Anti-Inflammatory Nutrition Strategies to Heal the Digestive Tract
It will come as no surprise that digestive disorders are among the most common issues I see in my practice. This is because successful treatment of health issues such as IBS, Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis and even constipation requires a holistic understanding of the GI tract. In this area, possibly more so than in any other part of the body, medicating the symptoms is simply not enough.
In order to understand the importance of a functional GI tract, I like to use the analogy of comparing the intestines to the roots of tree. When we consider the state of health of a plant in relation to its roots, we know that in order to have a healthy plant:
- The roots themselves must be intact
- The microbial balance in the soil must be appropriate
- There must be ample nutrition in the soil
Similarly, to have a healthy human being:
- The intestinal tissue must be healthy
- The balance of good vrs. bad microbes (bacteria, yeast, etc…) must be appropriate
- We have to consume enough digestible nutrients
In other words, if any of these factors are not present, achieving health in general will be difficult. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on my favorite of these three: achieving appropriate balance of good vrs. bad microbes and nutritional strategies that can help with this goal.
The “microbiome” (or microbes that inhabit our intestines) contains about 10 times more cells than the entire human body. Though the reasons for carrying this amount of stuff around in our gut are poorly understood at this point, Mother Nature rarely makes a mistake. We know that these microbes have a profound influence in educating the immune system as to what is an “invader” and what is “self”. This is why I always start with the gut when I am treating cases involving allergies or auto-immune disease, both of which are caused by a “confused” immune system.
What causes the microbiome to go offline? The usual suspects such as sugar and white flour will certainly feed yeast and eliminating these two things from the diet typically decreases yeast overload very quickly. As much attention as yeast gets in the Complementary and Alternative Medicine world, I more often find bacterial overgrowth to be the issue for my digestively-challenged patients. Bacterial imbalance is a way more complicated issue than yeast, and treating it requires a much different and slightly more complicated approach.
The types of bacteria that cause GI dysfunction tend to be fed by fibers that are difficult for many people to digest. Think of beans, beans, the magical fruit…the more you eat them, the more you…well, you know the rest. Ever wonder why the complex carbohydrates found in beans (and whole grains and cruciferous vegetables) cause gas and bloating? Its because these fibers, which are highly complex and require pretty hardy digestion, often end up undigested in the lower GI tract, where they can then feed opportunistic bacteria. “Eating” to a bacterial cell is a fermentation process, which produces, as a byproduct, carbon dioxide or “gas”. So, if a food causes you to have gas, you can be sure that you have just provided resources for some not-so-friendly bacteria.
It often comes as a surprise to my digestively-challenged patients that I actually want them to eat LESS fiber as we are healing up their gut. This is because we are trying to “starve out” the bacteria that causing digestive issues and immune system confusion so that we can encourage “healthy” bacteria to move in and set up shop. A gut-healing nutrition plan involves decreasing the amount of fermentable foods in the nutrition plan and increasing the amount of “simple” foods that nourish gut tissue.
Here are a few of the strategies I like to employ in any digestion-repair plan:
Paleo-Style, Grain-Free Nutrition
The Paleo nutrition style has gotten a lot of press lately both for its metabolism-enhancing and anti-inflammatory properties. It is certainly my go-to plan for those trying to lose weight or rapidly decrease pain. It involves eliminating processed foods and complex carbohydrates such as legumes and grains. These calories are compensated for by increasing animal protein and (the most important part) good fats. When we say good fats, we mean any fat that’s not invented in a laboratory (ie, Crisco, soybean oil and canola oil are all kicked to the curb). So good fats are vegetable/fruit sources (avocado, olive, coconut, tree nut, seeds etc…) and animal sources (high-fat dairy, fish, fish oil, beef, poultry, broths, etc…). Of course it is important to know where your animals come from and support farmers that raise healthy, non-stressed, anti-inflammatory meat and dairy products. It goes without saying that those committed to a vegetarian or vegan diet will have issues with this plan. More on this next issue.
Allowing the Blender or the Crockpot to Help You with Digestion
Though the raw foodists will argue with me, it is far easier for a compromised gut to digest pureed or well-cooked food. Yes, yes, you lose some of the “enzymes” but that is a worthy sacrifice for the chance to absorb some nutrition. My gut treatment plans always involve smoothies containing healthy proteins, fats and fibers, which are far easier to digest when they are broken up into tiny little pieces. Crockpot meals and soups accomplish the same thing by “softening” the food, which provides accessible nutrients to a challenged digestive tract.
These are foods that come along with a source of probiotics, which help to replenish the appropriate “beneficial” flora in the gut. Those who have extremely compromised digestion may be unable to tolerate these until they have begun the repair process. For those with healthy or only slightly compromised digestion, eating fermented foods is a great preventive strategy. These include: yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso and the list goes on…
Take away message: the gut is far more simple than it appears when treated the right way. Should you require attention to your digestion, the first step is a functional stool analysis, which will reveal not only the balance of microbes in your microbiome but also assess digestive enzymes and inflammatory markers. From there, your individual challenges can be identified and addressed with a long-term treatment plan that corrects nutrition, tissue strength and microbial balance.