Gut Check

The secret to healthier immune function lies in a happy digestive system

January 14, 2014    BY Carrie Demers

According to ayurveda, good health originates in the gastrointestinal tract. Naturally we assume that means good nutrition and a smooth-working digestive system, but if that’s all we focus on, we’ll miss half of the equation: The alimentary canal—that inside-out tube that runs from the mouth to the anus—is also our first line of defense against the disease pathogens that surround us. A combination of “valves” (the sphincters), high acidity (the stomach), good bacteria (large intestine), and an active immune system (gut-associated lymph tissue—GALT) keeps the bad bugs at bay. Approximately 80 percent of the immune system is located in and around the gut, so when any part of this system breaks down, it opens the door to infection and disease. Here are some basic guidelines to avoid this.

Scientific research has linked long-term use of such acid suppressants with weakened immunity, including higher rates of intestinal infections and pneumonia among both children and adults.

1. Skip the antacids. Heartburn (also called acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease—GERD) is caused by stomach acid that backflows into the esophagus. Western medicine typically prescribes acid suppressant drugs like histamine2 blockers (Tagamet, Zantac) or proton pump inhibitors (Nexium, Prevacid) that you take for years. But scientific research has linked long-term use of such acid suppressants with weakened immunity, including higher rates of intestinal infections and pneumonia among both children and adults.

Ayurveda suggests following a diet that’s pacifying to your fiery principle, pitta:eat plenty of greens, beans, and whole grains, and avoid acidic foods including tomato sauce, hot spices, carbonated beverages, alcohol, and caffeine. In addition, drink soothing licorice tea or take deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) chewable tablets before or between meals. Papaya enzyme can also lessen reflux symptoms and boost digestion.

The digestive tract is home to 99 percent of the body’s microflora. The good bacteria among them, called probiotics, help us digest our food, but they also help protect us by crowding out pathogens and stimulating the immune system.

2. Feed your flora. The digestive tract is home to 99 percent of the body’s microflora. The good bacteria among them, called probiotics, help us digest our food, but they also help protect us by crowding out pathogens and stimulating the immune system. Digestive problems occur when antibiotics or toxins disrupt these symbiotic bacteria, allowing the bad bacteria to flourish. Create balance in your intestinal ecology by making sure your diet includes probiotics, found in good-quality yogurt and kefir, as well as prebiotics—nutrients that feed the friendly bacteria—found in many foods, including asparagus, artichokes, garlic, leeks, and bananas.

3. Keep the colon clean. Research studies support use of the classic antioxidant and mildly cleansing ayurvedic formula triphala to boost the immune system. Triphala increases the number of infection-fighting white blood cells, and is safe and supportive for all constitutions. Take two capsules with warm water in the evening for two months every spring and fall.

Triphala increases the number of infection-fighting white blood cells, and is safe and supportive for all constitutions.

Tummy Tonics

These culinary herbs double as ayurvedic digestive remedies that support agni, the metabolic fire, without aggravating pitta.

Coriander quells inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. Combine 1 teaspoon of coriander powder, ½ teaspoon of sugar, and 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes; let cool and drink before bed.

Cardamom and fennel calm the nervous system and relieve acid reflux, intestinal spasms, nausea, bloating, and pain (including irritable bowel syndrome). Combine ½ teaspoon of each herb in 1 cup of boiling water; let steep 5 to 10 minutes, and take as needed one to three times a day. Or take one capsule of the analogous Chinese formula An Zhong San (“Calm the Middle Powder”) up to three times a day.

Turmeric powder is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties. In India, it is also highly regarded as a digestive aid that helps break down protein and fat, promotes healthy intestinal flora, and reduces acidity. Find ways to work the spice into your diet, or take two capsules once or twice a day.

Carrie Demers
Carrie Demers MD, has practiced integrative medicine for 22 years. After earning her medical degree and becoming board-certified in internal medicine, Dr. Demers went on to study massage, homeopathy, yoga, meditation, nutrition, herbal medicine, and ayurveda. She uses all these modalities to support patients’ inherent ability to heal.

Dr. Demers sees patients, writes articles, and lectures nationally on integrative medicine. She is board-certified in integrative medicine, and has been the... Read more>>