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Digestion and Immunity

Digestion, Immunity and Inflammation

In Chinese medicine, the digestive system is given central importance, and is actually referred to as a person’s “Center” as its proper function is necessary for food to be received, broken down and assimilated in order to support our health and vitality.  Supporting healthy digestion is the key to creating and maintaining qi and blood. We are not just “what we eat” but how we are able to digest, transform and use what we eat.

In Chinese culture, as in many cultures around the world, there is reference to the “digestive fire”. Warmth is conducive to promoting digestion in order to break down and assimilate nutrients. The heat of cooking breaks down food into an easily digestible form, and in the same way, the heat of digestion breaks down food. Western culture does not commonly incorporate this understanding and from a Chinese medicine point of view, our diets too often tend to be cool or cold, which does not promote optimal digestion, especially in cold environments. Drinking iced water in winter, and eating too much raw, cold food, can dampen this digestive fire and lead to problems related to cold and sometimes poor nutrient assimilation.

Digestive disorders are very common in Western culture, from IBS and colitis, to suboptimal digestive symptoms presenting with irregular elimination and abdominal bloating. Poor digestion then results in fatigue and the predisposition to other health problems due to a lack of proper nutrition available to other body systems and a tendency to inflammation. Every person is different and the recommendations for optimizing diet for each individual will be different. But for all, optimal digestion is of key importance to our health.

 Western Medicine Research: Healthy Gut, Healthy Immune System

In Western medicine, there is a growing understanding of the complexity, and importance of, the gastrointestinal system function. There is a common saying, “immunity begins in the gut”. This refers to a growing body of research showing that good gut flora and a healthy gastrointestinal tract are connected to a healthy immune system.

The microbes in our gut have co-evolved as humans have evolved, forming a complex system that promotes immune homeostasis, effective immune responses, and protection against pathogen colonization. This symbiosis of diverse gut microbes, called the microbiome, can significantly increase resistance to pathogenic infections and support the prevention of inflammatory disease. Conversely, when the microbiome is disrupted it may allow for the overgrowth of bacteria that cause infection and drive autoimmune disease. Clinicians are now beginning to link a wide range of problems to immune dysfunction that begins in the gut.  These conditions include Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disease, asthma, depression, simple obesity and metabolic disorders.  Chronic inflammation can also lead to dysfunction of the microbiome, and therefore linked inflammatory disorders such as IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) and arthritis, as well as to many of the serious diseases in the developed world such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

In Clinical Reviews in Allergy and immunology, Dr. Natalia Shulzhenko explains, “Asked about their immune system, most people might think of white blood cells, lymph glands, or vaccines. They would be surprised that is not where most of the action is. Our intestines contain more immune cells than in the entire rest of our body. The human gut plays a huge role in immune function. The combined number of genes in the microbiota genome is 150 times larger than the person in which they reside. They do help us digest food, but they do a lot more than that. In a healthy person, these microbes in the gut stimulate the immune system as needed and it in turn talks back. There is an increasing disruption of these microbes from modern lifestyle, diet, overuse of antibiotics and other issues. With that disruption, the conversation is breaking down.”

Scientists have begun to draw links between the following illnesses and the bacteria in your gut:

Obesity, “metabolic syndrome”, Type 2 diabetes
Colorectal cancer
Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, IBD
Heart disease
Anxiety, depression, autism

What Can You Do?

Most of us know what a healthy diet is, but there are so many “don’ts” that it can feel overwhelming to do everything “right”. The necessary foundation for a good healthy gut is simple. Eat a fiber rich diet with an emphasis on vegetables (and to a lesser extent, fruits). Make your grains whole grains. Avoid white sugar, white flour and processed foods. Some researchers are finding that refined carbohydrates increase gut permeability, allowing endotoxins to spread through the gut. Diets high in animal fat have also been implicated, and long term studies with monkeys support the conclusion that refined fructose leads to an increase in blood endotoxin levels. Gluten may also increase gut permeability due to its effects on the signaling molecule zonulin. Limit the use of antibiotics, which can wipe out healthy bacteria along with problematic bacteria, to only when necessary.

The details of the gut bionome are complex and there is still much to be researched and understood.   But clearly the bottom line includes good sleep and good exercise, as well as good diet.  Good probiotics may help, but perhaps even more, prebiotics such as fermented foods can help establish good gut flora.

Chinese Medicine Approach

Though Chinese medicine does not speak the modern Western language of research, it has recognized for many hundreds of years, the importance of the gut. As the “middle” of the body and its physiology, it is of key importance to health in general. The general rule in Chinese herbal medicine is that, with the exception of acute problems such as colds and flus, no matter what condition is being treated, the gut, or “middle burner” must be supported, and if dysfunctional, is the first place to direct herb treatment. This is done according to very specific patterns apparent in the patient and diagnosed by the herbalist according to the Chinese medical system. Supporting the health of the gastrointestinal system with herbs is inextricable from supporting a healthy gut bionome. Each person has a unique gut balance, or imbalance, and in Chinese medicine we treat each person, no matter the Western diagnosis, individually.