Chantelle Drobot, ND
We have all checked with our gut from time to time to make major decisions, but imagine having to check in for the most basic of lifestyle choice.
We have all checked with our gut from time to time to make major decisions, but imagine having to check in for the most basic of lifestyle choices. How do I feel today? Can I eat this without consequence? This is the reality for people with Crohn's disease.
This chronic inflammatory condition most commonly affects the lower part of the small intestine although it may be present anywhere within the digestive tract. It causes abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, diarrhea, weight loss, anemia, and nutritional deficiencies and the symptoms are generally exacerbated by stress. Crohn's disease is characterized by lesions in the lining of the digestive tract which, when irritated, become inflamed and begin to bleed. The digestive tract no longer is able to move food through at a rate that allows for absorption and instead spasms, causing uncontrollable diarrhea, fatigue, and blood loss.
Although Crohn's disease sometimes erupts in acute episodes, minor lifestyle changes can generally keep the severity of the symptoms under control and in remission. Three main factors are important:
Think Food Substitutions
Dietary factors are the biggest contributor to irritation within the digestive tract as food allergies or sensitivities cause physical stress on the lining of the digestive tract, which then leads to irritation and inflammation. When reactive foods are removed the digestive tube is allowed to heal and symptoms decrease. The biggest offenders seem to be wheat, sugar, caffeine, and dairy products, specifically milk; however, for some individuals removing all gluten products for a time seems to be highly beneficial. Replacing these products with suitable alternatives allows the digestive tract a reprieve from constant irritation so it can begin to repair.
Finding substitutions for wheat, sugar, and milk has become much easier as most health food stores now carry a number of suitable alternatives. Look for bread made from the alternate grain product spelt or from sprouted wheat, a grass product that provides fibre without the negative effects of starch. Rice pasta can be substituted for regular pasta and rice or rye crackers are acceptable cracker alternatives. Milk substitutions include goat's milk, soy milk, or rice milk and sugar can be substituted with honey, maple syrup, or molasses. Avoid chemical sugar substitutes, however, because they have negative side effects.
Host a Gut Bug Party
Protecting the lining of the digestive tract is the second priority. In a healthy digestive tract, the digestive tube is covered by a mucous membrane. When this lining is consistently irritated, it produces mucus to attempt to "flush" the irritating agent out of the tube, resulting in diarrhea. Over time this constant irritation damages the mucous membrane, causing bleeding and pain.
The lining of the digestive tract is covered by over 400 species of micro-organisms, weighing an astonishing two kilos. These organisms live in the digestive tract and are the primary protectors of the mucous membrane from damage and irritation. Stress, hormonal changes, sugar consumption, and poor nutrition remove these good bacteria, which leaves the digestive tract open to infection from organisms that should not be present in high amounts, a condition called dysbiosis. Replenishing and supporting good bacteria is an important component in restoring proper digestive function.
Probiotics, nutritional supplements that contain the strains lactobacillus acidophilus, bifidobacterium bifidum, streptococcus thermophilus, and lactobacillus bulgaris, replace these beneficial organisms and restore the healthy environment of the digestive tract. They can be purchased from any health food store and should be taken daily.
Fibre is also an important component in digestive health. Psyllium husks or oat fibre taken daily have two main functions. First, they feed good organisms in the digestive tract, allowing them to remain healthy. Second, the bulking of fibre acts like a broom and dustpan gently removing irritants that may still be present on the mucous membrane. Combining fibre with caprillic acid derived from coconut oil allows for a gentle cleaning of the digestive lining to remove possible irritants, including dysbiosis. As opposed to some of the stronger cleaners such as grapefruit seed extract, which may exacerbate the inflammation in the beginning, caprillic acid lubricates while it cleans, making it more protective in its ability to remove organisms without direct irritation to the digestive tract.
A number of herbal agents are helpful in encouraging the intestinal lining to heal. Using a herbal compound containing marshmallow root, wild indigo, echinacea, geranium maculatum, goldenseal, poke root, comfrey, and slippery elm-combines demulcents to soften and soothe tissues, astringents to decrease bleeding, and immune stimulators to protect the lining from pathogenic organisms. These herbal compounds encourage the digestive lining to begin to repair itself while soothing inflammation.
Ensuring adequate nutrition is also fundamental because an inflamed digestive tract may prevent the absorption of nutrients from food. Supplementing the diet with essential fatty acids such as flaxseed or fish oil is important as they are anti-inflammatory in nature and provide the building blocks for the cells of the digestive tract to repair. A liquid multivitamin and multimineral may also be important to make certain adequate nutrient absorption.
Additionally, because Crohn's disease is a stress-related condition, controlling stress levels whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual are fundamental in healing this condition. With chronic stress, often people do not have an outlet for these emotions and they begin to "stomach their stress," which then begins to "eat at them." For most people diarrhea is the body's only outlet to expel these emotions. Symptoms of Crohn's disease decrease when an individual finds other healthy outlets to encourage the release of pent-up emotional stress.
In a study conducted in 1999 and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, research indicated that individuals who wrote daily about stressful events or childhood trauma showed significant improvement in reducing the symptoms of their inflammatory conditions compared to a control group. Whether mild exercise, meditation, yoga, or journaling, any activity that provides a healthy outlet for emotional release will decrease the need for the body to rid itself of stress in a physiological manner. The activity should be something an individual enjoys and participates in on a daily basis.
Digestive health is fundamental to general health and vitality. A diagnosis of Crohn's disease does not condemn an individual to a lifetime of incapacitating digestive discomfort. Often, making simple lifestyle changes is enough to be the difference between a life sentence of pain, fatigue, and uncertainty, and a return to normal digestive function.