Common Digestive Problems Could Be Deteriorating Your Overall Health Part 1

By: Dr. Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM


Much attention has been paid to the gastrointestinal system, or gut, in recent years. A great deal of new information has been generated regarding how important it is to good health. Research has also discovered how common digestive problems can lead to systemic illnesses not normally associated with the GI system or gut issues.

Gut System: An Overview

the gut system and common digestive problemsTens of trillions of microorganisms thrive in the gut. Among those trillions are about a thousand species of bacteria, made up of over three million genes. Up to two-thirds of this gut microbiome is unique to you.

Where do all of these micro-organisms come from? In the recent past, researchers believed that the gut system was a relatively sterile environment until some time after birth. More recently, research have found this to be far from the truth.

Infants gain a great deal of their microbiota from their mothers. The environment provides the rest. The environment includes what infants eat. Babies who are breastfed get more healthy gut bacteria, bifidobacteria, than those who consume formula.

As you grow older, foods you eat and the environment in which you live have an effect on your gut microbiota and its health. The health of your gut microbiome is important to your overall health.

Your gut system produces the majority of the neurotransmitters used in your body. Some researchers say it produces up to three-fourths of those neurotransmitters. This has a great effect on your brain functioning. The gut system also holds about two-thirds of your immune system as well. This plays a major role in the health of all your body systems. Some researchers and clinicians say that up to 70% of people, in the U.S., have symptoms of some gut dysfunction or a gut disease. Let’s take a look at some of the results of these symptoms.

A 2013 study in the Journal of Cancer Research suggested a specific bacteria in the gut, lactobacillus johnsonii, may play a part in the development of lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells.

Another 2013 study showed H. pylori to have a role in the development of stomach cancer and duodenal ulcers. It apparently does this by inhibiting the part of the immune system that helps regulate inflammation. In addition to being linked to the development of some cancers, a more positive finding has also been reported for the gut system. The bacteria in the gut have been shown to be important in increasing the effectiveness of cancer treatments.

The gut-brain axis and common digestive problemsAnother very interesting relationship between the gut system, and other body systems, is that which it has with the brain. Researchers have shown this relationship to be reciprocal. The gut communicates with the brain and vice-versa. The fact that the gut microbiota produces a major amount of the neurotransmitters, and 95% of the serotonin used by the body, shows how strong this gut-brain relationship is. The neurochemicals produced in the gut are used by your body to regulate memory, learning, and mood. Many people report not having issues with depression or anxiety until they start having common digestive problems with their gut. Several studies have shown a relationship between an unhealthy gut and autism. The bacteria in the gut appear to interfere with communication between the gut and the brain, inhibiting the functioning of some parts of the brain.

Common Digestive Problems

With the strong relationship between gut health and the health of the rest of the body, it’s important to look at the major categories of common digestive problems, how they develop, and what can be done about them. As we review these categories, you will clearly recognize the similarities common digestive problems have to symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome.

Digestive/Absorption Problems

One category of common digestive problems is related to absorption. Digestion is the process of breaking down foods so their nutrients can be absorbed into the bloodstream and used by the body. Normal digestion and absorption typically takes place in the small intestine. Problems may arise if something interferes with the digestion of food or the absorption of nutrients.

Digestion can be affected by disorders that inhibit the appropriate mixing of stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Enzymes are essential in breaking down food for absorption and use. Sometimes the body doesn’t produce enough. Your ability to manufacture enzymes decreases with age, leading some researchers to suggest that making more of them could result in better health and a longer life.

Other body systems use enzymes, as well. There are two primary classes of enzymes: metabolic and digestive. Digestive enzyme include proteases to digest proteins, amylases to digest carbs, and lipases to digest fats. Raw foods have some enzymes of their own that naturally break down foods.

Metabolic enzymes structure, repair, and remodel every cell in your body. Your body is under constant pressure to supply sufficient enzymes. These metabolic enzymes are in need of constant replenishment because they are literally in every cell, organ, and tissue of your body.

Digestion also has a high need for enzymes. The activity of enzymes begins in the mouth when you eat. Salivary amylase, lingual lipase, and ptyalin start the digestion of starches and fat. Then pepsinogen is converted to pepsin by the hydrochloric acid in your stomach. This enzyme begins breaking down protein, and gastric lipase starts the hydrolysis of fats. Most of the digestive enzymes are provided by the pancreas and liver. The other enzymes needed for digestion should come from uncooked foods like fruits and vegetables, raw sprouted grains, nuts, and unpasteurized dairy products.

common digestive problems and enzymes Once food is digested, the next step is absorption. This is the process whereby nutrients, from your food, are absorbed into the bloodstream to be used by the body. If you don’t absorb nutrients well, you’re going to experience nutritional deficiencies.

Some reasons for poor absorption include: an intestinal mucosal barrier that is damaged, the lack of certain enzymes, insufficient circulation of bile and other acids, insufficient detoxification, and infections or parasites. If you don’t have good nutrient absorption, you’re at greater risk for chronic inflammatory diseases and sensitivities. Malabsorption problems can be caused by illnesses that attack the lining of the small intestine.

Normally, small projections called villi and microvilli form a large surface area for absorption of nutrients. Infections, some drugs like tetracycline, alcohol, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease all damage the lining of the small intestine. Conditions that hamper the flow of lymphatic fluid from the bowel into the bloodstream can inhibit absorption. Some of these conditions are malformations of intestinal lymph vessels, blockages of lymph due to lymphoma, or some heart disorders that slow the entry of lymph fluid into the bloodstream. Malabsorption symptoms are caused by unabsorbed nutrients going through the digestive tract. At some point, signs of nutritional deficiencies will also show up. Chronic diarrhea may be the most prominent symptom of malabsorption. Abdominal bloating and flatulence may also be seen.

