Our digestive system plays a huge role in maintaining our good health. When things go wrong it can lead to problems elsewhere in the body as well as giving rise to digestive disturbances. If this system is malfunctioning, problems such as indigestion, irritable bowel, bloating and constipation may result. Added to that, poor absorption may prevent us getting optimal nutrition from our food.

First, a little about the gut and how it works.  Food first moves down the digestive tract into the stomach.  The stomach produces hydrochloric acid which is essential for the early breakdown of some proteins, and fats.  Low levels of HCl can be responsible for many diseases such as coeliac disease, gall-bladder disease, chronic auto-immune disorders and pernicious anaemia.  Very high level of HCl may be responsible for hyperacidity, leading to gastritis, reflux or even gastric ulcers.

Food is then moved from the stomach into the small intestine and here more of the important processes of digestion take place. One of the most important factors is the ecology of the gut. A healthy gut flora depends on having high levels of friendly bacteria which are necessary to break food down properly and ensure that it is well absorbed. The gut wall is lined with a very thin membrane (3 mm) which separates the gut from the bloodstream. This wall is comprised of tight junctions which 'glue' together to act as a barrier to any larger proteins that should not get through. Certain substances, even if they provoke a low-grade immune response, may over time damage the lining and result in the gut wall being breached, allowing larger proteins into the bloodstream. This is known as 'leaky gut', a troublesome condition as it can provoke a higher level immune response.  In the case of food related intolerance or allergies, we may be constantly inflaming the gut through the regular consumption of certain common foods.  Many symptoms, e.g. indigestion gas, bloating are associated with unhealthy gut flora and leaky gut. For more on the immune system click here.

If this problem keeps on, either because we keep eating foods which don't agree with us, or due to prolonged antibiotic usage or consumption of other drugs, we begin to experience more troublesome digestive symptoms. The range of foods we can eat is reduced. Skin conditions such as rashes or eczema may appear and energy levels are poor. Other factors that affect gut function are stress and nutrient deficiencies, which can disrupt the gut flora and affect the permeability of the gut wall.

It is very important to reduce inflammation and exclude potential toxins that are harmful to the gut wall.  Herbal medicine can play a key role in improving gut health and promoting digestive function.  A large part of my work relates to a patient's nutritional status, helping to improve their digestive function and supporting them in making dietary changes for their health.

Everyone needs a good health food store, with the emphasis on 'food', not supplements, to source good quality grains, nuts, seeds and other dried food.  I like The Hopsack and Nourish, which has a few branches around Dublin.  They have remained true to their mission of promoting healthy eating and awareness of high quality foods. 

Design: Alan Davis