Naturopathic medicine is well-suited to address all manner of gastrointestinal (GI) concerns, ranging from acute to chronic issues, starting from the mouth and covering the length of the GI tract. Chronic, functional GI disorders such as IBS and GERD are probably the most commonly addressed issues in this area. Improvement in symptoms and wellbeing is often achieved because the underlying cause is investigated and addressed as part of the naturopathic doctor’s approach to healing. Addressing the root cause of disease is an approach taken in all of naturopathic medicine and often leads to long-term success and patient satisfaction. Some common GI-specific conditions that are often successfully managed or supported with naturopathic medicine include:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) – including chronic constipation and diarrhea
- Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
- Crohn’s Disease
- Ulcerative Colitis
- GERD and Gastritis
- Peptic Ulcer Disease (PUD)
- Food Intolerances
- Gallbladder dysfunction
- Liver disease
Naturopathic medicine is founded on the guiding principle that ‘all disease begins in the gut’ – a concept first believed to be observed over 2000 years ago by Hippocrates. With this in mind, nearly every naturopathic doctor addresses digestive health as part of a holistic healing and wellness strategy, even if an individual does not have one of the above-named issues. The body is intricate, with various interrelated body systems. Therefore, to achieve health in one area, it’s often necessary to also improve health in another, most commonly the digestive system (aka “the gut”). Some of the many ways overall health is impacted by gut health include:
- Immune function – A large portion of the immune system actually lives in the gut and is impacted every time one eats.
- Microbiome status – The vast garden of trillions of bacterial, viral and other microorganisms located in the GI tract play an important role in everything from gut and immune health, to brain and nervous system function, blood sugar and weight regulation.
- Nutrient availability – The breakdown, absorption and assimilation of nutrients necessary for survival depends on optimal gut health.
- Hormone (endocrine) balance – Hormone status, including reabsorption and excretion of hormones and their building blocks, is highly affected by gut health and nutrition.
- Liver function – The liver plays an instrumental role in numerous biochemical reactions that affect one’s overall health. Some key liver functions include blood sugar balance, cholesterol balance and detoxification.
Naturopathic medicine operates under the principle that the body has an innate healing capability, when given the right conditions. Naturopathic doctors see their role as determining what those conditions are for each unique person. For some people it may be looking at lifestyle factors like eating habits, diet choices and stress levels while for others it may be managing chronic inflammation or an infection with herbs or other therapies. Often, there is more than one issue at-play and a multi-layered approach is utilized. This helps ensure all issues are addressed and further encourages long-term results. Depending on the person, various therapies and modalities may be employed to improve gut health. These can range from diet changes and nutritional supplements to herbs, probiotics and more.
One of the most important factors in achieving optimal gut health is determining the diet and dietary choices that work best for each individual. There is no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to health and diet choices. Determining which foods work best, and which do not, for each individual is a highly important process. Often there are foods that one may be ingesting which his/her body simply cannot break down well. This can set up an ongoing low-level inflammatory process which leads to issues beyond just digestive symptoms, such as “leaky gut,” immune reactivity and so on. Removing aggravating factors, such as a non-tolerated food, is an important component towards achieving wellness, as it prevents fueling the fire of disease. In addition, it is important to determine which foods, food groups, micro and macro minerals may need to be increased in the diet and/or supplemented. This helps provide the body with the key nutrients it needs to function at its best. Naturopathic doctors are experts in navigating this often too complicated process of determining what to eat and have many tools at their disposal to help individuals in this area.
Naturopathic doctors are experts in integrative medicine and are well-trained to communicate with, and refer to, conventional medical specialists when indicated. When it comes to digestive disorders, working with conventionally trained gastroenterologists to obtain exam and imaging information is often very helpful in determining underlying physiologic issues that need to be addressed. In addition, there are instances where more invasive interventions, such as surgery or conventional pharmaceuticals, are indicated. In those cases, naturopathic medicine works in conjunction to help improve the efficacy of said intervention. For example, naturopathic medicine is a helpful adjunct in preparing for and recovering from surgery. Naturopathic medicine also focuses on lifestyle counseling and instituting appropriate therapies to help prevent disease recurrence in the future.
The benefits of working with a naturopathic doctor for digestive wellness typically include not only a reduction or elimination of current digestive symptoms, but also improved overall health –from energy and mood, to sleep and appearance.