Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Trouble Down Below 1

Cramping, bloating, nausea, constipation, diarrhea – these are some of the delightful symptoms of the condition commonly known as irritable bowel syndrome.  The use of the word “syndrome” means that medical science doesn’t really understand what this is and probably it is lots of things, including food allergies and sensitivities, genetically and organically determined malabsorption problems, deformities of the digestive organs, any or all worsened by stress.  The condition may be discussed in an annual physical but usually nothing gets done about it, for several reasons.  Because there are so many potential contributing factors, it can be difficult or impossible to sort out what is really going on.  The condition, while detrimental to quality of life, is not life-threatening.  Finally, some of the most widely used remedies are not among the regularly prescribed medications produced by the pharmaceuticals industry but from the unregulated, and to some doctors shady, world of supplements.

The problem with not treating digestive problems is that they can have subtle and far-reaching effects on the body.  If your system is not processing food adequately, you are not getting the nutrients your body requires.  If this goes on over decades of your life the result is long-term malnutrition.  The bodies of younger people can be remarkably resilient when it comes to malnutrition.  We have all heard stories of individuals who were lost in wilderness areas or spent years in prison camps and recovered to live long and healthy lives.  In old age, however, the results of lifelong poor diet may begin to emerge in the form of illness or overall poor quality of life.

My own checkered nutritional history probably started with food allergies inherited from both of my parents.  For my father, eating the wrong food could cost a night’s sleep.  At home, my mother avoided problem foods when preparing meals but restaurant menus were a minefield of potential hazards.  On my mother’s side, when she had a (rare) glass of wine, her cheeks would sometimes flush, probably a mild allergic reaction.  Later she developed pernicious anemia, for which she had to take vitamin B12 shots.

The human body, including the digestive system, relies on a whole universe of microbes to keep all of its processes moving along smoothly.  “Your Own Personal Ecosystem,” an article in the 10/2011 issue of Wired, featured a startling and informative graphic “The Wired Atlas of the Human Ecosystem.”  Here we learn that the gut has 200 prevalent species and 1000 less common ones.  A separate box, “Antibiotics=Microbiome Killer,” illustrates the reduction in diversity in gut bacteria that results from taking these medications.  In the example cited, diversity was still reduced even two years after taking the antibiotic.

During my thirties I had a series of infections for which I was given multiple courses of antibiotics.  When I was 32 I had a complete hysterectomy and the surgeon removed my appendix as well.  Some researchers now believe that the appendix provides storage for beneficial gut bacteria, though this theory is not universally accepted.  

Given my background, it is not surprising that I wound up in my late thirties and forties with a troublesome and temperamental digestive system.  In recent years I have been able to sort out some of the tangle of problems and find solutions for them.  I will talk about that in the next post.

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