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The Common Secret No One Talks About: Constipation

It’s a topic no one wants to discuss. It’s an extremely common health issue, yet it’s a gray area for many of the 63 million Americans who suffer with it—and that number is rising. It can cause pain and discomfort that can impact your quality of life and has more potential causes than most people think. We’re talking about chronic constipation, and we’re going to help you understand more about this seemingly hush-hush health problem.

Annually, over 6 million Americans visit hospital emergency rooms for constipation and more than 5 million prescriptions are written for it, so there’s no doubt this is a widespread problem. You’ll find plenty of misinformation online about what’s considered normal or acceptable when it comes bowel movement frequency. Some sites will tell you that whatever you’ve experienced throughout your life is what’s normal for you. Even if you’re used to going as infrequently as once a week for as long as you can remember, they say that’s okay because it’s your personal “normal”. Conventional medicine even says that as few as three times a week is acceptable. None of this could be further from the truth.

Regular bowel movements—at least once daily—are a necessary function of good health; this is one important way the body cleanses itself of toxins and waste materials. Without regular daily elimination, toxins can be reabsorbed into your body, and a host of health issues can arise.

As a solution to chronic constipation—defined as difficult, infrequent, pebble-like, or painful bowel movements over a few months’ time—many people turn to prescription or OTC medications and end up dependent on them for years. While this may produce the desired result in the moment, it is by no means a long-term solution, and it’s never a good idea to continually put medications of any kind into your body.

What makes this an even more dangerous “solution” is that the real reason for the constipation is not being uncovered or addressed. Like pain elsewhere in the body, constipation is a symptom that something is wrong, which can be as simple as dietary and lifestyle choices or something more serious, such as an underlying health condition. Rather than medicating the symptom, functional medicine looks deeper into the causation behind each individual’s constipation problem and finds a way to correct the root cause.

Constipation lies on both sides of the health equation—it can be caused by other health issues and, if left untreated, it can cause health problems. Let’s take a look at both.

Underlying Health Issues That Can Cause Constipation

  • lack of physical activity
  • diet high in processed foods, unhealthy fats and/or sugar
  • low fiber/low greens diet
  • certain medications
  • not enough daily water intake
  • ignoring the urge to go
  • excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption
  • neurological disorders
  • medical conditions including hypothyroidism, diverticulitis, diabetes and more

Conditions Caused By Chronic Constipation

  • hemorrhoids
  • fissures
  • blockage caused by impacted (stuck) fecal matter
  • potential for colon cancer
  • possible cause of diverticulitis
  • urological disorders
  • bowel incontinence
  • rectal prolapse

New connections between causes and resulting conditions are continually being discovered; it’s even been reported that regular use of enemas or constipation medications can eventually become causes in and of themselves.

When is it time to seek medical advice?

An occasional bout of constipation happens to everyone, especially under certain circumstances like during times of extreme stress, when traveling, or if your diet changes for the worse for a period of time. This can cause temporary, or “acute”, constipation that goes away after things return to normal. However, you should see your doctor if you notice lasting changes in your stool consistency or overall bowel habits. In addition, if you experience pain, feel as though you’re not eliminating completely, or are having difficulty moving your bowels on a regular basis for several weeks, it’s time to get help.

Increasing your fiber intake is not only important to avoiding constipation, it’s also important for your overall health—and lettuce and tomato on your burger is not the same as having a side salad! But not all fiber is created equal—we’ll talk about breakfast cereals as well as the types of fiber you should include in your diet and why in our next blog post.

Find out what you need to know about your thyroid hormone or health disorder diagnosis today, and get health news updates via Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and The Wellness Essentials newsletter.

If you’d like to leave a question for me to answer in a future blog, you can do that via social media or email.

For more information about my clinic in Oradell, NJ, including Functional Medicine, Neurology & Nutrition, and The Grassroots Medicine Initiative, please call (201) 261-5430.

The Headache-Migraine-Gut Connection

If you’re one of the 38 million Americans who suffer from migraines, you know how the severe pain, stomach upset and light sensitivity can stop you from living your life for hours—or even days. Migraines are known to affect the gut, causing diarrhea, vomiting and nausea, but new studies have shown that the reverse is also true: poor gut health can increase the risk of neurological disorders, including migraines.

