To Your Health
April, 2012 (Vol. 06, Issue 04)
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Your Digestion and Your Health

By Isaac Eliaz, MD, LAc, MS

Your body's many systems work closely together to maintain optimal health, so when one system is off balance it can trigger a domino effect, potentially igniting a cascade of chronic health complications.

One system that is particularly responsible for overall well being is your digestive system – a strong, yet delicate ecosystem that controls the presence harmful invaders and maintains digestive and overall health. To achieve this impressive feat, your GI tract relies on the presence of good bacteria, specialized immune cells and a complex network of neurological and hormonal components. In fact, this 30 foot long tract is a major headquarters for immunity, neurological health and more. Digestive health directly impacts your immune health, and vice versa, since 70-80 percent of your immune system is actually located in your digestive system. Your gut is also home to one of the largest concentrations of mood-altering neurotransmitters such as serotonin. And now researchers are discovering how beneficial micro flora (friendly bacteria) do so much more for our state of being than we previously believed.

When your digestive system is not functioning properly, it can result in poor nutrient absorption/malnourishment, and lead to a number of chronic problems and symptoms, including acid reflux, indigestion, irritable bowel disease and others. But it can also directly impact overall health as well as the health of your immune system, nervous system, hormonal health and more. In order to truly enhance your physical, mental and/or emotional health, it's important to also understand how your digestive system is connected to immunity, energy, mood, and even behavior.

Immune Health, Probiotics and Mood

Your Digestion - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Your immune system is an important part of digestive health, as it is comprised of cells, proteins, tissues and organs that all work together to defend the body against bacteria, toxins, infections, and diseases. Gastrointestinal immune cells are a vital part of the lymphoid branch of immunity, which secretes lymphocyte cells to attack harmful invaders. These gut-lymph tissues include specialized areas called Peyer's Patches, and other gut immune cells, which all work to identify and kill any pathogens, toxins or other health-robbing substances we may have ingested.

In addition to specialized immune cells, your GI tract is also home to numerous species of micro flora or "good bacteria," which help prevent the overgrowth of harmful microbes such as bacteria, yeasts and parasites. Good bacteria are also critical for overall immunity, as they have been shown to enhance the function of Natural Killer immune cells. Probiotics also form a barrier on the intestinal wall, thus serving as a powerful line of defense to prevent pathogens and germs from being absorbed.

The many strains and species of probiotics or good bacteria in our digestive tract are vital to our health for a number of reasons. They assist in digestion, manufacturing vitamins and protecting from the overgrowth of disease-causing organisms. Exciting new research also suggests that each person's internal ecosystem of friendly bacteria is unique, and can influence our neurology and mental states, including the development of our brains during infancy. Bacteria colonize the gut in the days following birth during a sensitive period of brain development. Research shows that micro flora in the gut can influence behavior throughout our lives by inducing changes in the expression of certain genes that control brain and neurological function. Pre-clinical studies have likewise shown that higher levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut can reduce anxiety, depression and neurotic behavior, and even combat the effects of stress.

The Gut-Neuroendocrine Connections

The neuroendocrine system (branches of the hormonal and nervous systems that work closely together) also plays an important role in digestive and overall health. Your gastrointestinal system is the most abundant source of regulatory neurotransmitters and neuro-peptides outside the brain. An example of this is the fact that serotonin, one of the brain's chemicals that influences mood, actually has its highest concentrations in the gut. Scientists and researchers are currently studying the numerous links between our nervous system, hormones and immune system. The gastrointestinal system serves as rich ground for observing these connections.