by Jason D. Gourlas, PA-C
Gastrointestinal (GI) tract disorders are the No. 2 reason that people visit their medical providers, second only to upper respiratory infections. I have seen estimates suggesting that more than 100 million people in the U.S. have some type of digestive disorder.
I dare say that about 50 percent of the patients I see are on some sort of acid suppressing drug. Many more have complaints that originate in the GI tract but are being attributed to something else. These can include fatigue, allergy symptoms, brain fog, depression, etc.
The bottom line is GI disorders place a significant burden on our lives and economy.
Structure and Function
The GI tract is a 25 to 30-foot muscular tube and several closely associated organs. It is comprised of the mouth and saliva glands, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small and large intestines. It serves a variety of functions such as defense, digestion, absorption, detoxification and elimination. It is often said that you are what you eat, and that is true to a certain extent. It is probably more accurate to say that you are what you absorb and assimilate.
Because the GI tract is a major “port of entry” for your body, it is an important part of your body’s defense system. Stomach acid destroys a lot of bugs that can cause us harm. If we block the production of that acid we weaken our defenses. We know that people who take acid blockers have a higher incidence of pneumonia and other infections. Decreased stomach acid can allow overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, which can lead to excess gas, bloating and irritable bowel syndrome. The GI tract senses and fights toxins, bugs and things we are allergic to through the presence of objectionable tastes and immune and nerve-related tissues throughout its length. Vomiting and diarrhea are abrupt defensive responses to get rid of the offending substances. Food sensitivities can cause a lot of gastrointestinal distress.
Digestion encompasses the mechanical and chemical processes that happen inside our bodies to prepare our food for absorption. These processes include chewing and the breakdown of nutrients by stomach acid, enzymes and bile. Proper functioning of the stomach, liver, gallbladder and pancreas are integral. The digestive process actually begins in the brain as we see and smell the food being prepared. This results in the stimulation of saliva and gastric juices.
We should be purposeful about sitting down to eat in a relaxing environment, chewing our food thoroughly (30- 60 times) and allowing time afterwards (3-4 hours) before strenuous physical activity. Stress impairs our body’s ability to digest properly. As we get older, our production of stomach acid and enzymes decreases, resulting in incomplete digestion.
The practice of processing, pasteurizing and cooking almost everything we eat also decreases the enzyme content of our food and taxes our bodies. Stomach acid is very important for digesting proteins and for the absorption of minerals like magnesium and calcium. It’s often thought that heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are the result of too much stomach acid, but that is not always the case. Too little acid, abnormal forward movement of the GI tract and/or laxity of the mechanism by which acid is kept in the stomach are more likely culprits.
Absorption of nutrients through the GI tract is dependent on the amount of functioning surface area available for the task. Most absorption occurs in the small intestine. Even though it is a tube of a little more than an inch or two in diameter and about 21 feet long, its absorptive surface area is about 2,700 square feet or the size of a tennis court. Damage to the intestines from allergies/sensitivities, bugs, toxins, medications and stress decreases this absorptive surface.
Lack of stomach acid decreases a substance necessary for the absorption of vitamin B12. Dietary deficiencies of other vitamins and nutrients decrease absorption. Increased movement through the intestines, as with diarrhea, reduces the amount of time available for absorbing good things. Conversely, decreased movement through the intestines, as with constipation, allows toxins and waste products that should be eliminated to be reabsorbed.
Elimination is a crucial step in getting rid of the things that are no longer needed or wanted in the body. Conventional medicine will say that it is normal to have a bowel movement as infrequently as once or twice a week. I feel that ideally you should have a bowel movement at least once or twice a day. Some factors at play in constipation include electrolyte and mineral deficiencies, too little fiber, water or physical activity. Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement is also detrimental. Some medications are notorious for slowing down your bowels. Imbalance of the bacteria in your colon can cause constipation and the addition of probiotics, beneficial bacteria that reside in the colon, have been helpful to many. Other disease processes like low thyroid function can precipitate constipation.
Increase your “GIQ” even more by attending Vital Life Wellness Center’s free health education seminar: “Raising Your GIQ.” Call Vital Life at 210-595-1019 to reserve your spot as seating is limited.
Jason D. Gourlas, PA-C, recently joined the professional staff at Vital Life Wellness Center, located at 2520 Broadway, Suite 100, in San Antonio. He has 22 years of experience in medicine, which includes primary care, emergency medicine, neurotology and surgical critical care in hospital, clinic and military settings. He is board certified through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, a member of The Institute of Functional Medicine and is a Diplomat of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. Gourlas also served 15 years in the United States Army. For more information about Vital Life Wellness Center, including information on free seminars, visit www.VitalLifeWellness.com or call 210-595-1019.