My mother suffered from Crohn’s disease throughout my childhood. I understand that severe digestion symptoms are complex, painful and potentially life-altering.
If you are experiencing severe symptoms it is important that you work with a doctor so you can stop tissue damage and start the healing process.
Many patients utilize one or two treatment options when a full spectrum of support is needed.
There is a continuous feed of misinformation online and on television - marketing for pills, diets and lifestyle changes that all promise to be ‘cure-alls’.
Like any simple solution to a complex issue - it usually addresses only part of the problem.
Are there fast ways to get rid of symptoms? Sometimes, but they seldom come in the form of a single supplement or single adjustment of a diet.
This page will give you a brief outline of different kinds of digestive problems, possible causes and some steps to aid your digestion.
Signs of A Digestive Problem*
*It is important to work with a doctor when you have the above symptoms as they can also be signs of very serious and possibly life-threatening conditions
What Your Digestive Symptoms Can Mean
The marketing of pills and powders for problems like acid reflux, diarrhea, and constipation can make it seem like these problems are normal and benign parts of everyone's life.
Make no mistake, if you experience digestive problems often - something is wrong. The inability to digest your food properly will have a domino effect on your health.
Over time you could develop a chronic condition, food allergies, autoimmunity or other serious conditions. Getting to the root of your digestive issues as early as possible is vital for your body to heal any damage and restore normal digestion.
First, let's look at digestion itself. In many cases of stomach cramping, weight gain, constipation, or having the feeling that your stomach never empties can mean that the stomach itself is having trouble digesting food.
The first step in treating most digestive concerns is to enhance the function of the stomach. If digestion is not working well at this step, then eventually there will be additional digestive problems further down the digestive tract.
Depending on the patient and their symptoms, aiding digestion can be done a few ways, most of which do not involve taking a pill or powder.
A simple daily tip for everyone is to drink a large glass of water with the juice of a quarter of a lemon in it before each meal. This aids in the production of stomach acid, helping the natural processes of digestion.
Intestinal digestion can also be enhanced - this can be done in a variety of ways that will be specific to the patient and their needs.
Self Treatment and its Limitations
The use of digestive enzymes is a popular remedy for compromised stomach digestion. While it can help in some cases in the short term, there are ways to restore normal stomach/intestinal digestion and function of the affected tissues without the use of a long-term digestive aid.
Behind almost every digestive problem is an underlying microbiome imbalance or a bacterial, fungal, or viral infection. Most of these are misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, and leaving them untreated perpetuates symptoms.
Another tool used frequently in cases of digestive upset is probiotics. There are typically three reactions to probiotics - those who notice a positive change, those who have a very negative reaction (experiencing additional pain and discomfort) and those who notice no difference at all.
Most people do not notice a benefit from taking probiotics for a few reasons. It is not that having appropriate balance of probiotics in your intestinal tract is not important - it is only that the probiotics are either not the right strain, or it is not the right time for the body to utilize them, or the ‘bad’ bacteria need to be brought into balance in a different way.
Another common cause of digestive problems is 'hidden' food sensitivities. They can cause a wide range of additional symptoms (such as anxiety, fatigue, brain fog, memory problems, and headaches) and are usually never diagnosed.
Your gastroenterologist most likely did an endoscopy or other upper GI studies if your symptoms are stomach, esophagus, gallbladder related, and perhaps they did a colonoscopy to evaluate your intestinal status.
These types of tests, though important, are only aimed at looking for structural pathology in your GI tract. They do not evaluate how your digestive system is actually functioning or how you are breaking down and absorbing your food - these factors must be assessed differently.
Functional Medicine Testing & Treatment
In addition to addressing the possible causes of compromised stomach digestion, I also look at intestinal digestion and gut-specific inflammation.
When there is a massive imbalance it is rare for only one thing to be going on - an imbalance between good and bad bacteria can be caused by a viral infection that got its foothold because of a bacterial infection that strengthened because of the inflammation caused by a hidden food allergy.
Since the problem is often multilayered, the solution must be also. Often, patients with digestive problems will also have symptoms elsewhere in the body as the gastrointestinal system is intimately related to the function of the brain, immune system, and nervous system.
Anxiety, depression, mood swings, temperature fluctuations and blood sugar regulation issues are common accompanying symptoms.
There is a lot of information out there talking about how the gut is the ‘second brain’ and how important it is for the rest of the body to function well. It is less known just how much the rest of the body can contribute to the function of the gut.
An overactive nervous system is just one way the body can cause dysfunction in the digestive system, it can ignite a cascade of digestive problems and symptoms.
A systemic infection can also seriously debilitate food absorption and a relatively straightforward food sensitivity can cause debilitating anxiety.
As you can see, the depth of a functional medicine appointment is ideal for getting to the root of a complex issue that could transcend the simple functioning of the gut.
Treating the Root of
When 'Gut Healing' Diets are not Enough
As with any complex problem, the liver plays a critical role. Persistent gastrointestinal issues can be perpetuated by underlying liver problems.
It is usually not enough to adhere to a diet that promises to ‘heal the gut’, ‘fix the gut’, or ‘clean the gut’. With all that these various diets promise they usually only cut down on symptoms.
Cutting down on symptoms is not fixing the underlying cause. It is also not enough to do strict (sometimes dangerous) liver cleanses.
There are many ways to improve the overall function of the liver so it performs better, producing lasting long-term digestive benefits.
Here is a good illustration of why a ‘gut healing diet’ is only one part of a plan to heal your digestive health. It is extremely common for patients to come in after months or years adhering very strictly to a gut healing diet (paleo, autoimmune protocol, Keto, etc) with severe digestive issues that persist.
What can begin happening is that they start becoming sensitive or reactive to an increasing number of foods. They are cutting out more and more foods so that their ‘safe’ food list can be less than 20 items long.
It is also common for these same patients to have a small amount of fruit, or a bowl of gluten-free oatmeal, or have some other food that they have been avoiding on their diet all that time only to have their symptoms come back in full force.
To spend that much time, effort and money on a diet and after one 'cheat' meal you are back to square one can be incredibly frustrating.
By identifying the root cause of your digestive problem, we can get to the source of why your body is having these reactions and begin the healing process.
Your diet is a vital tool in helping you get better quickly and steps like removing processed foods and refined sugars is a huge step in the right direction - by adding a few more tools to help you treat the underlying problem we can let your body to utilize your diet in a way that can promote healing.
Read more about Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's Disease