The gastrointestinal tract is routinely defined as "a tube approximately 19-22 feet long, running through the body from mouth to anus." The World Book Dictionary adds that the intestine is "the lower part of the alimentary canal" food from the stomach passes into the intestine for further digestion and for absorption."
This boringly simplistic concept of intestinal function, combined with its indisputable lack of glamour, is reason enough for most people to never give the importance of intestinal health a second thought. This is unfortunate, possibly even dangerous, and needs to change. The reality is that healthy intestinal function is critically important to overall health. This realization makes it incumbent upon all those desiring good health to understand the importance of optimal intestinal health and adjust their habits into alignment with that knowledge.
The Intestine as a Protective Barrier
Consider as an analogy the atmosphere surrounding the earth and its role in protecting our environment. It parallels the function of the intestine and its role in protecting our overall health. The earth's atmosphere provides a protective barrier to support and sustain the abundant variety of life found here. It is important to note that balance is the key! The atmosphere is composed of a critical balance of different gases that enable it to provide the earth with important filter-like protection. Selectively screening out anything that could be damaging to, or allowing the penetration of anything that would be necessary for, 30 million different species of inhabitants.
In principal, the intestine provides a very similar protective barrier. The healthy intestinal wall is coated with hundreds of different species of microorganisms, both healthful and unhealthful bacteria numbering in the billions. This rich, protective coating of micro-organisms acts in concert with the physical barrier provided by the cell lining the intestinal tract with factors, to provide the body with important filter-like protection. Damaging substances like unhealthy bacteria, toxins, chemicals and wastes are filtered out and eliminated. Simultaneously, the critical factors needed for fife, such as nutrients and water, are absorbed into circulation and made available to the billions of cells in the body that need them.
The atmosphere acts as a selective barrier making sunlight available for fife-sustaining photosynthesis, while simultaneously preventing the sun's disease-causing ultraviolet light from penetrating. Damaging ultra-violet radiation is screened out by a protective portion of the atmosphere called the ozone layer. The selective barrier function of the intestine is equally profound.
In the healthy state, the absorption of small sugars, fats and proteins proceed through the intestinal wall and circulate throughout the body. They are required for a myriad of essential reactions. Simultaneously, damaging substances from unhealthful bacteria, incompletely digested food, toxins, or chemicals, are largely prevented from being absorbed and transported throughout the body. We are continually and unknowingly protected from the ill effects of these damaging substances.
Bad Habits That Negatively Impact Intestinal Health
Unfortunately human beings have developed bad habits that promote imbalance in both the atmosphere and the intestinal tract.
For example, pollutants such as chloro-fluoro-carbons (CFCs) have punctured holes in our ozone shield. The ozone hole has widened and deepened every year since scientists began measuring ozone levels in 1985. Scientists feel that the continued depletion of the ozone layer will cause greater amounts of ultraviolet radiation to reach earth, resulting in greater cancer risk, as well as other health problems.
Our societies bad habits in general have contributed to an imbalance of intestinal protective factors in an alarming percentage of the population. These bad habits include wide spread consumption of a diet high in refined, simple sugars and fat and deficient in nutritious, whole, unprocessed foods and fiber. This type of diet could potentially tip the intestinal balance toward the overgrowth of unhealthful bacteria and the proliferation of yeast or fungal organisms. It is also associated with less frequent bowel movements and a number of forms of chronic intestinal dysfunction. Other bad habits include the excess consumption of alcohol and the use of DETOXIFICATION.
The Growing Problem of Toxicity
In recent history mankind has managed to drastically change the bio-chemistry of our environment in which we live through a process of ever increasing pollution. For example, in 1989 alone:
1. More than 1,000,000,000 pounds of chemicals were released into the ground, threatening a portion of the soil we grow our food in and the natural underground water tables that supply some of our drinking water.
2. Over 188,000,000 pounds of chemicals were discharged into surface waters such as lakes and rivers.
3. More than 2,400,000,000 pounds of chemical emissions were pumped into the air we breathe.
4. A grand total of 5,705,670,380 pounds of chemical pollutants were released into the environment we eat, breathe and five in, all in just one year.
To compound the problem of our toxic environment, we have refined away much of the nutritional value of our food supply and replaced it with artificial colorings, preservatives, flavorings, conditioners, etc. This poor quality diet-combined with extensive use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture-may have predisposed many of us to experience a kind of "internal" pollution. Internal pollution occurs when the healthful bacteria in the intestinal tract are overcome by unhealthful bacteria. These unhealthful bacteria release toxic by-products into our circulation that can negatively impact many aspects of our overall health.
Will Toxicity Have An Effect on You?
What does this problem of toxicity mean for us individuals? It may present a threat to the vibrant level of health we would like to enjoy. We succumb to the adverse effects of toxicity depends on our knowledge of the subject and the choices we make.
We need to take personal responsibility to make sure that we do not fall victim to toxicity. That involves learning what we need to do to help our body protect itself from toxicity.
Basic Ways to Avoid Toxicity
Let's been with some of the basic requirements to avoid toxicity. Do all you can to purify your work and home environments. If you know the source of any toxic materials at work, such as stored or leaking chemicals, dyes, paints, solvents, glues, acids, or household offenders such as insecticides or cleaning agents, remove them if possible. If the offending materials cannot be removed, an effective air purification system may be needed. At least, wear protective clothing and/or breathing apparatus when using any toxic materials. Regular replacement of furnace and air conditioning filters may also be helpful.
