Nutritional Therapies
Digestive Dysfunction: The Long-Term Impact
September 17, 2020
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Many people struggle with digestive dysfunction today and the long-term impact of digestive dysfunction can show up in all kinds of places you would never associate with digestion. Remember, digestion is a major nutritional foundation for optimal health and when it’s not working, things can get weird.

Symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, gas, and bloating are so common that we actually think they are normal. These symptoms are not normal and are your body’s way of alerting you that something is not working correctly.

It’s critically important for us to pay attention to these signals and make corrections. We really are what we can absorb and if you are not digesting food correctly and absorbing nutrients for an extended period of time, dysfunction will start to show up in other bodily systems including the Endocrine, Immune, Cardiovascular, and Detoxification systems.

Endocrine System Disruption

If you’re experiencing symptoms of hormone imbalance, you may be dealing with the downstream effects of the long-term impact of digestive dysfunction.

Often times, a major source of digestive dysfunction is a lack of stomach acid. Hypochlorhydria is the medical term for a low level of stomach acid. People with hypochlorhydria may experience digestive issues, nutritional deficiencies, and gastrointestinal infections.

Yup, even if you’re dealing with heartburn, you may actually be short on stomach acid. If there isn’t enough stomach acid available digestion is decreased and food can begin to ferment and cause bloating and start pushing through the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This phenomenon is called Transient lower esophageal sphincter relaxation (TLESR) and is the main mechanism of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). (1)

Without enough stomach acid, it’s difficult to break down your food completely. If you aren’t able to break down your food and cleve the peptides of the proteins you ingest into their individual amino acids you can’t make amine or peptide/protein hormones which include (2):

  • Adrenaline
  • Histamine
  • Aldosterone
  • Melatonin
  • Human Growth Hormone
  • Insulin
  • Glucagon
  • Seratonin
  • Cholecystokinin
  • Gastrin
  • Anti-Diuretic Hormones
  • Oxytocin

These hormones are involved in digestion (cholecystokinin, gastrin), stress response (adrenaline). blood sugar regulation (insulin, glucagon), mood and sleep (oxytocin, histamine, serotonin, melatonin), and the list goes on.

If you are suffering from inflammation and are having a tough time tracking down the source, this could also be due to prolonged digestive dysfunction.

The liver and gallbladder are major players in the role of digestion. They are both required to break down fats into fatty acids, which are required to create eicosanoid hormones for proper management of inflammation. (2)

Not only are you at risk for not having the building blocks available for producing steroid hormones, but all of the above are stressors on the body and too much stress can cascade into an imbalance of steroid hormones as well as dysfunction in other areas including additional digestive distress, inflammation, and immune function. (3)

Image Source: Dr. Dorine Karlin, ND, LAc – Well Being Medical Center

Immune System Disruption

I’m sure you’ve heard that at least 70% of our immune system is located in our gut. This seems to be common knowledge as we continue to learn more about the immune system and the role the gut plays in immunity.

So you can imagine, how critical proper digestion is for immune health. Some of the same concepts we discussed concerning the endocrine system apply here.

Inability to break down food correctly as well as liver and gallbladder health can negatively impact the immune system in several ways, all of which, add additional stress to the body (4):

  • Adequate protein assimilation is required for healthy immune function.
  • Micronutrient co-factor deficiencies can lead to suppressed immunity.
  • Healthy liver and gallbladder functions are critical for optimal complement protein production, energy production, and elimination of immune products (such as antigen-antibody complexes).

The biggest contributors to immune system dysfunction are dysbiosis and increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut). (4)

  • Inadequate hydrochloric acid and pepsin production leave partially digested or undigested food particles that can set the body up for food reactions or allow harmful microbes to survive and reproduce.
  • Bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine can damage the mucosal lining allowing material from inside the gut to leak out into the bloodstream and trigger an immune response.
  • Bacterial overgrowth in the large intestine can crowd out good bacteria leaving an imbalance or dysbiosis.

