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Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was a wise man. More than ever before, the scientific and clinical evidence points to how very important a healthy gastrointestinal tract (GI) is for sustaining wellness. Let’s take a moment to review some of the amazing facts that researchers have discovered about our intestines.
- Your small intestine makes enzymes in the area called villi (brush border)
- Human small intestine measures 20-feet long
- Human large intestine (the colon) measures 5-feet long
- There are more bacteria in the GI tract than there are cells in the human body
- The lining of the small intestine makes digestive enzymes, in addition to the pancreas and mouth
- Upwards of 95 percent of nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine
- Ninety percent of water in the large intestine is reabsorbed
- Bacterial fermentation helps create vitamins, including vitamins K, B1, B2, B6, B12 and biotin
The Bigger Picture
We all know that when we place food in our mouth, chew and swallow the journey for those yummy morsels has just began. It is, after all, how we fuel our body, allowing the 50 trillion cells that comprise our body to flourish. Yet, we are also feeding the bacteria and other microbes that live in our GI tract. Each mouthful of food, is being used to create the ecology that allows us to survive and hopefully thrive. The big point of differentiation when pursuing wellness, is to enter the THRIVE zone and distance ourselves whenever possible from merely surviving.
The cells that line our GI tract need to be fueled properly and protected from irritants including herbicides, pesticides, food additives, food allergies and, also, unhealthy bowel habits. As you saw in the list above, 90 percent of water is reabsorbed from the large intestine. That means if your bowels are moving slowly your body is being bathed in “mucky water”. Proper elimination with 2 to 3 bowel movements per day is important to help ensure toxins and hormones are not reabsorbed excessively.
Supporting Healthy Digestion
Eating as fresh, organic or free-range as your health budget allows is always a good start. I routinely refer to the grocery budget as the “health budget” as Hippocrates has been quoted: “May your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.”
At times, when a person diet changes during travel or during exceptionally busy times in life, it is not unusual to need a little help keeping the colon moving. As I refer to it – Keep the babbling brook babbling vs. standing water in a stagnant pond. After all, which one is more likely to grow life threatening mosquitoes and other risks to health. Many of my patients use the non-GMO, certified organic herb Cascara Sagrada for occasional times of constipation.
Generally, though, aiding digestion by taking and making time to prepare your food, eat and digest it with friends and family in calm environment is by far the best first step in relieving the burden on your GI tract. When stressed, the GI tract is less capable to fully employ all its digestive functions and there can even be less blood flow to the intestines thus actually putting a strain on them getting sufficient oxygenation.
Many of my patients also use Ginger and Bitters to aid in digestion. Both have long been used traditionally to nurture and encourage better digestion. In fact, there is a huge resurgence of health savvy consumers using bitters in the hopes of improving digestion opposed to using an over the counter symptom reliever, also popular known as the band-aid approach to medicine.
Ginger has been popularly used for nausea and upset stomach, and even at times for motion sickness. Many people forget that Ginger has also been studied for its benefits as a natural prebiotic to support friendly probiotic growth in the GI tract. Again, a classic example of a whole food and herb as nourishment for the body.
Bitters are herbs that are by nature, bitter. Yet that does not mean that when blended by a master herbal formulator that they can’t be made tasty. Ancient bitters were used way back in the days of Paracelsus and these artfully created herbal blends of several plants appear to work in large part by stimulating the nature digestive functions of the body.
There are times to sooth the stomach, intestines and colon. This is when I use Slippery Elm or Marshmallow, two herbs that are wonderful examples of plants that possess demulcent properties, meaning they are rich in mucilage and can help soothe and protect irritated or inflamed tissue. The traditional use of demulcents is when tissues feel raw, hot, irritated and/or inflamed. In herbal medicine demulcents are attributed with the following properties cooling, soothing and relieving.
Take Home Message
Your digestive tract reflects the wonders of how the human body is constructed and functions, fueling your GI tract with the right food and nurturing it with traditional herbal medicines can help create the overall healthy GI ecology that will serve you well for a lifetime.
Dr. Chris Meletis, N.D., has 24-years of experience practicing as a Naturopathic Doctor in Portland, Oregon. He is dedicated to using his vast knowledge about alternative medicine to help his patients and generously give to those in need. He has written over a dozen books and 100's of national articles, and was named Naturopathic Physician of the Year in 2003 by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Read more about Dr. Meletis here. Or, visit our "Ask Dr. Meletis, N.D." page for additional articles.
*Statements herein have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, and are not intended to treat or diagnose any disease or health condition. The information on this website, and provided by Dr. Chris Meletis, N.D., is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It is recommended that patients check with their doctors before taking herbs, to ensure that there are no contraindications with prescription medications. There is additional information linked within this site to HealthNotes®, a third party educational source, containing the latest research on health and supplements. Oregon's Wild Harvest will not be held accountable for this information and consider it an education reference only.