Just as the nutrients in the soil must be properly prepared by microorganisms living around the rootlets of a great tree, so too must our body rely on gut bacteria for optimal health. Here I will attempt to describe this intricate system and how it functions both in balance and out of balance.
The small intestine is about 21 feet in length for the average adult but it's not a smooth tube on the inside. If you were to cut open a section it would look like a shag carpet on the inside. There are thousands of finger-like projections called villi. The cells lining these villi (called enterocytes) also have microscopic finger-like projections called microvilli. The folds, villi, and microvilli increase the surface area within the small intestine several times over so that if you were able to take an iron and flatten it all out it would cover the surface area of a tennis court. Within the small intestine, larger food particles are broken down by enzymes on the surface of the microvilli into smaller molecules which are able to go into the cells lining the intestinal wall and then through them into the bloodstream. Many of these microscopic particles such as glucose, peptides, amino acids, and fatty acids will be used as energy for the body. Other molecules such as vitamins and minerals from food will help support other mechanisms within the body.
There is a thin layer of mucus that protects the enterocytes lining the digestive tract. There are also billions of bacteria living within the digestive tract that helps to break down our food. Some forms of bacteria are beneficial and produce metabolites such as B-vitamins and Vitamin K as a waste product. Our body can utilize these metabolites and vitamins to keep us healthy. In this way we have a symbiotic relationship with these bacteria, which means a mutually beneficial relationship. But there are other organisms living within our digestive tracts that are opportunistic pathogens. They don't normally create much of a problem but can become disease producing if they are allowed to overgrow or multiply beyond a rate that the beneficial bacteria can compete. We also swallow pathogens on a regular basis but once again the beneficial bacteria act as a support to our immune system by keeping these competing organisms in check.
Due to multiple environmental factors including overuse of antibiotics, pesticides, prescription drugs, genetically modified foods, stress and poor dietary habits - the ratio of beneficial bacteria to pathogenic bacteria can become out of balance. Unlike beneficial bacteria, pathogenic forms do not create B-vitamins and helpful metabolites. Instead they secrete exotoxins, chemicals that are irritating and damaging to the cells lining the digestive tract. The body tries to protect itself by overproducing mucus which puts a physical barrier between the intestinal cells and the bacteria. However, it also puts a barrier between your food and the enzymes needed to complete their digestion. This is an ideal situation for the pathogenic bacteria as they are allowed to continue feeding and to continue producing their exotoxins. This begins the vicious cycle that can lead to gut dysbiosis: a gut system that is out of balance. Lactose intolerance, gas production, bloating, flatulence, heartburn, and burping may all be early signs of gut dysbiosis. Post nasal drip and constant congestion may also be a sign that your body is overproducing mucus to dilute exotoxins from the digestive tract.
As the bacteria continue to multiply and the exotoxins continue damaging cell health, the mucosal glands may not be able to keep up production, which can leave the enterocytes exposed. This is where damaging proteins such as gluten (more appropriately gliadin) can become a real problem as the body's immune response to gliadin causes the villi to flatten and destroys the tight junctions between the intestinal cells.
Leaky gut is the term most commonly used to describe this intestinal permeability. Now bacterial exotoxins and undigested proteins are able to leak through the gut wall into the surrounding capillaries. The body does not recognize these undigested proteins as food as so antibodies attach to them and mark them for destruction by white blood cells. The resulting cascade of immune response can result in symptoms such as rash, itching, sneezing, headache, fatigue, lethargy, etc. These signs of food sensitivity can also progress and become a food allergy. The immune system may also confuse some of these undigested proteins with our own body tissue in a process called molecular mimicry which may be a cause or contributing factor to auto-immune disorders such as Psoriasis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Crohn's disease, Sjogren syndrome, Lichen sclerosus, Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, Diabetes and more.
Everything that leaks through the intestinal wall goes to the liver. The liver's job is to convert the toxins and package them for removal from the body. Once the flow of toxins increases the liver becomes overwhelmed with its detoxification efforts. Toxins may spill back into the bloodstream causing further damage in other parts of the body. The kidneys, bladder, lungs and skin may be affected. Nutrient deficiencies can also contribute to the liver's inability to properly detoxify.
The key then to restoring health lies not in treating the symptoms with either herbs or pharmaceutical drugs but in addressing the underlying factor of gut dysbiosis. The GAPS Nutritional Protocol is designed to seal and heal the gut lining and balance out the microorganisms within the digestive tract. This allows the detoxification mechanisms within the body to return to optimal function and for the body to heal itself once nutrient absorption improves.
To find out more how the GAPS nutritional protocol can help restore your health please contact us to make an appointment.
To Your Health!
Kathryn Doran-Fisher is a Traditional Naturopath, Certified GAPS Practitioner and owner of Elder & Sage.