By EeVon Ling, ND
Growing up as a child, every day my mother would ask me, “Did you go today?”. As far as my memory goes, I believe my answer was always “yes”. Some days she’d even ask me more details like if it was hard or soft … you get the picture. Of course, I thought this kind of parent-child discussion was normal until I learned from my friends that most families don’t talk about bowel habits – let alone discuss details about them! Perhaps my mother was preparing me for my naturopathic profession where discussing bodily functions is as normal as talking about the weather. I suppose it is a good thing that I am so comfortable with this subject because digestion (which includes much more than just bowel habits) is such an important function for good health. In fact, digestive issues are the most common concerns seen in medical practice, either as a primary concern or as a symptom associated with other health conditions.
While most people associate digestion as simply the movement of food from one end to the other, the digestive system is a very complex system of organs, nerves, hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes, and bacteria all interacting with each other. Here, I’m going to present to you some little known facts about the digestive system.
Your digestive system is a prominent part of your immune system. Good thing, if you consider its direct contact with the outside world through what we eat, drink and ingest. Your saliva contains some bacteria-fighting enzymes and antibodies. The acid produced in your stomach is your frontline defense against many potentially infectious microbes. Further along in your small intestines are bile and enzymes that help with detoxifying antigens and chemicals, such as drugs and food additives or contaminants. In the large intestines, gut-friendly bacteria such as acidophilus and many others help prevent infectious bacterial overgrowth. And throughout the entire digestive tract, there is gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), which are specialized immune cells that screen for foreign microbes, produce antibodies and produce T-cells and B-cells that play an important part in preventing cancer. With all these immune functions in place, it is not surprising that digestive problems often are accompanied by immune problems ranging from frequent colds and sore throats to auto-immune conditions to cancer.
Your digestive system influences your moods. And vice versa. Many people may say they feel nausea when they are anxious, or that they have a “nervous stomach”, or they crave carbohydrates when they are feeling low. These statements may be describing the effect of serotonin on the digestive tract. Serotonin is commonly associated with depression and anxiety, however, serotonin also plays a big part in stimulating the stomach and intestinal muscles to contract. Studies show that digestive problems such as indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome and constipation can be related to abnormal serotonin activity in the gut. Cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods may indicate low serotonin levels in the brain. With this large influence of serotonin on the digestive tract, it is not surprising that digestive problems are often related to mood disorders or chronic stress.
Your digestive system changes with age and experience. Many patients will tell me, “I used to be able to eat whatever I wanted”; “I had no problems with drinking milk as a kid”; “Ever since that trip to Mexico, my stomach hasn’t been the same”. I think most people assume that their digestive abilities change very little throughout their lives – that they can eat the same type of diet as an adult as they did growing up. Perhaps being creatures of habit, this explains why most people, upon analyzing their diet diaries, have eaten the same 5 foods each day, every day, for as long as they can remember. These foods are usually cheese, bread, meat, a favourite vegetable, and a favourite snack (usually sweets, cookies or chips). Why is this a problem? Our nutritional needs change throughout our life and our digestive abilities reflect this. Lactase enzyme production dramatically drops after infancy, thus many adults are lactose intolerant but will still eat large quantities of dairy. Stomach acid and enzyme production also decrease as we age, but so do our caloric needs, and so our food intake should reflect this. Many will still continue to eat the same amount of food and wonder why they are gaining weight despite no change in diet. Lastly, the ecosystem in our digestive tract can shift during illness or with the use of medication. I sometimes see patients whose digestive systems never returned to normal after a trip 2 years ago. Or worse, bad digestion that has been life-long, can sometimes be traced back to taking many rounds of antibiotics as a child.
As a naturopathic doctor, regardless of your main health concern, I’m very interested in how you digest. Do you have food allergies that you aren’t aware of? Do you suffer from constipation or constant gas and bloating? Are you on medication that affects your digestion? Are you absorbing your nutrients? Is your diet well-rounded and does it meet your needs? These are just some of the questions asked and addressed as they pertain to your health concern. A naturopathic treatment plan is designed to improve your health through a proper diet and optimized digestive function.
Eevon Ling is a licensed naturopathic doctor at The Pacific Wellness Institute. She is available for food allergy testing, nutritional consultations, and naturopathic treatments. Contact The Pacific Wellness Institute at 416-929-6958 for an appointment.