The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) journal Frontiers in Neurology reports that possible root causes of GI diseases and migraines “could be increased by gut permeability and inflammation.” Separate studies indicate that the same pro-inflammatory immune responses responsible for such gut issues as celiac disease, leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel disorder (IBD) may also be responsible for causing migraines. The NIH also reports that the cause of migraines may be more about environmental factors, including gut microbiota, than genetics, since in only 20 percent of identical twins does one or both suffer from migraines.

Poor gut health doesn’t just cause migraines—Norway’s Nord-Trøndelag Health Survey showed that people with ordinary headaches as well as migraines also complained regularly of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms as opposed to people who had no GI complaints or headaches. And in the US, approximately 45 million people (about 1 in 6 people) are known to experience common headaches; about 8 million of those visit a doctor specifically for headache complaints. A number of statistics bear out the gut health-headache-migraine connection:

  • more than half of migraine patients have IBS (American Academy of Neurology)
  • approximately one-third of headache sufferers have IBS (American Academy of Neurology)
  • a study of patients with IBD and celiac disease showed migraines were “more prevalent” in these patients than in control subjects (American Headache Society)
  • patients with IBD are more than two times more likely to suffer migraines (American Headache Society)
  • inflammation is at the root of IBD, IBS and leaky gut, and the nerve associated with migraines is also triggered by inflammation (Annals of Neurosciences)

The gut and brain have a strong connection through three pathways—endocrine, immune and neural—which communicate in both directions: brain to gut and gut to brain. Because of this connection, the gut is referred to as the “second brain”; in addition, it produces the majority of our body’s serotonin, which is referred to as the “happiness hormone”.  It’s no coincidence that patients with migraines are found to have low serotonin levels, further underscoring the relationship between the gut and brain.

Gut permeability, otherwise known as leaky gut, is a condition in which the gut wall becomes perforated, allowing toxic waste, undigested foods, and bacteria to pass into the blood system rather than being properly processed and eliminated. These inflammatory molecules can lead to IBD, IBS, and celiac disease; they also stimulate pain receptors in the fifth and largest cranial nerve (the trigeminal nerve), resulting in migraines.

It’s no secret that we’re living more inflammation-prone lives due to higher stress levels, gluten consumption, poor dietary choices that include processed and fast foods, environmental chemicals, and so on. The lower quality of non-organic food also plays a role because there are now far fewer nutrients in plant-based foods due to the use of pesticides, genetic modification, mechanized farming, and chemical fertilizers. All of these factors negatively alter the gut microbiome and, in turn, the gut-brain pathway.

The road to ending migraines begins by finding out what triggers your attacks—everyone’s body is different; some may have allergies or sensitivities to cleaning products, gluten, or certain foods while other people may have leaky gut or another immune disorder. Your functional medicine doctor can help you determine the root cause of your body’s inflammation and the best way to help heal any issues so you can get back to living your life more fully.

Find out what you need to know about your thyroid hormone or health disorder diagnosis today, and get health news updates via Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and The Wellness Essentials newsletter.

If you’d like to leave a question for me to answer in a future blog, you can do that via social media or email.

For more information about my clinic in Oradell, NJ, including Functional Medicine, Neurology & Nutrition, and The Grassroots Medicine Initiative, please call (201) 261-5430.

Can Gut Bacteria Predict, Prevent or Cause RA?

An imbalance or lack of diversity in the body’s microbiome – the good and bad bacteria living in our intestinal tract – directly affects your immune system and, quite often, is at the root of a wide range of chronic ailments. Just take a look through the articles here on my website, and you’ll find a connection between gut health and hormone function, thyroid disease, skin disorders, and many other autoimmune diseases.

Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is a painful swelling of the joints that can also result in bone loss. RA is one of the myriad autoimmune diseases that rheumatologists and the overall medical community are now realizing has an important connection to poor gut health. It is believed that a proliferation of a particular bacteria, Prevotella copri, in people with RA can either trigger inflammation in the joints or displace bacteria that act as anti-inflammatory agents.

In a study reported by and partially funded by the National Institutes of Health, the gut bacteria of 114 individuals – both healthy people and participants with early-onset RA or psoriatic arthritis – was tested. Fully three-quarters of the participants with early-onset RA and 38 percent of those with psoriatic arthritis were found to have Prevotella copri in their microbiome and that increased levels of P. copri “correlated with reductions in several groups of beneficial microbes.” Additionally, two separate studies published by immunologist Veena Taneja, Ph.D. at the Mayo Clinic, indicated that gut bacteria may even be able to prevent RA or predict a susceptibility to the disorder, both of which offer a chance at staving off the condition before it even starts.

