Excerpt from Digestive Wellness:

Completely Revised and Updated Third Edition

by Elizabeth Lipski, Ph.D., CCN

The food we eat is our most intimate contact with the environment. We bring food into our bodies and turn it into us. Each day, several pounds of this foreign matter must be processed through digestion.

How Digestion Works

The function of digestion is to break down foods into basic components that cells use for energy, as building materials and catalysts. The uninterrupted flow of these nutrients into our system is critical to our long-term health.Unfortunately, 1/3 to 1/2 of American adults—over 62 million people—have digestive illness. When we eat poorly or our digestion becomes blocked and sluggish, we compromise our cells' ability to work efficiently and healthfully.

When operating optimally, a healthy intestinal lining allows only properly digested fats, proteins, and starches to pass through to be assimilated. At the same time, it acts as a barrier (even referred to as the barrier function of the gastrointestinal mucosal lining) to block bacterial products, foreign substances, and large undigested molecules. This surface is often called the brush border because under a microscope its villi and micro-villi look like bristles on a brush.

When Things Go Wrong

When the intestinal lining is damaged, inflamed, or irritated, larger-than-natural molecules are allowed to pass through it, some of which include undigested food particles, potentially toxic constituents, and disease-causing bacteria. When these molecules pass through the weakened intestinal wall, they trigger an immune reaction, alerting white blood cells to battle the particles. Oxidants are produced in the battle, causing irritation and inflammation far from the digestive system. That is the basis for leaky gut syndrome—technically known as increased intestinal permeability.

Here's how leaky gut syndrome works. Imagine that your cells need a kernel of corn. They're screaming, "Hey, send me a kernel of corn." The bloodstream replies, "I have a can of corn, but I don't have a can opener." So the can circulates around the digestive tract while your cells starve for corn. Your immune system then reacts by making antibodies against the can, treating it as if it were a foreign invader. Your immune system has been mobilized to finish the job of incomplete digestion; however, this puts undue stress on it. So every time you eat similarly digested material, your body now has antibodies to react against it, which triggers the immune system, and so on. As time goes on, those with leaky gut syndrome tend to become more and more sensitive to a wider variety of foods and environmental contaminants.

Some symptoms related to leaky gut syndrome include abdominal pain, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, bloating, mood swings, anxiety, chronic muscle pain, confusion, and skin rashes.

Leaky gut also puts added stress on the liver, which is responsible for breaking down all substances that pass through the body. When the liver is overwhelmed by inflammatory irritants from incomplete digestion, it has less energy to neutralize chemical substances. When overwhelmed, it stores these toxins in fat cells, much the same way we put boxes in the garage or basement to deal with at a later date. If the liver has time later, it can deal with the stored toxins, but most often it is busy dealing with that which has just arrived and never catches up. These toxins provide a continued source of inflammation to the body. (Note: Inflammation is the causative factor for many health problems).

Leaky gut is reversible with many different steps. The first recommendation is to chew your food thoroughly. The more you break the food down in your mouth, the less work your digestive tract has to do. Next, is to determine if you have food sensitivities or Candida overgrowth.

You also may need to support your digestive function with enzymes, bitters, or hydrochloric acid tablets, as well as to replenish the "good" bacterial flora with probiotics and prebiotics, such as fructooligosaccharides (FOS). Once the intestinal tract has been damaged, free radicals are often produced in quantities too large for the body to process. This causes inflammation and irritation, which exacerbates a leaky gut. Increasing use of antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamin E, selenium, N-acetyl cysteine, superoxide dismutase (SOD), manganese, copper, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, and vitamin C, can help douse the digestion's freeradical fire.

Supportive nutrients can help repair the mucosal lining directly. Glutamine is the preferred food of the cells of the small intestine. Dosages can range from 1 to 30 g daily, depending on your needs. Pure Encapsulations offers a high quality glutamine powder, making it easy to achieve high doses. Zinc and vitamin A may be essential nutrients for repairing cells of the intestinal tract. Also, Seacure, from Proper Nutrition, is a predigested white fish protein known to repair the intestinal lining. Other nutrients and supplements that are helpful include gamma oryzanol, pantothenic acid, deglycyrrhized licorice (DGL), folic acid, concentrated whey immunoglobulin concentrates, and aloe vera. Though many have a higher standard of living today than in the past, the price paid is a hurried life that takes its toll on our bodies, especially our digestive tract. Digestive problems offer an opportunity for change—it is our choice to view them as a curse or a blessing.