Ever had a bad gut bug? These are commonly called intestinal viruses, gastroenteritis or food poisoning. Bad gut bugs come in a lot of different shapes and sizes and your susceptibility to these organisms always depends on one thing… the terrain. In naturopathic medicine, the foundation of the human terrain is the gut, and we pay a lot of attention to it. In fact, most of our therapies are focused on optimal functioning of that organ system. The human gut is a hollow muscular tube that starts at the mouth and ends at the rectum, and every inch of the tube is lined with specialized cells that have very specific jobs to do. This is where the expression “you are what you eat,” is quite literally true, and treatment of the gut has been integral to naturopathic medicine for over a century. Everything you swallow goes to make up every cell in your body. It all gets broken apart into tiny molecules of proteins, amino acids and sugars, which eventually are passed back into the blood and travel to every cell to provide nourishment and new cell growth.
The first part of the tube is the mouth, which secretes saliva to break down simple carbohydrates. Next is the muscular esophagus, an elongated tube that moves food down to the stomach, which contains hydrochloric acid to start the process of breaking down proteins and to kill some bacteria that may have been ingested. The bottom portion of the stomach ends in the duodenum, which connects to the small intestine. The duodenum contains bicarbonate to neutralize the acid from the upper stomach, and bile secretions to break down fats. The next part of the tube is the very convoluted small intestine, containing pancreatic enzymes to complete the process of digestion and absorption. The small intestine leads into the colon, where several key nutrients and water are absorbed. The colon is dependent on fiber for normal function and this is where the phrase “eat your vegetables” really matters because the colon depends on fiber to normalize the muscular contractions required for elimination and to bind some fats and flush them out of the body. This is where diet and nutrition also come into play for naturopathic medicine.
The colon makes a sharp turn in the lower left side of the abdomen and ends in the rectum/anus through which feces is eliminated. The small intestine and colon are the portions of the tube where we find the good gut bugs, which are the normal bacteria that live in the mucus lining and assist in nutrient assimilation and maintenance of the mucosa. Most of these bugs are bacteria, in fact about half of human feces consists of bacteria. One of these types of bacteria manages absorption of excess residue in the colon. Too much residue in the colon can happen from overeating or consuming foods that one is sensitive to, resulting in a condition called dysbiosis. This means that the balance of bacterial flora has been disturbed. Dysbiosis can also be caused by some ugly foreign bacteria, viruses and antibiotics. In severe or chronic dysbiosis, the mucosal lining of the gut tube can be damaged, leading to much discomfort and sometimes illness.
Dysbiosis is so common today that pro-biotics are heavily marketed to counteract the ill effects. Probiotics are intended to increase or replace the amount of good bugs in the gut. The right probiotic organisms can indeed normalize the bacterial flora of the gut and allow the damaged mucosal layer to heal, so the person can again begin to assimilate nutrients properly. While these products are often sold over the counter, let the buyer beware, as all probiotics are not created equal. Today, some professional grade probiotics are combined with a bacterial phage that helps the probiotic organisms to survive and multiply. Bacterial phages are a relatively new and fascinating area of research in GI health and immunology for naturopathic medicine.
Making the choice for the right probiotic organisms and/or phages to help with your symptoms can be quite challenging unless you have the guidance of a naturopathic medicine. Different strains of similar sounding organisms thrive in different locations in the gut and it can be hard to tell which ones are appropriate. If you have questions or concerns about this subject, feel free to give me a call. I’ll be happy to help.
Dr. Ellen Sauter practices naturopathic family medicine at The Benchmark Clinic of Integrative Medicine in NW Portland. She treats patients on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and can be reached at 503-223-7067.