Your gut is a very delicate ecosystem, with more flora (healthy bacteria) in it than all the other cells in the body put together. When this ecosystem is healthy, your digestive tract has the proper balance of stomach acids and bacteria. This allows your body to breakdown food for nourishment and cell repair. Without the ability to absorb nutrition from your food and eliminate waste, you may experience all kinds of health issues that, on the surface, don’t seem to be related to digestion. These include headaches, mood issues, weight gain, menstrual cramps, fatigue, back pain, frequent colds, estrogen dominance, and more.
Reasons Why the Digestive System is Important
If your digestive health is poor, everything suffers. Here are some things you might not know about the amazing digestive system:
Digestive System and Immunity
The lining in your gut is actually part of your immune system. In fact, it’s your first line of defense against bugs and other organisms that can make you ill. For millennia, this immune mechanism was needed for the survival of the species. Humans lived without refrigeration and didn’t always know enough to practice safe food handling. When your gut is healthy, it keeps any foreign invaders in food from getting into the bloodstream. It also protects you from airborne viruses and bacteria.
Digestive System and The Nervous System
Research done in recent years proves there is a real connection between the digestive tract and the nervous system. (To learn more read Michael Gershon, M.D.’s book The Second Brain.) In addition to the nervous system in the spine, there is a nervous system in the gut called the enteric nervous system, which sends signals to the brain and vice versa. If you are anxious, depressed, or stressed, you may notice that your desire for food is different or your digestion is off. Stress hormones can shut down digestion (which results in constipation) or speed it up (which results in diarrhea).
The digestive system actually produces more neurotransmitters than the brain does. I suspect that many women could avoid antidepressants altogether just by supporting their digestive system. How many of us reach for a sugary treat when stressed? This is a short-term (and unhealthy) way to make the neurotransmitters your body needs to restore your emotional equilibrium.
The phrases “Rely on your gut” and “Gut instinct” make more sense than you may realize! As a second brain, it may be more effective. It doesn’t have to contend with the judgmental “committee,” which lives in your left brain and will often try to talk you out of what you know in your gut to be true.
Digestive System and the Third Chakra
As an energy system, the digestive system is part of the third chakra. This area has to do with self-esteem, self-expression, an appropriate sense of responsibility, and having the confidence to “go with your gut.”
ABCs of Digestion
A few months ago, Gerard Mullin, M.D., a holistic gastroenterologist and professor at Johns Hopkins, was a guest on my Internet radio show Flourish! Dr. Mullin is also the author of Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health. We explained to listeners that any time you take medicines that block acid production or kill healthy bacteria, you upset the delicate ecosystem in your gut. I understand the desire to quell your symptoms. But remember that you’re not suffering from an antacid or a laxative deficiency. It’s always better to address the underlying issue than to take medicines that can cause other health problems. Here are some suggestions for addressing three common digestive ailments—acid indigestion, bloating, and constipation—without upsetting the natural balance.
Acid indigestion, also known as reflux or heartburn, occurs when your stomach acids back up into the esophagus. The standard treatment is prescribing a proton pump inhibitor to keep the stomach from producing any acid or popping an antacid to reduce symptoms.
Proton pump inhibitors are used to treat ulcers, too. The problem is that your stomach acids help balance the bacterial growth in the gut. Too little acid can result in too much bacteria, which can lead to yeast overgrowth (infection) throughout the body, as well as gas and bloating.
This condition is largely the result of a highly-refined food diet, which is converted into high blood sugar too quickly. Your body also needs stomach acids to break down minerals, including calcium, magnesium, and iron. Insufficient stomach acid can lead to deficiencies in these minerals as well as in vitamin B-12. It’s not uncommon for women to develop low bone mineral density (osteopenia) if they take acid blockers for long periods of time.
Bloating and Gas
Dr. Mullin mentioned a category of foods that you may never have heard of—even though you probably eat these foods often. They’re called FODMAPs, which is short for Fermentable, Oligo-, Di- and Mono-saccharides and Polyols. These common, everyday foods are a type of carbohydrate that ferments during the digestive process causing gas, bloating, and bacterial overgrowth. Following a diet that eliminates FODMAPs has been shown to dramatically improve symptoms for Irritable Bowel Syndrome sufferers.
This means cutting out eleven fruits, including apples, pears, and peaches; twenty vegetables, including asparagus, cauliflower, and peas; six lactose-containing foods, including milk and ice cream; four legumes, including lentils and kidney beans; two whole grains, including wheat and rye; and seven sweeteners, including fructose and high-fructose corn syrup.
It’s very common for women to experience more gas and bloating as they go through menopause. These women often become intolerant to foods they’ve eaten all their lives, particularly wheat and gluten. Cutting out these foods can drastically improve bloating, gas, and indigestion for many women. Your normal production of stomach acids declines as you age, too. Taking a digestive enzyme can help you break down and absorb the nutrients in food better.
Magnesium is a miracle mineral. It’s used by virtually every cell in the body and can be particularly beneficial for muscle spasms, migraines, and anxiety. It’s also great for constipation. So instead of reaching for a stool softener or laxative, try 500 mg to 1500 mg of magnesium aspartate (or a blend of different forms of magnesium).
Finally, I always recommend a diet of whole foods that is low in sugar and includes lots of fresh vegetables and greens, lean protein, and healthy fats as well as plenty of water. Processed foods wreak havoc with the digestive system, and can cause acid indigestion, bloating and gas, and constipation. Plus they can rob the body of magnesium.