As a Naturopath, I am very interested in the digestive system. Ok, I'll admit it, I'm actually a little obsessed. It's a topic that I frequently (alright... always) bring up, with varying levels of embarrassment from my clients. As much as I hate to make people feel uncomfortable in my clinic, the information that can be gained by this discussion is just too essential to ignore. I consider digestive health a professional interest of mine, and as the cornerstone of good health. This post explains my personal experiences that have shaped my knowledge of this area.
"All disease begins in the gut"
- Hippocrates the "Father of Western Medicine" (460-370 BC)
I remember my mother talking to me at a very young age about my digestive system. She asked me to let her know if I ever thought anything was wrong. She had been diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis at a very young age - the youngest in Australia at the time. Ulcerative Colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) which produces inflammation and ulceration in the colon. It's regarded and treated as an autoimmune disease.
There has always been an awareness in my family of eating what agrees with your body. I watched my mother be careful about her food choices, while she managed her condition with medication. Doctor's and specialists were quick to reassure her that food had no connection to or bearing on her condition. Nevertheless, she continued to eat well and avoid what she sensed disagreed with her. Fast forward to the present day, and her condition is the best it has been in her life. While IBD can be a disease with unpredictable relapses and remissions, the greatest improvements in her digestive function appeared to happened during a period of lower-carbohydrate style eating. At the time I didn't make any significant connection between the two.
As for me, my digestive system has always seemed to be the weakest link of my health. I look back and realise there has always been an element of poor digestive function in my life. This was compounded by a digestive infection that I caught while travelling through India in my 20's. I lost 10kg of body weight, which was not a desirable thing for my body type. My young and reckless self took my antibiotic treatment, and moved on to the next destination without even waiting for the test results to come back. My tolerance of particular foods was at an all time low at this time. It took a long time to rebuild my digestive health again, and it is a journey that will most likely continue for me.
As genetics and environment would have it, one of my son's has also battled some digestive issues. With a mother's determination I researched and experimented to help him in any way I could. I experimented with different ways of eating, as an instinctive reflex. A blood test at 2 years old diagnosed a moderate IGE-mediated egg allergy, and this knowledge helped his condition slightly. A stool test when he was 3 years old revealed some infections and overgrowths that I proceeded to treat naturally. One of these was a species of Klebsiella, which research suggests can be a trigger for the development of Crohn's disease, another IBD (1). For me the real lightbulb moment, was discovering that Klebsiella thrives on starch (2), another indicator to me that the types and quantity of carbohydrates in our diet can greatly influence digestive health.
I have invested great amounts of time formulating my approach to digestive health. A book called "Breaking the Vicious Cycle" by Elaine Gottscall was the first to propose to me a mechanism by which my mother's digestive health could have been dramatically improved by her change in diet. This book discusses a dietary approach called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD). There has only been one small research study I'm aware of to test this theory, involving 26 children with IBD. It had favourable results, although clearly longer term research for safety and efficacy is the next step (3). There are also some case reports in journals of similar dietary interventions producing improvement for Ulcerative Colitis patients (4).
However, like most things involving health there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Digestion is as individual as the balance of organisms living within each of us. Also, any dietary changes you make must always be in perspective with the level of your symptoms. Having the support of a qualified practitioner is invaluable in this regard, and also to ensure that your diet is nutritionally balanced at all times. This is particularly true for children, who need energy and nutrients for vital growth. Improving your digestive symptoms through dietary changes alone is the most challenging way to improve your digestion, and I don't recommend this in my clinic. The support of stool test results, herbal treatments for overgrowths, nutrients for digestive repair and probiotics for bacterial balance are important tools I offer my clients. I have been able to help clients in my clinic with this knowledge, and I look forward to continuing to explore my interest in this area.