What Is Your Gut Telling You?
Once upon a time, there was a young boy--we'll call him John--who had "clear-the-room" gas. No doubt he and his family wrote this off as little more than a social inconvenience. After all, who doesn't have gas? Some people just have more than others, right? Had John's parents thought it was serious enough to take him to the doctor, what would have been the remedy anyway? I don't recall learning anything in medical school about the diagnosis and treatment of excess or unusually malodorous gas.
What John's parents didn't realize was that his gut was talking. Something was seriously wrong. When I first met John some years later, it was no surprise to me that he now had three autoimmune diseases: Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, and ulcerative colitis. Why? Because his immune system was confused, no longer fully able to distinguish between friend and foe, what we call in medicine "self" and "non-self." When that happens, the immune system begins to attack "self," causing autoimmune disease.
So how does the immune system become confused? It starts in the gut. John's gas was the first clue that something was very wrong in there. But it doesn't have to be gas. There are all kinds of symptoms we routinely ignore, endure, or suppress instead of listening to our body and deciphering what it is trying to tell us. One of the most common complaints, heartburn, is routinely suppressed with dangerous drugs that both fail to address the underlying problem and create new problems of their own.
Stomach cramping with diarrhea or constipation is another common problem. Quite a number of our patients first come to us after undergoing colonoscopy for this complaint. "Let me guess," I tell them. "The colonoscopy was normal, the doctor told you that you have irritable bowel, and you left the office with a prescription for an antidepressant or a drug to suppress colon spasm." "How did you know?" they wonder. Well, it's pretty simple: I was taught the same approach in medical school. Unfortunately, it doesn't solve the problem because colon spasm isn't the problem. It's just a symptom of the problem.
Heartburn, belching, bloating, gas, cramping, nausea, constipation, diarrhea—all are just symptoms. Most of the time there is nothing to see on a scope, a CT scan, or an ultrasound because the problem is microscopic or even smaller. But these symptoms can be important clues to dysfunction that needs to be addressed now. The imbalances, deficiencies, toxins, or microorganisms that are causing today's nuisance symptoms are the underlying causes of diseases that may not show up for years or even decades. But this is not what the surgeon is going to tell you when he removes your colon cancer, the rheumatologist when she treats your Lupus, the psychiatrist when he prescribes that antidepressant, or the cardiologist when she puts that stent in your coronary artery.
At Grand County Wellness Center, one of our objectives is to prevent today’s symptoms from becoming tomorrow’s diseases. What is your gut feeling? Don’t ignore it. Don’t try to cover it up with drugs. Let us help you restore your gut health. It affects everything from your mood, your energy, your sleep, and your comfort to your long-term risk of heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disease, osteoporosis, and many other diseases. What do you have if not your health?
Ray Andrew, MD, is a board-certified family physician with post-graduate training in functional, metabolic, and anti-aging medicine.