Leaky gut syndrome may also be a culprit – when bacteria, food and allergens pass through perforations in the intestinal lining of a person with leaky gut, they can cause an autoimmune response that then creates joint inflammation.

Both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications may mask the symptoms of RA temporarily, but they don’t heal the condition. Symptoms are merely indicators that something is wrong in the body, but the only way to stop or control them is to find and address the root cause. In addition, medications of any kind come with a host of potential side effects and health risks, some of which are serious or can create new problems. Much like the symptoms of disease, side effects are warning signs that a medication is negatively impacting a function or an organ of the body.

For the over 1.5 million Americans who suffer from RA, the fact that the condition lies in a bacterial imbalance is actually good news, and it is especially good for anyone who heeds the early warning signs of gut bacteria that lacks diversity, offering an opportunity for prevention. Correcting any bacterial imbalance and introducing bacteria that may decrease disease progression and symptoms is the ultimate goal, but only after being tested by your functional medicine doctor to determine your body’s individual needs and to assess whether you have leaky gut. Probiotics are not a one-size-fits all solution, and more needs to be considered – allergies, food sensitivities and your medical history are among the important factors in finding the correct course of action for getting your microbiome back into balance.

In the meantime, there are some dietary changes you can make to help get your gut started on a positive course. Replace foods that are highly processed, contain high amounts of sodium and sugar, and fast foods with healthier options: fermented foods like pickled vegetables, high-fiber foods including fresh fruits and veggies, and anti-inflammatory foods higher in omega-3s such as walnuts, salmon, grass-fed beef, and others are all good choices. Organic foods are always the best option whenever possible, and always read labels carefully for added sugars, chemicals and sodium that may turn a potentially good selection into an undesirable one.

A healthy gut will reward you in plenty of other ways too – as your immune system gets stronger, you may see other health issues lessen or clear up as well. It’s never too early or too late to get your microbiome in balance!

Find out what you need to know about your thyroid hormone or health disorder diagnosis today, and get health news updates via Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and The Wellness Essentials newsletter.

If you’d like to leave a question for me to answer in a future blog, you can do that via social media or email.

For more information about my clinic in Oradell, NJ, including Functional Medicine, Neurology & Nutrition, and The Grassroots Medicine Initiative, please call (201) 261-5430.

Stress, Hormones, and Poor Gut Function

A majority of Americans eat a diet which consists largely of high sugars and refined grains. This means that most Americans today suffer from instability in their blood sugar levels. The problem with this type of diet is that these foods are very rapidly converted into glucose and contribute to overeating, constant cravings, and poor nutrition. Contrary to popular belief, the worst possible breakfast to start your day with is a bowl of cereal, skim milk, and a banana. It is important to understand what is going to happen to your body if this is the food you choose to eat.

Hormonally, a few things happen. First, insulin drives blood sugar levels too low, creating a reactive hypoglycemic state. This may create feelings of irritability, moodiness, and an inability to focus. The body, and especially the brain, needs adequate levels of glucose to thrive. In addition to the negative effects low blood sugar has on the brain, it also stresses theadrenal glands. The adrenal glands regulate the stress response within the body. The adrenals release a hormone called cortisol, which is used to elevate blood sugar. You will therefore be trapped in a vicious cycle that sets you up for failure.

Cortisol is a hormone that is released by the adrenal gland in response to events such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and experiencing acute stress. Its far-reaching, systemic effects play many roles in the body’s effort to carry out its processes and maintain homeostasis. Cortisol therefore informs on cardiovascular health, blood sugar regulation, immune function, weight management, proper digestion and nutrient absorption, as well as other health matters.

Whether or not a particular individual’s stress levels will result in high cortisol levels and leaky gut is not readily predictable. The amount of cortisol secreted in response to stress can vary among individuals, and some people are inherently more reactive to stressful events. For example, women who secrete high levels of cortisol when they are under stress tend to eat more at those times than women who secrete less cortisol. Additionally, women with higher cortisol levels tend to store their excess fat in their abdominal area, and these women report having more lifestyle stress than women whose fat gets stored on their hips.

