Symptom Relief from GI Issues – Part Two: Foods, Drinks, and Drugs that Inflame
Today I want to continue my discussion of foods, drinks, and drugs that will aggravate an infected and inflamed gastrointestinal mucosa. Resolving inflammatory gut issues will be next to impossible without changes in diet.
The last post covered gut bacteria’s well-known ability to produce intestinal gas by fermenting fiber. However, dietary fiber, especially insoluble fiber, has other damaging characteristics.
As I’ve mentioned before, fiber swells to four to five times its size when combined with liquid, any liquid, including acidic gastric juice. It’s the only food you eat that does so.
Now let’s try a thought experiment, shall we? Say you have an abrasion on the back of one hand. This abrasion is red and angry because of the body’s immune response to it. Would you:
A) keep it clean, covered, and free of any irritating substances or would you
B) drive to the local hardware store, buy some sandpaper, dip that sandpaper in an acidic liquid like vinegar or lemon juice, and rub that over the abrasion three or more times a day?
In you answered A, congratulations! You go to the head of the class. If you answered B, you really need to reconsider your practice of banging your head against concrete walls.
Once eaten, acidic-laden and bulked up insoluble fiber slowly scrapes its way through the many twists and turns of the narrow confines of the small intestine, irritating the mucosa along the way. In the colon, it forms dry, hardened, and bulky stool that can further irritate a mucosa in those with colon disorders.
If your intestines are already inflamed by a bacterial or yeast infection, what sense does it make to inflame them further by the equivalent of acidic sandpaper? And if the fiber irritating the intestinal wall is derived from gluten grains, well you’ve really hit the “jackpot”. The opioids in gluten (and certain types of dairy) will make sure that this acidic, gas-producing, scratchy chyme or feces will stay in extended contact with an angry gut wall.
Many “health” authorities consider this a good thing. Typical of this viewpoint is this excerpt from a book titled Digestive Wellness:
For instance, we now know how low-fiber diets lead to digestive disorders found in one out of four Americans. Improvements in bowel function can help prevent diverticulosis, appendicitis, colon polyps, colon cancer, hemorrhoids, and varicose veins. Diets high in soluble fiber are helpful to people with irritable bowel syndrome. Crohn’s disease, hiatal hernia, and peptic ulcer. Dietary fiber also helps prevent obesity by slowing down digestion and the release of glucose and insulin. Fiber has been shown to normalize serum cholesterol levels. High-fiber diets reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer.
And it also makes you young, attractive, and a millionaire too! Just kidding. Is any of this based on actual science or is it just wishful thinking?
In a recent study that examined 2,104 participants, 878 of whom had diverticulitis, researchers concluded:
In this colonoscopy-based study, a high-fiber diet did not protect against asymptomatic diverticulosis. Instead, we found that a high-fiber diet was associated with a higher prevalence of diverticula. The association was both dose-dependent and stronger when limited to cases with >3 diverticula. The risk was increased for total fiber, fiber from grains, soluble fiber, and insoluble fiber. Although constipation is conventionally thought to predispose to diverticulosis, we found that less frequent bowel movements were associated with a decreased prevalence of diverticulosis.
…In conclusion, we found that a high-fiber diet and more frequent bowel movements were associated with an increased rather than a decreased prevalence of diverticulosis. Our data demonstrated no association between fat, red meat, physical activity, and diverticulosis. Based on our results, previous hypotheses regarding diverticulosis risk factors and diet recommendations to patients should be reconsidered. (1)
So much for “Digestive Wellness”. This isn’t surprising to me. Irritating your gut wall and blowing it up like a balloon from fermenting fiber, especially insoluble fiber, isn’t likely to produce good results, as validated by this study. Why not recommend eating wood for GI health? Isn’t that also full of fiber?
And yes, recommendations for increased fiber intake for bowel health most definitely need to be reconsidered. However, if I were you, I wouldn’t hold my farts. Medical and nutritional dogmas die a very slow death in the United States because of powerful vested interests.
The U.S. is, after all, the world’s largest wheat exporter. (2) Any chance that the U.S. government will ever question this dietary dogma either through its Department of Agriculture or its various “health” agencies is slim to none. Throw in the processed food industry and the university nutrition programs they so lavishly endow, and the constituency keeping this nutritional zombie alive is quite formidable.
If you have ANY digestive issues, please put away the psyllium husks, bean casseroles, bran muffins, dried fruit, etc. and give your poor digestive tract a rest. The last thing your inflamed mucosa needs is the gastrointestinal equivalent of a dermabrasion.