Deficiencies can be for all nutrients or selective for proteins, fats, sugars, minerals, or vitamins. People who suffer from these deficiencies may lose weight or not be able to maintain weight in spite of eating sufficient amounts of food. Menstruation may stop. Swelling and fluid retention may occur if proteins are not absorbed. Vitamin or iron malabsorption may result in weakness and fatigue.

Inflammation/Immune System Problems

Another category of common digestive problems is related to inflammation and the immune system. Eighty percent, or more, of your immune system is in your gut. This makes the health of your gut extremely important. If your gut is healthy, your immune system is also healthy. The reverse is also true.

Inflammation gets its start in the gut system. An autoimmune reaction begins and progresses into, system-wide inflammation. With these two things in mind, it’s easy to see how interrelated your gut, inflammation, and immune system can be.

How does the immune system become activated leading to inflammation? To begin with, consider this: Your gut has an extremely large and complex semi-permeable lining. It is made up of mucosal epithelial cells aligned closely together. The degree of permeability varies due to chemical influences, infections, stress, and some other factors. If you’re under stress and your adrenals are secreting cortisol, the stress-fighting hormone, your gut becomes more permeable.

When you eat and are stressed, undigested food, toxins from food additives, yeast, viruses, and bacteria are allowed to pass through the mucosal barrier. These substances then get into your bloodstream. This process is called leaky gut syndrome. If these substances continue to pass through the barrier, and your intestinal lining continues to be damaged, the microvilli in your gut will also be damaged and unable to do their work. These microvilli aid in absorption of nutrients from your food. Over a period of time, your digestive system’s effectiveness decreases and you begin showing signs of nutritional deficiency. With continued common digestive problems, your immune system begins viewing the substances, leaking out, as foreign substances. This sets in motion the normal response of inflammation, allergic reactions, and symptoms of various diseases. If this continues, your immune system becomes overwhelmed and the inflammation from these substances circulates throughout your body. In this process, the inflammation will affect your organs, joints, nerves, muscles, and connective tissues, resulting in chronic diseases.

common digestive problems and the immune systemThis is the process through which the increased permeability of your gut can lead to a multitude of very significant medical conditions. All of these conditions are a result of your immune system treating substances within your body, i.e. foods, the same as it does bacteria or viruses that enter your body from outside it. This process is called autoimmunity.

Stress is a very significant trigger for this kind of autoimmune response to occur. When you push yourself over the limit of what you can handle on the job, don’t get enough quality sleep, and don’t eat the right kinds of foods, you certainly will have increased permeability of your gut. This will allow food products, like serum protein particles, to leak through into your bloodstream. Symptoms, no one suspects of originating in the gut, develop, like brain fog, fatigue, poor sleep, anxiety, and endocrine dysfunction. Part of the reason for these symptoms is the formation of cytokines, inflammatory chemicals that severely hamper brain function. Researchers have found evidence of cytokines in severe conditions like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, M.S., and autism.

The substances involved in leaky gut syndrome can stimulate your immune system response for up to five days after you eat them. Some of the more common foods, containing these substances, are corn, dairy, soy, and gluten. Even a small amount of these food triggers can over-stimulate your immune system, and you’ll feel your symptoms constantly, even if you’ve tried to eliminate the foods. This is one reason it is difficult to pinpoint food allergies.

Researchers and clinicians have found that once the specific foods, causing leaky gut, are isolated, you can gain sufficient control over conditions like eczema, allergies, and inflammatory conditions. One way of doing this is to balance the bacteria found in your gut system.

When the bacteria in your gut consists of about 75% healthy bacteria, your body can create balance. But if the bacteria are more harmful, you can have an overgrowth of yeast, molds, and fungus in your gut. This can lead to common digestive problems such as: bloating, gas, pain, constipation, diarrhea, and leaky gut. So it’s important to understand the causes of your common digestive problems and re-balance your gut. Eat whole and unrefined foods. Eliminate sugars and grains that feed your unhealthy gut bacteria. Eat naturally fermented foods every day and take probiotic supplements. These supplements contain beneficial bacteria that will then re-populate your healthy gut bacteria.

inflammation and common digestive problemsKeep in mind the fact that inflammation is everywhere. Currently, researchers estimate that 1 in 12 women and 1 in 24 men are dealing with inflammation caused by an autoimmune response. These numbers represent those who are diagnosed with this kind of condition. The number of undiagnosed sufferers may be much higher.

Diet is not typically considered a trigger for these autoimmune responses in the initial phases of the condition. Other factors, not closely aligned with diet, may be the triggers. However, diet becomes a secondary trigger as the condition continues. Once again, stress plays a major role in initiating the autoimmune response. It appears to trigger immune marker IL6 which then activates immune pathway TH7, setting you on the way to an autoimmune response. Getting adequate sleep, exercising appropriately, balancing blood sugar levels, and keeping your attitude positive will begin the process of restoring the balance you need in your gut. These changes will promote natural systemic opioids that stimulate immune pathway TH3 and reduces the autoimmune response.

Read Part 2 | Part 3

© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

The major mechanism behind most common digestive problems is leaky gut syndrome. This occurs when food molecules, viruses, bacteria, and toxins seep through the gut lining and invade the bloodstream. This leads to significant problems with inflammation and resulting systemic conditions.


common digestive problems