We do not necessarily know every time our body comes under attack. Also, sometimes we rationalize that certain foods are not really harmful for us but rather less than ideal, when in fact we know they are actually bad for us. However, eating foods that are rife with toxins and antigens or that consist of “empty calories” will damage your body. Insidious sources of strain on the body that cause widespread inflammation include refined sugar, anemia, stress, lack of sleep, cancer-causing free radicals, low-grade infections, and a “leaky gut” that lets food, waste, and pathogens freely enter our bodies.

Everything you eat either harms you or heals you, so it is vital to consume foods that enable the body to perform its vital functions and avoid foods that inhibit its performance.

Find out what you need to know about your thyroid hormone or health disorder diagnosis today, and get health news updates via Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and The Wellness Essentials newsletter.

If you’d like to leave a question for me to answer in a future blog, you can do that via social media or email.

For more information about my clinic in Oradell, NJ, including Functional Medicine, Neurology & Nutrition, and The Grassroots Medicine Initiative, please call (201) 261-5430.

Gut Problems and Low Thyroid

Functional gastrointestinal problems are common. In fact, about 1 in 4 people in the US are forced to limit their daily activities as a result of uncomfortable and embarrassing GI troubles. Chronic constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, delayed stomach emptying and gallbladder sludge can be symptoms of motility problems that are commonly seen in thyroid patients. The conditions account for almost half of the GI problems seen by doctors.

Functional problems can also involve the gut’s ability to secrete digestive enzymes that allow nutrient breakdown and absorption. Bloating, gas, smelly stools and bacterial overgrowth can be symptoms of these problems. Functional problems can also involve a condition called “leaky gut.” This is increased permeability of the intestinal lining, which can set off body-wide inflammation and increase the risk for autoimmune disorders, including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Thyroid hormones help maintain tight junctures between the cells lining the intestines and have been shown to protect gut mucosal lining from stress-induced ulcers.

Another important function (and increasingly understood role) of the gut is to host 70% of the immune tissue in the body. This portion of the immune system is collectively referred to as GALT, or gut-associated lymphoid tissue. The GALT comprises several types of lymphoid tissues that store immune cells, such as T&B lymphocytes, that carry out attacks and produce antibodies against antigens, molecules recognized by the immune system as potential threats. It is also a warehouse to living microbiota and organisms that are crucial to immune health.

Problems occur when these protective functions of the gut are compromised. When the intestinal barrier becomes permeable (i.e. “leaky gut syndrome”), large protein molecules escape into the bloodstream. Since these proteins don’t belong outside of the gut, the body mounts an immune response and attacks them. We also know that thyroid hormones strongly influence the tight junctions in the stomach and small intestine. These tight junctions are closely associated areas of two cells whose membranes join together to form the impermeable barrier of the gut. T3 and T4 have been shown to protect gut mucosal lining from stress induced ulcer formation.

Inflammation in the gut also reduces T3 by raising cortisol. Cortisol is a steroidal hormone that is released by the adrenal gland in response to everyday events such as waking up in the morning and exercising, but also during acute and chronic stress situations. Excessive cortisol load informs blood sugar regulation, immune function, weight management, proper digestion and nutrient absorption.  Women who secrete high levels of cortisol when they are under stress tend to eat more at those times than women who secrete less cortisol.  Additionally, since T3 is the ‘available’ or active form of thyroid hormone, thyroid activity further decreases as a result of how the gut is functioning.

Each cell in your body requires thyroid hormones to function properly. Because of this it’s no surprise that low thyroid activity–and the resulting low metabolism–can cause gastrointestinal trouble.  A lot of that trouble is “functional.” That is, it has to do with the way the gut functions in real life and is not some structural abnormality that will show up on endoscopy, x-rays or blood tests. These functional problems are likely to involve GI tract motility–the coordinated movement of food from top to bottom, not to mention acid reflux and GERD.

Find out what you need to know about your thyroid hormone or health disorder diagnosis today, and get health news updates via Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and The Wellness Essentials newsletter.

If you’d like to leave a question for me to answer in a future blog, you can do that via social media or email.

For more information about my clinic in Oradell, NJ, including Functional Medicine, Neurology & Nutrition, and The Grassroots Medicine Initiative, please call (201) 261-5430.