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How to Improve Digestive Tract Health
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Apr 11, 2016
This post offers a collection of dietary and lifestyle guidelines that I have found to be helpful to people looking to overcome ulcerative colitis and other inflammatory bowel conditions.
Because these guidelines are designed to take burden off of the gastrointestinal tract, following them can also help relieve common symptoms of indigestion, including bloating, excessive gas production, acid reflux, constipation, and diarrhea.
Ulcerative colitis is a condition that is characterized by inflammation in the colon.
The most common symptoms of ulcerative colitis are:
Abdominal cramping and pain that usually go away after having a bowel movement.
Diarrhea, sometimes with blood and mucus.
A painful spasm of the anal sphincter that is accompanied by a strong desire to have a bowel movement, but that results in the passing of little to no fecal matter.
Some people with advanced cases of ulcerative colitis can have as many as forty to fifty episodes of diarrhea a day. If the pathological process of ulcerative colitis goes unabated, sometimes, there is little choice but to surgically remove portions of the colon.
Regrettably, most conventional practitioners treat ulcerative colitis with immunosuppressive drugs like prednisone. While these drugs can decrease symptoms in the short term, they often lead to long term worsening of overall health due to numerous negative effects produced by these drugs.
What follows are guidelines that I have found to be helpful to people looking to address ulcerative colitis via natural means:
1. Take a high quality source of friendly bacteria.
A study published in the July 2005 edition of the American Journal of Gastroenteritis found that giving a probiotic mixture to people with mild to moderate cases of ulcerative colitis who had not responded to conventional therapy produced a 77% remission/response rate with no adverse effects.
You can also obtain friendly bacteria from traditionally fermented foods like sauerkraut and kim chi.
I have found that fermented dairy products such as kefir and yogurt do not tend to produce the same positive results that fermented plant products do. This is most likely because people with ulcerative colitis do not have much capacity to efficiently digest animal protein, even if the animal protein in question is from a clean and organic source. This is not to say that people with ulcerative colitis can never have fermented dairy products. I just don't recommend them early in the recovery process.
2. Be careful not to eat a lot of raw plant foods, especially during flare-ups.
In the midst of a flare-up, it is best to eat mainly soft, cooked plant foods, the best ones being steamed zucchini, porridge made with white rice, and potato-based soups.
What about those folks who point to white rice being a highly refined food and therefore not a healthy food choice? In theory, white rice is inferior to fresh vegetables and whole grains that are minimally processed. But sometimes, one has to recognize that theory doesn't apply to every circumstance, and because I have experienced good results firsthand in feeding well cooked white rice to folks who were having dozens of bouts of bloody diarrhea a day while eating nothing but fresh vegetables, I stand behind this recommendation with confidence.
For some people, even small amounts of raw plant foods (including raw vegetable juices and green food powders) can increase the intensity and frequency of their symptoms.
Raw plant foods and their juices can be added back into the diet on a gradual basis once a flare-up has subsided.
3. Ensure adequate vitamin D status.
Ulcerative colitis is strongly associated with immune system dysfunction. An adequate blood level of Vitamin D is necessary to optimally support a healthy immune system. Vitamin D can be obtained from healthy exposure to the sun. It can also be obtained from healthy food sources such as wild salmon, organic eggs, a high quality source of cod liver oil, and sardines.
For comprehensive guidance on how to make sure that you are getting enough vitamin D, click here:
4. Avoid fats and oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids.
Fats and oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids can contribute to inflammation throughout the body, including in the colon. The worst offenders are oils made out of the following plants: safflower, corn, cottonseed, and sunflower. Sesame oil and peanut oil are also high in omega-6 fatty acids and should be used sparingly by those with inflammatory bowel conditions.
5. Regularly eat foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
A study performed at the Cleveland Clinic found that animal-based omega-3 fatty acids can help people recover from inflammatory bowel conditions, including ulcerative colitis. Although some organic flesh meats are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, I have found that many people with ulcerative colitis - especially those in the midst of a flare-up - cannot tolerate cooked flesh meats.
The best source of animal-based omega-3 fatty acids that I know of is cod liver oil. High quality cod liver oil is an excellent source of two omega-3 fatty acids - DHA and EPA - that can help decrease inflammation throughout the body, and is typically well tolerated by people with ulcerative colitis.
I have found that it is best for people with ulcerative colitis to take approximately one teaspoon per 50 pounds of body weight per day, before or with a meal.
Raw wild salmon and raw organic eggs are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids and are surprisingly well tolerated by people with ulcerative colitis.
6. Minimize intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates.
Sugar and refined carbohydrates can cause harmful changes to the balance of bacteria that live in the digestive tract. Put another way, regularly eating sugar and refined carbohydrates can diminish the benefits of ingesting friendly bacteria, which we have already identified as an essential key to addressing ulcerative colitis through natural means.
Regular consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates can also create a chronically elevated blood insulin level, which can contribute to inflammation throughout the body, including within the digestive tract.
7. Most importantly, give careful consideration to chronic emotional stressors.
The digestive tract is supplied by its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is intimately interconnected with the central nervous system, an association that makes perfect sense given that the two nervous systems share a common origin - a piece of tissue that develops in a growing embryo called the neural crest.
The relationship between the enteric nervous system and the central nervous system is such that emotional stress exacts a heavy toll on the digestive tract. If you haven't already done so, you can learn more about the ways in which emotional stressors affect human health in my article on natural ways to reduce stress.
The one common link between every person who has asked me for help with ulcerative colitis is that all of them could clearly identify one or more emotional stressors that either triggered the onset of their ulcerative colitis, or that was contributing to their symptoms in an obvious way.
Emotional stress is such a significant contributor to the pathological process of ulcerative colitis that if I developed a moderate to advanced case of ulcerative colitis, one of the first steps that I would take would be to arrange to take time off from work so that I could give my mind and body an opportunity to rest and return to a state of harmony. I'm certain that to not take this step would be to markedly reduce my chances of experiencing a full recovery.
For part two of this look at ulcerative colitis where I review a detailed food and lifestyle plan that can be used to apply the principles outlined in this article, click here: Ulcerative Colitis Diet Plan.
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