Here is the USDA chart for the top 46 fiber-rich foods:
For the full USDA list, click here.
As I mentioned in the last post, the only fiber you should be eating are small doses of soluble fiber like inulinFOS to encourage the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria. Once your gut heals, by all means increase your fiber intake by eating whole fruits and vegetables. However, always be aware of any discomfort or constipation this may cause. Your gut will usually tell you when you’ve overdone it if you just listen.
Alcohol’s devastating effects on the gastrointestinal tract are well documented. Binge drinkers have higher rates of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colon, and rectum. The more alcohol women drink, the higher the likelihood of developing breast cancer. (3) Alcohol intake has also been linked with higher rates of diverticulitis. (4)
Acetaldehyde, alcohol’s major metabolite, is a recognized carcinogen. It just loves to screw with DNA. Acetaldehyde is not only a byproduct of alcohol metabolism, it also exists in alcoholic beverages. (5)
Alcohol directly irritates and inflames the mucosa of the oral cavity, throat, stomach and small intestine. Elevated blood levels of both alcohol and acetaldehyde affect both the small and large intestine in a negative way by increasing intestinal permeability, endotoxemia and inflammation.
Alcohol also suppresses immune function. As the majority of your immune system is located in your intestinal tract, overdoing alcohol will always increase the risk of bacterial, viral, parasite, and yeast infections in your small intestine and colon. (6)
Binge drinking causes constipation by suppressing intestinal muscle contractions and dehydrating fecal matter. By causing constipation, alcohol, like opioids, guarantees that the gut wall is in extended contact with chyme and feces, irritating an infected mucosa all the more. Alcohol contributes to hemorrhoids and proliferation of rectal cells, which probably explains the high rate of rectal cancer in alcoholics. (7)
I could go on, but I think you get the message. Apart from gluten grains, lectins, and polyunsaturated vegetable oils, I can’t think of a dietary practice more harmful to gut flora and your health than binge drinking.
So to those of you suffering from small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, alcohol in all but small amounts is not your friend. Sorry.
Foods that Increase Intestinal Permeability
This is a short list. These foods include gluten grains (wheat, barley, rye), foods rich in dietary lectins (processed gluten grains, undercooked legumes, including peanuts), alcohol, and polyunsaturated vegetable oils (corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, etc.), hydrogenated or not.
For gluten’s effect on the small intestine, see my post here. For plant lectins and their harmful actions on the gut wall see here. And for vegetable oil’s effect on the tight junctions of the digestive tract read this.
I would also caution all of you against consuming non-expeller pressed canola oil. This oil has been touted as “healthy” because it contains omega-3, which typically comprises 10% of its fatty acid content. It also contains 22% omega-6 fatty acids. That would be fine if this oil was never exposed to heat in manufacturing or cooking. Unfortunately, that is not the case as you can see from this YouTube video.
Appetizing isn’t it? Did you notice the steam vapors? Applying heat to polyunsaturated oils (omega-3 and omega-6) ensures that it becomes oxidized even before you buy it in a grocery store.
And what, pray tell, do most people then do with this oxidized canola oil after they buy it? Why they take it home and use it for cooking! Brilliant! This oil is also used extensively for sautéing and frying in restaurants across the country.
The other night I went out to dinner at a very nice restaurant and asked the waitress what oil the kitchen used to fry their French fries. After checking with the chef, she informed me that the cooking oil was a combination of 75% canola and 25% soybean oil. I passed.
Oh, and did you notice the “wash” that the canola oil was subjected to in the video? It’s a solvent called hexane, a chemical widely used to make gasoline and a known carcinogen. All commercial manufacturing of vegetable oils uses this solvent. This oil is “sold” to you as a healthier alternative to saturated animal fat, a fat that has been part of the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years. Sometimes I feel like I live in an alternate universe.
Pathogens need iron to grow, and that includes the gram-negative gut pathogens that are likely the causes of SIBO, IBS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and colon cancer:
…The acquisition of iron is possibly the major determinant as to whether a microorganism that finds itself within an animal is able to maintain itself therein. Without this ability, it will be unable to grow and will effectively be eliminated by direct attack from the host defense mechanisms or will die of nutrient starvation. The acquisition of iron is recognized as one of the key steps in the development of any pathogen in its host…
Bacteria are pathogenic because, within or on an animal, they have found an environment that provides them with warmth (usually) and nutrients (always). Warmth may not be essential but the nutrients certainly are. The pathogen can acquire all of the nutrients it needs from the host tissue except for one—and that is iron. Supplies of organic carbon are freely available in all fluids and tissues of the body as are nitrogen sources—amino acids, nucleotide bases, etc—sources of phosphate, sulfate, K+, Mg2+, Mn2+, Zn2+, etc. But iron is distinct because it is not a freely available nutrient.