It is also very important to eat a good diet with plenty of fresh, wholesome foods. Avoid eating excess fat, refined sugar and foods high in additives and preservatives. Eat moderate levels of protein (approximately 15% to 20% of your calories) and fat (approximately 20% of your calories), while increasing levels of complex carbohydrates (approximately 60% of your calories). Substitute organically raised animals and organically grown fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Drink plenty of purified water (ideally, eight 8-ounce glasses a day). A home water purification system is highly desirable to provide pure water for drinking and cooking.
Support Your Body's Efforts to Eliminate Toxicity
One thing is certain in our effort to purify our work and home environments; it is impossible to avoid toxicity completely! With that realization, the importance of supporting your body's efforts to eliminate accumulated toxins cannot be overstated.
Water or Juice Fasts Less Complete
It was believed that a water or juice fast was preferred detoxification thought to work under the principle that the body will be able to clear stored toxins and heal itself when the "stress" of digestion and the further accumulation of toxins were eliminated.
The modern-day realization that the body's detoxification mechanism is a heavily nutrient-supported process has made it clear that simple juice or water fasting is less complete and no longer the method of choice. Prolonged fasting may weaken muscles and various organs because of protein losses and a gradual slowing of metabolic activity as the body endeavors to conserve its depleted energy resources.
More Complete Support for Detoxification
A more current approach to detoxification is to nourish the body thoroughly, fueling its natural detoxification mechanism with the nutrients needed to achieve optimal detoxification activity. By providing high-quality protein, complex carbohydrates and essential fats, the body gets what it needs to prevent muscle and organ breakdown and depleted energy resources. This is just the beginning in order to improve our health. Nutrients are needed to support the function of the organs directly involved in detoxification: the liver, the intestinal tract and the kidneys. Intelligent Application of nutrition may help in the following ways:
Intestine: The nutrient's zinc and pantothenic acid, the amino acid L--glutamine are necessary for optimal health. Carbohydrates known as fructo-oligo-saccharides, and microorganisms known as acidophilus and bifidus, are a few of the substances that provide support for the health and integrity of intestinal function. In a proper state of health, the intestine promotes elimination of toxins through:
1. regular daily bowel movements
2. eliminating the build-up of unhealthful microorganisms and internal toxins
3. providing a strong and intact barrier to prevent the leaking of toxic materials from the intestines into circulation.
Liver: The vitamins A, B3, B6, C, E, beta-carotene, the amino acids L-cysteine and L-glutamine, and components known as glutathione and phosphohpids are some of the substances that support liver function. In a proper state of function, the liver filters out and transforms toxic substances that have entered the blood into harmless substances that can be excreted in the urine. Interestingly it appears that the ratio of dietary protein to carbohydrate may be a very important factor in determining the ability of the body to detoxify certain substances.
Kidney: The vitamins A, C, B6, and the mineral's magnesium and potassium, are just some of the substances that support kidney activity. The kidney provides a major route of toxin excretion via the urine. Fat: Weight reduction and management are helpful for those who are overweight. Excess fat provides a ready storage site for fat-loving toxins entering the body. Once deposited there, it is very difficult to remove them. Unless the excess fat is removed, they remain there with the possibility of being a continual source of toxicity.
Find the Help You Need
If you have any questions as to what you can do to help eliminate internal pollution and how to improve intestinal health, do not hesitate to ask us. Antacids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers are a major contributor to poor health of the gastro-intestinal tract. These may contribute to a breakdown or deterioration in the physical integrity of the intestinal wall, much as if CFCs have punctured the ozone layer, creating holes for ultraviolet radiation to enter through.
Scientists describe this state of intestinal breakdown as "leaky gut syndrome" and feel it may contribute to intestinal dysfunction.
A high stress lifestyle combined with a bad diet, deficient in important nutrients such as L-glutamine, pantothenic acid, zinc, folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin A and others, may impair the healing of intestinal deterioration. Read our article to learn how your diet can support gut health: Foods to Heal Leaky Gut & Foods to Avoid.
Another bad habit is the over use of broad spectrum antibiotics. Researchers have acknowledged that virtually every antibiotic taken orally causes' alterations in the balance of the bacteria in the intestine. Even as little as one course of antibiotics may deteriorate that rich, protective coating of microorganisms and upset the balance between healthful and unhealthful bacteria, reducing the resistance to intestinal and systemic ill health.
Helpful Suggestions for Achieving Optimal Intestinal Health
Those interested in how to improve their intestinal health should find the following suggestions helpful:
1. Avoid excessive alcohol use and refined, sugar rich, fiber-poor foods.
2. Avoid the use of antacids and broad spectrum antibiotics as much as is possible.
3. Eat a diet rich in whole, unprocessed, nutritionally adequate foods and fiber.
4. Drink plenty of pure water.
5. Consume a diet rich in fiber, supplement the diet with pro-biotic proteins (lacto-peroxidase, lacto-ferrin) and globulin proteins that may support a balanced and healthful population of intestinal bacteria.
6. Also consider adding to the diet fructo-oligo-saccharides (FOS) which act as a food source to nourish certain healthful bacteria but not unhealthful ones.
7. Finally, supplement the diet with scientifically proven, high quality, healthful bacterial products such as bifido- bacteria and the NCFM strain of Lactobacillus acidophilus.
Author: Mark Occhipinti, M.S., Ph.D., ND
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