Gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free…all these variations of diets originally designed to address irritable bowels are exploding—apparently, because people’s bowels are now explosive. Celiac, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and their relatives are being diagnosed more frequently than ever. As a society, Americans are becoming both more mindful and more stressed. Could these be linked through the gut?
The gut is colonized by trillions of bacteria and other organisms, only a small percentage of which we have identified. We know that when we take an antibiotic to kill bacteria in one part of our body it acts as a nuclear bomb in the gut, wiping out populations of organisms living in precarious balance with other organisms.
When one group is wiped out, other populations of bacteria — and possibly viruses, fungi and prions that were previously suppressed—are free to grow. Some of these populations may not process gluten as well as others, leading to the shocking surge of gluten sensitivities. For some people, the newly dominant lifeforms create widespread havoc.
Havoc in the bowel produces a variety of disabling disorders, from prolific gas production to diarrhea to weight loss. The bowel becomes inflamed — either due directly to the new organisms, to their over-activity, or to the immune system’s response to the now dominant bacteria colonies. Thus, inflammatory bowel diseases are labeled, possibly often incorrectly, as autoimmune diseases: illness caused by the body rejecting itself.
But the far more likely explanation is that we simply have not yet identified the primary inflammatory agents. Newer DNA bowel diagnostic testing should help clarify these invaders. At present, possibly 60 percent of the DNA in the gut codes for organisms we have not yet identified.
There is a long way to go.
And it is not just the bowel that gets disordered. When we cannot process foods correctly, we naturally become stressed, hungry and irritable. Stress alone causes the release of cortisol and other hormones which increase bowel activity. In many cases, in fact, the initial insult to the bowel is stress from the mind. This stress-induced excess bowel activity leads to poor food processing and an inflamed bowel lining—leading to the selection of organisms that thrive in the newly swollen tissue.
In this circle game of our bowel’s life, the common denominators are stress and inflammation. The unknowns are the specific organisms that respond to stress and induce inflammation, and the therapies needed to reduce them.
The most novel approach to date includes reintroducing an overwhelming dose of the healthy microbiome that exists within a person’s family population. If four members of a family have normal bowels and one is afflicted with an inflammatory syndrome, it’s possible that introducing the fecal matter of a digestively healthy family member into the ill person may destroy the nasty bacteria and recolonize the bowel with a healthier population. This common-sense approach, called fecal therapy, is gaining acceptance as evidence of its success grows.
So, overpowering doses of normal gut bacteria—when combined with a program that includes stress reduction, mindfulness, visualizing a healthy bowel and world around you, and physical therapy that focuses on increased exercise and fitness—may be a safe, natural way of reversing the bowel disorder tsunami.
My grandmother once said that the definition of serendipity is falling in poop and coming out smelling like a rose. If the gut does control the mind, and the mind controls the gut, may we all experience serendipity when we need to the most.
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.