About 25 years ago, when I was organizing what today is WholeHealth Chicago, I attempted to learn everything I could about all the fields of what was then called alternative medicine. Since naturopathic medicine, or naturopathy, didn’t really exist in Illinois (perpetually blocked by the Illinois State Medical Society), I flew to the west coast to attend the annual meeting of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
To a conventionally trained internist like me, the experience was an eye-opener extraordinaire. A naturopath’s entire concept of wellness and disease was staggeringly different from my own medical education. The emphasis was on optimal functioning of the body, the foundational assumption that if the body were running well many chronic conditions could be prevented or heal themselves.
What we call functional medicine today owes a great deal to naturopathic principles. The diagnostic tests functional practitioners use every day have been the mainstay of naturopathy for decades. In fact, the largest functional medicine laboratory in the US, Genova Diagnostics (originally called Great Smokies Diagnostic Lab), was founded by naturopathic physicians. Readers who have had functional testing and then taken their reports to a conventional physician are familiar with the usual response, “Hmph. I don’t know anything about these.” Now you understand why.
The most popular Genova/Great Smokies diagnostic test, the Comprehensive Digestive Stool Analysis (CDSA), which also tests for candida and parasites, is still used by many naturopaths and functional medicine practitioners as a starting point on anyone’s wellness path. Other functional labs run their own versions of the CDSA, all excellent, and its continuous use for nearly 40 years gives you some idea of the importance of digestive health to these practitioners.
Limited vision and gut health
It’s unfortunate that US-trained gastroenterologists seem to have a perspective no wider than the width of one of the tubes they’re endlessly pushing into orifices and peering inside of. They traditionally have paid little attention to how well or poorly your gut is functioning.
So I admit I was heartened to discover a lengthy article written in 2011 for an audience of conventional physicians by a gastroenterologist professor of medicine from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, entitled Gut Health: A New Objective in Medicine? It’s a bit technical, but if you’re interested click through and you’ll learn something.
Here’s a direct quote:
Any impairment of the GI barrier can increase the risk of developing infectious, inflammatory and functional GI diseases, as well as extraintestinal diseases such as immune-mediated and metabolic disorders. Less clear, however, is whether GI discomfort in general can also be related to GI barrier functions. In any case, methods of assessing, improving and maintaining gut health-related GI functions are of major interest in preventive medicine.
He’s referring to leaky gut, well-known among naturopaths and functional medicine practitioners. Mention this diagnosis to virtually any US-trained gastroenterologist and watch his eyes roll. He’s thinking, “Oh, you’re one of those leaky gut people,” and not in a nice way.
Gut health is why so much attention has recently been directed to our large intestine’s bacterial mix, called the microbiome. This is why when you eat clean, abandoning trashy foods for fermented foods, spray-free fruits and vegetables, and responsibly-raised protein choices, you feel better. “Better” might mean more energy, clearer skin, less joint pain, and even an improvement in your depression or anxiety. Here’s an illustration that says it all.
Healthy microbiome, healthy you
To give you an idea of the importance of a healthy microbiome when it comes to literally everything in your body, let’s dip into a required pre-med course called Comparative Anatomy. The “comparison” here is between the human body and the entire animal kingdom.
Oddly (or not so oddly perhaps), much was made in this course of the common earthworm, for it was in this humble creature, with a mouth at one end and an anus at the other, we could see our digestive tract in its most primitive state. Although the worm has a rudimentary brain, heart, and reproductive system, it existed to slither through soil seeking food and had a system that could extract energy from that food and excrete waste. Just like us, minus the slithering and the soil.
Here’s an earthworm.
Every other part of you–your brain, eyes, ears, heart, lungs, and your musculoskeletal system–is literally a biologically creative afterthought as it pertains to you, a motile tube seeking food and capable of reproducing yourself when you meet another suitable tube on match.com.
It’s a good image to carry with you as you glance around the crowd at your next upscale restaurant visit.
Next week we’ll discuss how to clean up (detoxify) your gut and keep it healthy.
Oh, and one more thing: keep in mind that the lining of your intestines and your skin are one continuous organ. You can see the transition at your lips (or, with a mirror, when on the toilet). As a result, the first change you’ll notice with a gut detox is an improvement in your skin.
David Edelberg, MD