an increase in food and other allergies.

The view of your mucosal barrier and mucosal immunity as a living, breathing, active, and vital system is probably not something that you will to hear about in conversation. As you’ve now learned, the mucosal barrier has many critical and dynamic biologic functions. When facing digestive disorders, taking HCL (hydrochloric acid), digestive enzymes or other items such as antacids, laxatives, and the like are not getting to the root of the problem but only serve to mask underlying issues.

The bottom line is that the health of your GI tract is fundamental to your overall health. Its effect on your hormone/endocrine system and detoxification system are worthy of another article.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know if your screen door has holes? Whether you are absorbing your nutrients? Whether all of the supplements you take are being utilized by your body? Today, very sophisticated markers exist to measure these areas. You can enjoy super health and even regain your health and energy by taking action to restore the integrity to your “inner skin”!

Today’s day-to-day stress caused by pollution, mental, emotional, and physical factors create constant physical strain on our bodies. As these stressors are compounded by more stress, our organs, especially our kidneys, lungs, liver, skin, and intestines, become overloaded. Their ability to handle the removal of toxins gradually diminishes and becomes impaired. Symptoms such as depression, weight gain, PMS, fatigue, hot flashes, headaches, acne, eczema, asthma, chronic infections, sinus congestion, and many others thus begin to manifest.

Instead of addressing symptoms at their root cause by removing the toxins producing the symptoms in the first place, we add more toxins to our already toxic body by treating the symptoms with medications, herbs, vitamins, foods, and emotional stress. Such treatments can often worsen the symptoms. The ultimate solution then is not to add to but to reduce the toxic load on the body and the mind, and to give the individual organs a chance to recover their function properly and effectively. The removal of toxins from organs, tissues, and cells is called detoxification.

Why Detoxify?
Detoxification of the body, its individual organs, tissues, and cells, as well as of the mind and emotions, is of utmost importance in keeping a healthy and functioning body. It is like removing the film on your car window regularly, allowing you to continue to see the traffic around you and to let the light into your car to stimulate your eyes to see. If the film is not removed and more is added on, then eventually, you will have difficulty seeing the traffic, and your chances of getting into an accident multiply. Your spirit also diminishes as the film on the window brings less light into your car. Keeping that window clean, however, dramatically reduces the risk of accidents. Your spirit is also lifted from having more visible sunlight.

Detoxification clears up the film in your organs, tissues, and cells, and gives the body and the mind a chance to recuperate and heal themselves. As the body and mind detoxify, the majority of the symptoms begin resolving on their own. Because detoxification addresses the root cause of the symptoms, oftentimes supplementation or medication to resolve specific symptoms are no longer needed.

How Long Will a “Detox” Take?
The detoxification process may be simple or it may be involved depending on how and with what type of matter the tissues are bound. The process may involve a simple and quick dietary fast, along with colon cleansing, or it may involve a slow removal of chemicals or heavy metals that may take six months to one year.

Who Should NOT Detox?
Pregnant and nursing women and those who are weak and fragile from a debilitating disease should not detox. For safe and best results, detoxifying should be done under the supervision of a physician who will create a personalized program according to your needs and condition.