If you are having abdominal or digestive problems, you are not alone.
Up to 20% of Americans have irritable bowel syndrome, for instance, and the occurrence is similar in other countries. Common complains include bloating, abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea or constipation.
About 20% of people also have GERD. Others have difficulty tolerating a wide variety of foods including lactose, for instance. People with Celiac disease have a severe reaction to gluten and are often not diagnosed for years after presenting with symptoms.
Take the following survey to see if you have any of these symptoms:
• Have you gained weight in your belly?
• Are you frequently constipated?
• Are your stools always loose or irregular?
• Does your belly always hurt, especially after meals?
• Do you have trouble controlling your heartburn?
• Are you unable to lose weight despite diet and excercise?
• Does your low back constantly ache and x-rays don’t show much of anything?
• Do you have pain in the mid-upper back area?
• Do you have pain at the back of your shoulders?
• Do you have allergies and rashes that are difficult to control?
• Do you have what you would describe as “brain fog”?
These can all be signs of abdominal or digestive problems and are seen very commonly. Occasionally, they indicate serious problems such as ovarian or colon cancer or even heart disease. More often, they indicate less worrisome, yet uncomfortable and distressing conditions. Patients with these condition often undergo extensive medical workup without a satisfactory diagnosis or solution.
But there are often other ways to look at these problems.
The gastrointestinal system, otherwise know as the “gut”, is a very complex place. It includes everything from the mouth to the very bottom of the large intestine. Many various bacteria live in the intestines to the tune of trillions! These bacteria are a community and ecosystem all of their own.
Imbalances in how many and what types of bacteria there are, as well as whether they are predominantly in the lower bowel (where they should be) vs. in the upper bowel (where they shouldn’t be) can cause a variety of abdominal and systemic symptoms.
We now know that irritable bowel syndrome has a strong relationship to small bowel overgrowth in many cases. There are emerging standards for testing for the presence of these bacteria, and treatments for rebalancing the bacterial mix. Food can be an irritant but can also be powerful in healing the gut.
The gut is home to over fifty percent of the immune system. So, you can see how allergic problems might arise in the gut. A good example of this is celiac disease, an immune reaction to gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt and farro that give baked goods that wonderfully chewy texture.
People with Celiac gluten allergy may or may not have stomach symptoms and yet, may have whole body symptoms such as rashes, weight loss or achy joints. Occasionally, patients can even have neurologic symptoms. These symptoms arise from the immune system in the gut reacting to the gluten eaten in wheat and grain products. In the case of Celiac disease, the imune reaction from eating gluten actually cause destruction and erosion of the digestive tract nutrient absorbing “fingers”, or villi.
We think that about one in 130 people in the U.S. have gluten allergy related intestinal compromise. Most of them remain undiagnosed. Furthermore, up to thirty percent may have some degree of non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is strongly determined by genetics though non-celiac gluten sensitivity also has genetic components.
The bottom line is that there are ways to think about intestinal problems that take into account how the entire gut system is reacting to a vast mix of food, bacteria, stress, hormones, immune factors, neurotransmitters, and the like.
While functional medicine and nutrition based options are not the answer for all intestinal problems, they can be very powerful for many common “functional” gut problems that are otherwise hard to treat and too often go on for years without relief.