A properly functioning digestive system (gut) is critical to good health. In fact, 60 -80% of our immune system is located in our gut, and 90% of our neurotransmitters (chemicals responsible for regulating mood) such as serotonin are made in our gut. Problems in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract can cause more than just stomach pain, gas, bloating or diarrhea; they can be the root cause of many chronic health problems. Gut imbalances have been linked to hormonal imbalances, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and hashimotos thyroiditis, diabetes, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression, eczema and rosacea… just to name a few.
So, how does one heal their gut and heal themselves?
In functional Medicine we use a simple approach that we call the 4R program – remove, replace, reinoculate, and repair.
Remove the bad. The goal is to get rid of things that negatively affect the environment of the GI tract such as inflammatory foods, infections and gastric irritants like alcohol, caffeine or drugs. Inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, corn, soy, eggs and sugar can lead to food sensitivities. I recommend an Elimination Diet and IgG food sensitivity testing to determine if any foods are a problem for you. Infections can be from parasites, yeast or bacteria. A comprehensive stool analysis is key to determining the levels of good bacteria as well as any infections that may be present. Removing the infections may require treatment with herbs, anti-parasite medication, anti-fungal medication or even antibiotics.
Replace the good. Add back in the essential ingredients for proper digestion and absorption that may have been depleted by diet, drugs (such as antacid medications), diseases or aging. This includes digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid and bile acids that are required for proper digestion.
Restoring beneficial bacteria to reestablish a healthy balance of good bacteria is critical. This may be accomplished by taking a probiotic supplement that contains beneficial bacteria such as bifidobacteria and lactobacillus species. I recommend anywhere from 25 -100 billion units a day. Also, taking a prebiotic (food for the good bacteria) supplement or consuming foods high in soluble fiber is important.
Providing the nutrients necessary to help the gut repair itself is essential. One of my favorite supplements is L-glutamine, an amino acid that helps to rejuvenate the gut wall lining. Other key nutrients include zinc, omega-3 fish oils, vitamin A, C, E as well as herbs such as slippery elm and aloe vera.
No matter what your health issue is, the 4R program is sure to help you and your gut heal. I have witnessed dramatic reversals of chronic and inflammatory illnesses in a very short period of time by utilizing this simple approach.