One of the most common reasons for seeing a doctor is for complaints relating to the digestive tract. There are many symptoms that can point to the digestive tract as the potential source of problems. Various symptoms can range from gas, bloating, pain, burning, and/or uncomfortable fullness after a meal. The digestive tract MUST function optimally in order for our food to be digested, assimilated and absorbed. This is a MUST and cannot be disputed.
So here is my BEEF! I see countless patients who have been prescribed Vitamin B12 because their doctor has told them their levels are “low”. I also see countless patients who are taking antacids or proton pump inhibitors because they suffer from “heartburn” or “indigestion”. Let’s just talk science for a minute to understand why these scenarios and many like them have me so worked up!
The stomach contains specialized cells (parietal cells & chief cells) that are responsible for secreting pepsin and hydrochloric acid to help digest the food we consume. There are a variety of factors that help stimulate these cells such as the sight and smell of food. Basically, these stimuli tell our bodies to start preparing to digest food.
It is also important to know that the stomach has an optimum pH which is crucial to allow the digestive system to release nutrients found in food. An example of this is when the pH of your stomach is less acidic than optimal and as a result, your stomach will NOT be able to release Vitamin B12 from the foods you have. What this means is that you can eat all the vitamin rich foods and/or supplements you want but your stomach simply will be UNABLE to pull those necessary vitamins from the consumed dietary items.
Unfortunately, the common complaint of heart burn is often mistakenly thought to be caused by a gastric environment that is too acidic. Accordingly, the chosen treatment is usually to prescribe something to lower the acidity of the stomach. These are usually drugs like Nexium or other over the counter antacids such as Tums.
I can almost guarantee that you will be SHOCKED to find out that when researched studied patients that complain of heartburn, they found that the vast majority of them had stomach acid levels that were actually TOO LOW! I realize I might have just turned your world upside down but it’s true! In light of this scientific information, you may now be asking yourself why doctors prescribe antacids or proton pump inhibitors (which make stomach acidity weaker) when a patient complains of heart burn or indigestion?!
To be quite honest, I don’t understand it either! In fact, I also thought antacids were the answer at one point but the important thing is that I learned better. It took a complete paradigm shift in my thinking before I started to use a more functional approach to health. By doing so, I have been able to change the lives of so many patients who truly want to get better.
The functional medicine approach is simple – it aims to UNDERSTAND and RESOLVE the problem and not just MASK the symptom. With that in mind, it is important to first assess the patient’s diet. This is a CRUCIAL step. Diets that are high in processed foods and refined carbohydrates gradually change the ecology of the gut. This then allows invasive organisms to take hold and ultimately, change the protective lining of the stomach.
The logical approach would be to HEAL the lining of the stomach, especially in light of the fact that we now know that most people don’t suffer from too much acid at all. Healing the lining of the stomach allows the goblet cells to produce enough mucous to provide a protective barrier against acid in the stomach. It is important to REMEMBER that having strong acidic pH is needed for optimal health and also has a protective function by killing off foreign invaders in the body.
There are also several products which can actually help patients with complaints of heartburn. These are products that do more than just temporarily provide relief and truly resolve the issue. Products with aloe vera and deglycyrrhizinated licorice have been shown to increase the mass, quality, and production of gastric/duodenal mucous. This has the beneficial effect of promoting the healing of inflamed tissues in the body. Studies have shown that DGL enhances replication of goblet cells in the stomach lining and facilitating an enhanced protective mucosal output. When the inflammation of the stomach lining has healed, then the problem of having too little acid is corrected by ADDING ACID to the stomach. Keep in mind that before we recommend any supplements, we usually have an advanced stool analysis performed to understand the patient’s GI function or limitations.
A healthy diet along with increased gastric/duodenal mucous is the way to fix the problem and not just hide the symptom. You have to always keep in mind that ANY and EVERY pharmaceutical always have side effects. For example, taking a proton pump inhibitor may provide short term relief but will likely cause more complex problems further down the digestive tract. There is a correlation between patients who have taken long term proton pump inhibitors and gall bladder attacks. It has been shown that one of the stimuli that cause the gall bladder to contract and spill bile into the lumen of the small intestine is the pH of food bolus that enters from the stomach. That is what our body is SUPPOSED to do. However, if this stimulus is not present (if the acidity in the stomach is too low), then the gall bladder does not contract as it is supposed to. So now, the patient has more than just one problem to deal with in a vicious circle.
The key point is that optimal health requires fixing the problem and not just hiding the symptom. This is done by allowing for optimal protection (in the form of increased gastric/duodenal mucous and a healthy, whole foods diet) from our normal AND necessary acid levels in the stomach. The irritation of the lining of the stomach can be reduced without disrupting the normal digestive process and robbing the body of vital proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins.
At this point, you should realize that an optimal digestive process is crucial and vital to maintaining optimal health. There are simply no ‘if, ands, or buts’ about it. It may seem easier to take a pill or easy fix but this is YOUR health and if nothing more, you must start to take an active role in maintaining it. If you or someone you know suffers from digestive complaints and need answers, please don’t hesitate to contact me.