The Critical Role of the G.I. Tract in Systemic Illness

Paul A Goldberg, MPH, DC, DACBN

The human body is a collection of interdependent, intimately related systems. The Gastrointestinal Tract is just one of these players. Its role, however, in maintaining and renewing the body cannot be over-emphasized. All of the body's systems rely on it for the transformation of foodstuffs into energy, for the repair of old tissues and for the creation of new cells throughout the body.  

Many patients, as well as their doctors, overlook the impact that poor gastrointestinal function has on other areas of the body. Health depends on efficient digestion to break down food into water and fat-soluble molecules, absorption to transfer the products of digestion into the blood and lymphatic tissues, assimilation to transfer the products of digestion and absorption into the individual cells of the body and elimination to dispose of the waste products. What happens when these metabolic processes break down?

Conditions/Symptoms Frequently Related to GI Malfunction

  • 1) Chronic Fatigue
  • 2) Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • 3) Diabetes/Blood Sugar Disorders
  • 4) Depression
  • 5) Ankylosing Spondylitis
  • 5) Psoriasis/Eczema
  • 6) Allergies
  • 7) Joint Pain
  • 8) Cancer
  • 9) Headaches/Migraines

Note: Over 75% of the immune system is located in the GI tract, which is why autoimmune disorders and allergies are common in patients who also suffer from indigestion, acid reflux, irritable bowels, excessive gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, etc.  

The following case illustrates the connection between GI Malfunction and Arthritis: 

Case Study: 56 Year Old Female with Chronic Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Arthritis

Patient presented with a 10 year history of irritable bowels and chronic joint pain. Previous medical workup revealed an elevated RA factor, CRP and Sedimentation Rate. A comprehensive case history, physical examination and functional laboratory work was performed and key underlying factors were identified. Based on the data collected, an individualized program was developed for the patient to follow. After 6 months the patient reports 80% improvement. 

Note: As the patient's digestive function was restored her energy levels significantly improved, her joint pain reduced and her inflammatory markers (CRP and Sedimentation Rate) dropped to within normal limits. 

System illnesses, developing from GI dysfunction, generally evolve over a lengthy period of time.  Children have relatively few disturbances compared with adults, but time, bad habits and age takes their toll, and by adulthood accumulated insults result in a loss of GI efficiency and the development of body wide symptoms for many. Our GI potential is determined by our genetic makeup and by our behaviors.  Some of the destructive behaviors that lead to the creation of GI problems are listed below: 

  • Eating in excess of GI capacity
  • Consuming unhealthy foods
  • Swallowing food without careful mastication
  • Eating too quickly
  • High Levels of emotional stress and anxiety
  • Prescription Medications
  • Insufficient Rest and Sleep
  • Living in an excessively clean environment
  • Dehydration
  • Drinking Chlorinated Water
  • Alcohol Consumption

Correcting GI Tract Dysfunction

Identify and Address Specific Etiological Factors

Each patient is different in regards to their strengths/weaknesses of their systems and the abuses they have been subject to. Because there are an infinite variety of differences between people (see Dr. Goldberg’s article“Infinite Variety”) it often requires the counsel of a doctor good with detective skills to analyze the specific etiological factors involved with each case. A thorough case history, physical examination and appropriate functional laboratory tests should be performed on each person to identify and address these individual traits at their roots. There is no single pre-packaged program that will fit the requirements of all patients. The general measures listed below, however, can be used as a general guideline and starting point.

General Measures:

1)    Allowing for rest:  A sick gastrointestinal tract is an exhausted gastrointestinal tract. Like any part of the body, an overworked GI tract requires rest. Continual overeating, use of stimulants such as coffee and the ingestion of drugs (prescription and non prescription) deplete the body's vital energies. A reduction in food is frequently called for. This may take the form of a limited dietary, an appropriate liquid diet, or a fast, depending on the nature and extent of the illness, the patient's ability to cooperate and the experience of the supervising doctor. 

2)    Establishing Healthy Gastrointestinal Flora: The GI tract is a delicate environment in which billions of microorganisms and the influx of ingested materials interact with lifestyle factors in working for or against establishing a healthy internal environment. The intestinal microorganisms are affected by what enteres the gut and in turn exert their influence on the systemic health (or disease) of the individual. Specific factors that disturb the normal gut ecology and limit healthy bacterial growth (thus promoting the growth of pathogens) include gluttony and other dietary imbalances, antibiotics, antacids (see Dr. Tener's video "How Ant-acids Wreck Your Health", long term emotional stress and steroids as well as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.  Improving the gut flora requires removing disturbing factors, allowing adequate gut rest and proper nourishment. An additional step is to bolster the amounts of health promoting bacteria thorugh the use of an appropriate priobiotic supplement at the right time.  

For more information on the role of Gastrointestinal Flora, see Dr. Goldberg's article "Microbial Connections"

3)    Establishment of Behaviors to Prevent Re-Occurrence:Improvements patients may initially make under the doctor's supervision e.g. resting their GI tract, avoiding toxins, incorporating proper dietary measures and improving the bacterial flora, can be undone if there is a return to the patient's previous habits that contributed to their illness.