One of the fundamental tenets of functional medicine is that overall wellness begins with gut health.
It’s easy to make the connection that issues such as bloating, cramping, heartburn, frequent nausea and diarrhea, among others, can be due to dysfunction in the GI tract. However, people often have a harder time accepting that a variety of seemingly unrelated symptoms and conditions like seasonal allergies, skin conditions, autoimmune diseases, hormone imbalances, mood disorders and many, many others can also be traced to an imbalance in the gut.
But it’s true!
The digestive system, or gut, does so much more than digest the food we eat. The gut is home to 60-80% of the body’s immune system, and responsible for producing nearly 90% of the its neurotransmitters – the natural chemicals needed for regulating mood.
When you know this, it’s easy to see why restoring optimal gut function can ease or eliminate many chronic health conditions all over the body.
But how do you do that? How do you restore function to a dysfunctional gut?
Restoring proper function to body systems is what functional medicine is all about. We don’t just cure the symptoms, we identify the cause of the dysfunction to help our patients reach optimum health and wellness. For gut health, we use the Four R Program.
Remove the bad stuff. What’s bad for one person may not be so for another, but there are common digestive irritants known for creating an inflammatory environment where bad bacteria thrive. Potentially inflammatory foods include processed foods, alcohol, gluten, caffeine, dairy, soy, and eggs. By (at least) temporarily removing these foods, we can calm the intestinal lining to begin gut healing.
There are different ways to approach the first R that depend on your specific symptoms that may determine which and how many foods you remove in this first stage. Later, certain of the more beneficial foods may be reintroduced slowly and in moderation to determine if they are a trigger for you due to an individual sensitivity.
Replace the good stuff. In a properly functioning digestive tract, there are plentiful stomach acids and pancreatic enzymes that necessarily aid in food digestion, nutrient absorption, and in maintaining the balance of good and bad bacteria. When gut health is low, whether from extended use of medications, poor diet, stress, or a combination, these natural digestive aids may be low or lacking. That’s why the next step involves replacing missing enzymes and acids to boost the efficiency of digestive efforts.
Repair the Damage. After a period of dysfunction, the gut may have sustained some lasting damage such as chronic inflammation, injury to the micro villi (microscopic protrusions that assist in nutrient absorption) in the small intestine, or leaky gut, tears in the lining of the large intestine. In the repair stage, we reintroduce healing foods and supplements designed to soothe and nourish the gut’s lining and cells, seal any leaks, reduce inflammation and encourage the production of healing fatty acids.
Reinoculate. During the final stage, we address the microbiome – the gut’s colony of good and bad bacteria. While we need both kinds for optimal immunity, poor diets, numerous medications and chronic stress cause the bad bacteria to exceed healthy limits and suppress the good. Restoring a healthy balance is critical to gut function. Pre- and probiotic supplements, combined with high fiber foods can reestablish balance.
Many people on the functional medicine Four R Program notice an improvement in symptoms very early in the course of treatment — more energy, better mood, clearer skin, and less discomfort.
By completing all Four Rs, and learning and maintaining good gut health practices, you can enjoy lasting relief from chronic body-wide conditions associated with gut dysfunction.