How to find that happy gut feeling

Thursday, September 30, 2004

As you get older, have you noticed how things don't go down as easily as they used to? Does it seem you can't stomach as much?

I'm not talking about the current political situation, by the way. Nor the younger generation's penchant for tongue piercing.

I'm talking about our digestive systems and how they become less efficient as we age. Intestinal problems account for the second highest number of hospital admissions -- anything from heartburn to more serious diseases such as diverticulitis and Crohn's disease.

Many in the medical establishment will tell you that what you eat will have little to nothing to do with these intestinal disorders. That is what they told Elaine Gottschall, a once complacent New Jersey housewife whose 4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a severe case of ulcerative colitis.

Her little girl had become dangerously ill and all Elaine got from her doctors was an ultimatum to have her daughter's colon surgically removed.

Not satisfied with that, she sleuthed her way to the pioneering work of a Dr. Sidney Haas and his "Specific Carbohydrate Diet" (SCD). The diet saved her daughter's life and returned her to health.

Elaine didn't stop there. At 47, she returned to school and earned degrees in nutritional biochemistry and cellular biology. And wrote a book on the topic: "Breaking The Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet."

There are several slippery slopes when it comes to deteriorating intestinal health: continual use of antacids (which will reduce the protective high acidity of the stomach), poor diets that eventually weaken our immune systems, the sometimes drastic changes in microbial activity that occur when using antibiotics. And then, wouldn't you know it, there is the natural decrease in intestinal efficiency that occurs as we age.

The goal of the diet is to eat mostly "predigested" carbs, those that are easily absorbed into the intestinal wall. Those that aren't easily absorbed become food for the harmful bacteria living in the gut. Toxins and waste products of the rampant microbes then cause an imbalance and an immune response which leads to intestinal inflammation and problems.

This diet breaks this "vicious cycle" by nourishing the body and not the intestinal microbes.

According to Gottschall, the diet is biologically correct because it requires us to eat foods that we ate for the thousands of years before cultivating grains and farming began-- meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, nuts, low-sugar fruits -- and that our bodies, given their evolutionary state, are designed to properly digest.

In the diet, all grains are strictly verboten. Most legumes, starchy vegetables (like potatoes) and milk are no-nos. Only yogurt that is fermented for 24 hours is allowable. Absolutely no sugar; honey is the sweetener of choice.

Gottschall's book claims success in dealing with serious intestinal disorders. But what about those of us who find ourselves wanting to avoid the "Old Fart" Syndrome? Can this diet be helpful?

I asked Dr. Dale Figtree, a nutritional expert who is a proponent of this diet. She says that as we get older we do often have fewer digestive enzymes to help absorb food. But she would not necessarily prescribe this diet unless there was a definite intestinal imbalance.

"To take whole grains away would be eliminating a great source of vitamins and minerals, even-burning fuel and great fiber," she says. "The SCD is perfect for helping restore balance, and eliminating bloating, gas and other symptoms associated with an injured intestinal track."

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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