Iron metabolism and pathogenic bacteria
In an infection, the body’s immune system naturally withholds iron. Feeding iron to a person fighting an infection is never recommended because it will increase the growth of bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Bacterial species that bloom by the addition of iron include: Aeromonas sp., Clostridium sp., Corynebacterium sp., enterobacteria (Escherichia coli, Klebsiella sp., Salmonella sp.), Listeria sp., Neisseria sp., Pasteurella sp., Pseudomonas sp., Staphylococcus sp., Vibrio sp., Yersinia sp, Mycobacterium avium, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
Therefore, I do not recommend an iron-rich diet if you are battling or suspect a gastrointestinal infection.
When I was diagnosed with IBS and anemia, my doctor told me to start taking iron pills. Being the obedient little patient that I am, I of course complied. My IBS symptoms worsened. Luckily, I had the good sense to stop taking them.
Now most of you, no doubt, assume that red meat would be the highest source of iron in the diet, which would mostly be true in a world that did not have processed food coming out of its rears. While red meat may need to be temporarily curtailed until you get your infection under control, the number-one source of iron in the typical U.S. diet is from fortified grains:
So not only are Americans getting a healthy dose of gluten when they eat many of these products, but also lots of iron to feed their gut pathogens. Ain’t that convenient?
Rice is also on this top 46 list. Be sure to rinse it well before cooking to wash off the enrichment powder. For the full list of iron content in food, download here. After you resolve your gut issues, by all means feel free to reintroduce whole, non-gluten-grain foods containing iron.
I bring up nightshades last because many people can tolerate them with no problems at all. Nightshades or Solanaceae are part of a family of flowering plants. This family includes mandrake, belladonna, tomatillo, cape gooseberry flower, chili pepper, bell pepper, potato, tomato, eggplant, tobacco, and petunia. Edible nightshades contain alkaloids that can be very irritating to the gastrointestinal mucosa and are therefore capable of increasing intestinal permeability and endotoxemia.
My experience with edible nightshades varies. Sometimes they bother me and other times they don’t. Like all vegetables, this is probably due to the amount of irritating alkaloids they contain, how much I’ve eaten at one sitting, and how long it has been since they were harvested. I find peppers (spicy or not) and raw tomatoes to be a problem. I’m usually OK with a standard sized-baked potato, but if I eat a lot of potatoes, I’ll get a slight headache and insomnia.
If you have digestive issues, you may want to steer clear of these vegetables for the time being until you get things under control.
The list of drugs, both legal and illegal that negatively impact gut health is long. This is not an area of expertise for me so please check with your pharmacist for any side effects for the medications you’re taking. Be aware that some pharmaceutical drugs have gluten in them so be sure to check for this as well.
Of the common drugs taken, the following are known gut irritants: aspirin, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen, digitalis, steroid-based drugs, caffeine, and of course alcohol. Drugs that cause intestinal bleeding can be found here. Consult your physician or pharmacist for alternatives.
Opioids are also a big problem as they always cause constipation by impairing gastrointestinal movement. Constipation is not your friend as you don’t want to encourage prolonged contact of an inflamed gut wall with partially digested food or feces. Again, consultation with your physician or pharmacist may be necessary to explore alternatives.
If you are an illegal opiate user, well, all I can say is don’t forget Kurt Cobain of Nirvana fame. He suffered from horrible stomach and GI issues that he self medicated with heroin. While it relieved the pain, it would have made his gastrointestinal dysbiosis worse, not better. We all know how tragically that story ended.
I want to conclude by saying that these recommendations are about calming intestinal inflammation, not necessarily curing it. You’ll still need to clear up the underlying bacterial, viral, yeast, and/or parasitic infection causing your gut issues. That will require drugs (herbal or pharmaceutical) and recolonizing your intestinal tract with friendly gut flora by taking probiotics, prebiotics, and eating fermented foods rich in beneficial organisms.
Lipski, E. (2004) Digestive Wellness. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Ratledge C. and Dovar L. G. (2000) Iron Metabolism and Pathogenic Bacteria. Annual Review of Microbiology, 54: 881-941.