Cardiovascular System Disruption

Cardiovascular dysfunction is another area that prolonged digestive dysfunction can effect. When it comes to heart health and nutrition, you may still think that fat is bad for the heart, but that’s actually never been true and recent literature is slowly setting the story straight on fat. (5)

Proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients are critical to cardiovascular function for the following reasons (5, 6):

  • Fatty acids are the preferred fuel source for the heart.
  • The heart utilizes amino acids like taurine and carnitine.
  • Vitamins and minerals like calcium and B vitamins are required for healthy heart function. Calcium is responsible for muscle contractions and the heart is just one big muscle!
  • Fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins D and K2 are necessary for proper absorption and utilization of calcium.
  • Proper bowel flora is needed to produce vitamins B1, B2, B12, and K2.

If any of these are compromised, additional stress is put on the body contributing to the stress cascade as well as directly affecting the cardiovascular system.

Detoxification System Disruption

Detoxification is yet another area that prolonged digestive dysfunction can impact and in today’s environment, proper detoxification is critical to good health!

We live in a very toxic world. Our body has to deal with environmental toxins, pesticides, chemicals, plastics, and contaminants in water, food, personal care and cleaning products. Everyday existance means a constact assault on our detoxification systems.

Proper breakdown and assimilation of food is critical, especially fat and protein.

Specific amino acids play imperative roles in the proper functioning of detoxification pathways in the liver. Specifically, methionine is necessary to run the sulfation pathway, one of the six detoxification pathways that are necessary to break down and remove toxins from the body. If this process is compromised, we may be unable to eliminate toxins, putting additional stress on the body. (8)

Our lymphatic system is a major player in detoxification and it’s also where fatty acids are transported. Poor fat digestion clogs the lymphatic system, and therefore the liver. (8)

The liver is the primary organ responsible for many detoxification processes. Proper bile flow is also critical as bile is a river by which toxins are removed from the body via the intestinal tract. (8)

So, maybe that heartburn, bloating, or gas is not so normal after-all. Ignoring digestive dysfunction can really cost you in the long-run. Make the space to listen to your body and correct issues before they lead to bigger problems.

References

  1. Kim, H. I., Hong, S. J., Han, J. P., Seo, J. Y., Hwang, K. H., Maeng, H. J., Lee, T. H., & Lee, J. S. (2013). Specific movement of esophagus during transient lower esophageal sphincter relaxation in gastroesophageal reflux disease. Journal of neurogastroenterology and motility19(3), 332–337. https://doi.org/10.5056/jnm.2013.19.3.332
  2. Schwartz TB. Henry Harrower and the turbulent beginnings of endocrinology. Ann Intern Med. 1999;131(9):702-706. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-131-9-199911020-00012
  3. Gottfried, S., & Northrup, C. (2014a). Perimenopause: your own personal global warming crisis, hypervigilance, and tighter jeans. In The Hormone Cure: Reclaim Balance, Sleep and Sex Drive; Lose Weight; Feel Focused, Vital, and Energized Naturally with the Gottfried Protocol (Reprint ed., pp. 62–63).
  4. Kau, A., Ahern, P., Griffin, N., Goodman, A., & Gordon, J. (2011). Human nutri*on, the gut microbiome and the immune system. PubMed, 327-36.
  5. Astrup, A., Magkos, F., Bier, D. M., Brenna, J. T., Otto, M. C., Hill, J. O., . . . Krauss, R. M. (2020). Saturated Fats and Health: A Reassessment and Proposal for Food-Based Recommendations. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 76(7), 844-857. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2020.05.077
  6. Boundless. (n.d.). Boundless Anatomy and Physiology. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-ap/chapter/cardiac-muscle-tissue/
  7. Astrup, A., Magkos, F., Bier, D. M., Brenna, J. T., Otto, M. C., Hill, J. O., . . . Krauss, R. M. (2020). Saturated Fats and Health: A Reassessment and Proposal for Food-Based Recommendations. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 76(7), 844-857. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2020.05.077
  8. Cline JC. Nutritional aspects of detoxification in clinical practice. Altern Ther Health Med. 2015;21(3):54-62.
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About author

Heather Cooan

Heather is a marketing executive turned nutrition consultant and educator. Heather advocates for informed consent, bodily autonomy, and healthcare authorship. She speaks and writes on nutrition and lifestyle design interventions for health recovery. Heather successfully recovered her health from vulvar cancer, Hashimoto's, and lichen sclerosus. She reversed estrogen dominance, insulin resistance, arteriosclerosis, and fatty liver utilizing a food-as-medicine and integrated clinical treatment approach. Heather is a certified Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner.

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