Sarah is a five-year-old girl who was brought to me as a patient at The Ultra Wellness Center by her mom. She came in for the treatment of severe pain and swelling in multiple joints including her ankles, elbows, and fingers. Walking was painful, as was drawing, one of her favorite activities. Her mom and teachers also noticed that she’d changed from her playful, vibrant self, to a more anxious child.
Sarah was in perfect health until about a year before she came to see me, at which time she’d developed a bad cold — with fever that persisted on and off for about a week. The pediatrician instructed Sarah’s mom to give her alternating Tylenol and Ibuprofen around the clock to help with the discomfort of fever, and to bring the fever down. This is pretty standard fare in pediatric care.
What Doctors Know … And Don’t Know … About NSAIDs
Doctors are taught that ibuprofen, a drug in the family of medications called Non-Steroidal Antiinflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), can cause gastritis. In our medical training, we learn that it can lead to stomach ulcers that, in extreme, can result in upper gastrointestinal bleeding, the need for surgery and blood transfusions.
We are generally taught that this is uncommon and only occurs with prolonged use in high doses. However, what Sarah’s pediatrician didn’t know, and in fact, what most doctors don’t learn in their medical training, is that even shorter term use in regular doses can lead to gut damage and health consequences.
And not just in kids. In all of us.
In fact, many scientific studies conducted over the past two decades show a correlation between NSAID use and leaky gut syndrome (LGS). According to a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) “All the conventional NSAIDs studied were equally associated with small intestinal inflammation apart from aspirin and nabumetone, which seem to spare the small bowel.”
Another study concluded that NSAIDs weaken the intestinal walls and using these drugs for the long-term leads to inflammation of the small intestine. In my young patient’s case, "long-term" was just over a week!
Not only that, these immune problems may have ramifications beyond just the gut and problems like joint pain. Inflammation can affect the brain and nervous system, causing anxiety (as happened to my patient), depression, irritability, and mood swings.
And if you’ve got gluten sensitivity? Whoa, baby! Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs might not be your best option because they can make it worse! These medications increase what is called “leaky gut”, or more technically, intestinal permeability. This allows food particles and fragments of the normal and unhealthy gut flora that inhabit our intestines to get across our gut lining, into our bloodstream, and trigger food sensitivities, inflammatory, and even autoimmune reactions.
Here’s a list of common NSAID medications:
- Advil / Motrin (ibuprofen)
- Aleve (naproxen sodium)
- Naprosyn (naproxen)
- Lodine (etodolac)
- Nalfon (fenoprofen)
- Daypro (oxaprozin)
- Ansaid (flurbiprofen)
- Cambia / Cataflam / Voltaren (diclofenac)
- COX-2 Inhibitors
Functional Medicine: Treating the Root Cause
NSAIDs are generally not treating the root cause of the pain, they are just treating the symptoms. Functional medicine treats the underlying causes of health problems.
In Sarah’s case, we quickly went to work healing her gut to treat what had now become arthritis in her joints, anxiety, and constant stomach pain.
We removed all gluten and dairy from her diet, because even for people who weren’t previously sensitive, with leaky gut and inflammation, these are common triggers for many people.
I then added in a few simple supplements to begin to heal the gastritis – the inflammation in her stomach – and to heal her leaky gut. These included curcumin (an anti-inflammatory extract from turmeric), DGL, a form of licorice in a chewable tablet that helps to heal gastritis and leaky gut, zinc, and L-glutamine.
A Happy, Pain Free Girl!
Just a couple of short months since coming to see me, Sarah is off of her antacid medications. She is free of joint pain and her anxiety is resolved. She is once again playing comfortably and happily. Her stomachaches, which were previously severe and occurring multiple times daily are almost entirely gone. Here mom said she’s made a 180-degree turnaround and she can’t even believe the changes.
I can. I see these kinds of results every day in my clinical practice specializing in functional medicine for women and children, hormonal and chronic health problems.
That’s what happens when we understand and treat the root causes of disease!