Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Finding Intestinal Health

If you suffer from any kind of intestinal health problem and have not heard of the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), I highly recommend you pick up the book, Breaking the Vicious Cycle by Elaine Gottschall. As the name suggests, the SCD allows only specific or simple carbohydrates to be consumed in the diet to the exclusion of all others. Simple sugars (monosaccharides) are already in their simple state meaning the body does not have to do any further work to digest and utilize them. Double sugars (disaccharides) and starches (polysaccharides) require intestinal enzymes to break down the molecules further before they can pass into the bloodstream to be utilized as nutrients.

From Breaking the Vicious Cycle.
In the case of many digestive illnesses, the intestinal villi have become damaged by a variety of factors. Whatever the reason for the damage, the digestive enzymes needed to complete the breakdown process of complex carbohydrates are impeded. The food particles remain undigested in the gut and attract yeast, bacteria, and microbes to feed causing fermentation. The result is bloating, cramping, gas, and so forth. Over time, damage to the digestive tract can create perforations in the gut - or leaky gut, which allows particles of food and toxins into the blood stream where the body mounts an attack. Long term damage to the digestive tract results in more than indigestion. Since our digestive tract is studded with receptors that create a feedback loop to the brain, damage to the digestive tract affects our neurological function. Leaky gut also impedes the absorption of essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12, which is needed in order to repair damaged intestinal villi. Nutritional deficiencies and continual inflammatory responses in the digestive tract lead to a strain on the immune system and increase the likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease over time. The theory behind the diet is that in order to heal the intestinal villi, all carbohydrates that require additional breakdown in the gut must be eliminated from the diet for a minimum of one to two years.

By removing the source of nourishment for digestive yeasts and bacteria, the harmful microbial population is starved out and a healthy balance of gut flora is allowed to return. This is the key to 'breaking the vicious cycle' of malabsorption, inflammation and food allergies seen in a growing number of children and adults today. If you are not used to going without certain foods, you may find the diet restrictive at first, as all grains/cereals, dairy (except yogurt cultured for 24 hours), sugar, tubers, most beans and legumes are prohibited. That being said, there are so many amazing foods to eat in lieu of the above 'illegal' foods that the hardest part is learning how to cook and eat in a new way. I've posted some of my family's favorite recipes here.

What I find fascinating about this diet is how closely it parallels The Paleo Diet, by Dr. Loren Cordain. With very few exceptions in regards to foods allowed, such as cultured yogurt, honey and some legumes, the diets are identical. It makes complete sense that in order to achieve intestinal health we must revert back to the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors, the diet our body's are genetically designed to digest. If you look at how our agrarian ancestors ate, many of the above 'illegal' SCD and Paleo foods were soaked, cultured or fermented first in order to pre-digest or break them down into their simple and usable state. Our ancestors must have known that our bodies could not digest grains, dairy or legumes without suffering health consequences and over time, discovered methods to make them safer for consumption. Sally Fallon's cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, provides the traditional recipes that enable us to transform these harmful foods into ones that are more nourishing.

That being said, most of us have been eating dairy, grains and legumes that were incorrectly prepared since infancy and consequently, we have already suffered damage to our intestinal villi. Elain Gottschall writes that, "almost all normal people fail to absorb a large amount of the starch in wheat flour." (34) Whether you have been diagnosed with Celiac disease or suffer from gas and bloat after a meal, it is possible that incomplete digestion of complex carbohydrates is part of the problem.

While the SCD looks at the carbohydrate side of the equation, the Paleo Diet focuses instead on the harmful proteins present in the same foods. In dairy, there are over 30 potentially harmful proteins, the most prevalent being casein. In certain grains, gluten is a problematic protein, and in all legumes and grains, there is a particularly nasty protein called lectin. Both casein and gluten are sticky substances that coat our intestinal villi, prevent the uptake of important nutrients, trigger inflammatory responses and lead to leaky-gut syndrome. Lectins do a lot of intestinal damage too, but most interestingly, they can act as a hormone mimic. Lectin's ability to bind with receptors throughout the body enables them to make cells do things they wouldn't normally do, causing all sorts of havoc throughout the body. It is suggested that lectins play a role in everything from obesity and heart disease to cancer and autoimmune diseases.

When we consider the rise in so many gastrointestinal disorders, as well as diseases with a gastrointestinal component, I believe it is becoming increasingly clear that our health is affected by our modern diet and how our digestive tract responds to what we eat. In order to find intestinal health, we must be willing to give our body time to heal by avoiding the food that does it harm. While it is difficult for us to truly know the status of our intestinal health, we can all reap the intestinal healing benefits by switching to the SCD or Paleo diets. 

The article is linked up with Real Food Wednesday. 

Breaking the Vicious Cycle, by Elaine Gottschall
Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon
The Paleo Diet, by Dr. Loren Cordain

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