Health Topics

NATUROPATHIC MEDICINE FOR DIGESTIVE DISORDERS

Digestive discomfort can take many forms, ranging from mild feelings of nausea to acute gastro-enteritis with vomiting and diarrhoea. Many people, however, complain of bloating or distension, heartburn, colic, and alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhoea, which, in the absence of any recognisable pathological signs, is often referred to as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

This is no more than a 'dustbin diagnosis'; IBS may be caused by several possible disturbances of digestive function that can be easily diagnosed by some of the gastric function tests described below. Disturbed functions of the digestive system can also be the basis of many other health problems (see box)

Some health problems affected by poor digestion


Arthritis and rheumatism
rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, muscle pains

Allergies
eczema, urticaria, rhinitis, hayfever

Asthma and bronchitis
Catarrhal troubles and sinusitis
Chronic fatigue
Headaches and migraine
Skin rashes

More persistent or painful symptoms may be due to peptic ulcer, gallbladder disorders, colitis, or coeliac disease. Naturopathy can offer safe, natural treatment for all these conditions.

Naturopathic medicine uses non-toxic measures to restore natural healing mechanisms. Treatment may include advice on appropriate dietary measures, the use of nutritional supplements, and herbal or homoeopathic medicines. Physical therapy, such as baths, packs and compresses (hydrotherapy), and stress management as well as osteopathic and soft-tissue procedures may also be used.

The naturopathic physician has the clinical skills to investigate the underlying causes of digestive disorders and can then give advice and treatment tailored to the needs of each patient.

Your digestive system.

The key to energy, growth, and immunity.

The food we eat goes through a number of different processes as it passes through the various organs of our digestive system. From the mouth to the intestines it is subjected to the actions of many different digestive enzymes and bacteria that break it down to a form which can be used by our bodies. Digested food is absorbed through the walls of the intestines into the bloodstream, which carries it to the organs and tissues for energy, growth, and repair. Undigested residues from our food and other waste products from the body are carried to the rectum from where they are eliminated by the action of the bowels.

In addition to these vital functions the intestinal walls are lined with cells and lymph vessels that play an important role in our immune defences. Also residing there are millions of beneficial bacteria that help us absorb nutrients and protect us against undesirable microbes. Diagnosing digestive problems.

Assessing function.

Your naturopath will be able to find out quite a lot about the causes of your indigestion by careful questioning, review of your dietary habits, and examination. More precise information may be gained by laboratory investigations that have been devised to test the digestive system under working conditions.

Some of the tests we have available to us include:

Gastrogram
A special capsule is swallowed which feeds back information to a scanner. This yields evidence about the stomach and pancreatic enzymes.

Breath hydrogen test
This measures the gases produced in the stomach and intestines by the action of pathogenic bacteria. It can also be used to determine intolerance to lactose and sucrose. Gut fermentation test
The presence of excessive Candida yeasts in the intestines is detected by an increase in blood-alcohol levels one hour after swallowing a glucose solution. The test also measures the short-chain fatty acids, some of which are necessary to maintain healthy intestinal linings while others may indicate bacterial fermentation.

Gut permeability test (peg 400)
Measures the leakiness of the intestines. Weak intestinal walls allow undigested food molecules to get into the bloodstream where they can trigger a number of health problems, such as inflammation and allergies. This is a non-invasive test.

Comprehensive stool analysis
Gives information about the efficiency of digestion, the presence of parasites, and the best ways to treat them. This is a non-invasive test.

Liver detoxification profile
This is a non-invasive test that uses saliva and urine samples, to measure the efficiency of the liver's detoxification pathways. Testing for food allergies or intolerances.

Allergies to food are relatively uncommon. True allergy is an immediate crisis reaction by the body after eating foods such as shellfish, strawberries, or peanuts and involves the release of the antibody IgE. Intolerance to foods which may initiate a delayed immune response, caused by production of IgG, is more common. While some practitioners use bioelectronic instruments or muscle-testing to determine intolerances, they are not measuring antibodies. We believe the only reliable investigation for food intolerances is the Elisa test, which requires only a small amount of blood from the fingertip, but uses sophisticated technology to measure IgG, so it is an expensive test.

We focus on dealing with the underlying causes, which often involve the digestive system, and use food intolerance tests only when absolutely necessary. While laboratory tests can provide more accurate information about the causes of illness, they are not always essential. The naturopath will usually provide treatment on the basis of normal clinical assessments.

Treatment for indigestion.

Rest and repair.

The naturopathic physician has a range of treatments to help improve digestive functions. Some dietary modification will nearly always be necessary and the naturopath has the expertise to select the most appropriate dietary programme for your needs. This may entail avoidance of some foods that are likely to cause problems or create too much fermentation in the intestines.

Dietary treatment may be supported by herbal or homoeopathic medicines to assist the function of the digestive organs and natural enzymes or other nutritional supplements to make good any deficiencies. Probiotic preparations, which help to re-colonise the intestines with beneficial bacteria, may also be prescribed.

When tension or anxiety are contributing to the disorder, relaxation routines will be taught, and gentle osteopathic treatment might be needed to release tight spinal joints and muscles which may impede nerves supplying the digestive organs.

R. Newman Turner, BAc, ND, DO