Chronic illness sucks!
The fatigue, physical limitations and emotional distress can completely change your outlook on life. The journey to recovery can take many months or even years and is often full of contradictory opinions about what will actually make a real and meaningful difference. Then there is mainstream medicine practicing illness management under the guise of health care – but I’ll leave that rant for another article. Sounds hopeless and frustrating and it can be but there is hope! If you are suffering or know someone who is suffering from chronic illness or any of the many autoimmune diseases out there you have my sympathy and my support. I truly hope the following information gives you the perspective and the patience to keep moving forward.
In this article I want to introduce you to one of the greatest challenges on the journey to better health. In order for this to make the most sense I need to introduce you a physiological process called up-regulation and bring your attention to how much of your health depends on how busy your immune system is in your gut. Up-regulation happens when a primary system in your body is stimulated to work harder. If you have a stressful encounter your central nervous system (CNS) will up-regulate. If it is stressful enough your adrenal glands will up-regulate and your bloodstream gets a healthy dose of epinephrine and cortisol. If the situation goes on long enough some parts of your immune system will up-regulate and some parts will down-regulate. It goes on and on…..
Have you ever had butterflies in your stomach? Not literally, but that feeling most of us get when we are nervous. That sensation occurs when you are stressed enough for your body to move the blood surrounding your digestive system to your muscles in preparation for whatever threat you must fight or flee. The lack of abundant blood around your digestive tract takes essential energy and nutrients from one of the most important and precarious structures in your body.
The absorptive membrane of your gastrointestinal tract is a very complex and intricate structure. Your small intestine absorbs about 98% of the nutrients from your food and requires 75% of your immune systems total effort. The reason so much of your immune system surrounds your small intestine is the contents of your gut are still technically outside of your body and may make you sick or worse. That might sound strange so I am going to ask you to image you have swallowed a small marble by accident. The next day you find the marble in your toilet. Technically the marble was never inside your bloodstream so it was never really inside your body. It may have had a quick chat with your immune system, but that is all. 75% of your immune systems effort is focused on fighting of external pathogens, infections, microorganisms and bacteria all day every day.
So, now that you have a sense of what up-regulation means and know a bit more about how busy your immune system is in your gut, let’s get into the feedback loop. If you are suffering from chronic poor health and seem to find that every diet and treatment only seems to help so much and then stops working, here is why. If you accidentally eat something that irritates your immune system it up-regulates and sends a message to your central nervous system (CNS) saying “get nervous”. Your CNS say OK and up-regulates telling your whole body and mind that you are in danger. Or, instead, you could be eating everything right but have a stressful few days which can up-regulate your CNS which can send the dreaded butterflies into your gut immunity which up-regulates making your immune system more reactive to your food. This creates more inflammation which feels like stress to an already nervous feeling nervous system. And that is the feedback loop and it can go on and on…
It may seem hopeless or at least frustrating but there is hope. Just like climbing a ladder one hand at a time you have to climb down the ladder of the feedback loop one hand at a time. If your CNS is one hand and your gut immunity is the other and they have climbed themselves to a dangerous height you will have to heal and down-regulate your CNS then your gut then your CNS and on and on. The place most of us make a mistake as patients and as doctors is we focus on one OR the other expecting consistent and positive results over the long term. I have colleagues who say it all starts in the gut and others who say it all starts with adrenal overload and they are all right. It has been my experience that it is always both in a chronic illness. There are usually other complications around detoxification and cellular communication and a few other things but this article is about the feedback loop.
This article is about hope!
Imagine trying to climb down a ladder with your CNS hand while not letting go with the gut immunity hand. You won’t get too far and nobody could. It is obviously the same the other way too. So, my recommendation to anyone suffering from a chronic illness is to focus on healing (down-regulating ) the most distressed one first. Your symptoms and intuition should give you the confidence to choose healing from stress while eating well or focus on rebuilding your digestive system and gut immunity while trying not to get carried away. Let’s say you spend six weeks focusing on digestion and gut immunity with a healthy diet, appropriate supplements and start to feel a plateau. Then it is time to shift your focus to becoming a Zen Master or, at least, develop a meditation practice, learn some Qi Gong or Yoga and shift your supplements towards your nervous system, adrenal support and perhaps even supporting serotonin, insulin and your thyroid. As your CNS climbs down the ladder you will not only feel more like yourself but may notice your digestion improving as well. The focus and supplementation often has to back and forth and sometimes be mixed together for as long as it takes for your health to return. I strongly suggest finding and working with healthcare practitioner who has an understanding of this phenomena and is willing to work with your intuition as well.
I hope this article has given you some perspective on your health or the challenges a loved one may be facing. I look forward to your comments and questions.
Cook Well, Eat Well and Be Well!