Definition: the break-down of food from animal and plant tissue/material to its component proteins and constituent amino acids and peptides for absorption and cellular uptake.

Many of the illnesses we suffer from today are caused by a compromised digestive system. From the food we eat, to the way it’s grown, to the stress we are under while eating it; all causes a terrible burden on the digestive tract. It is said that as much as 70% of our immune is in the gut, so the foundation in which to build good health is the digestive tract.

Our food is inundated with pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, not to mention all the highly processed fast foods. Glyphosate has been shown to disrupt the bacteria in the gut. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup is the most important causal factor in the epidemics of celiac disease and gluten intolerance. “Glyphosate residues in wheat and other crops are likely increasing recently due to the growing practice of crop desiccation just prior to harvest. It is argued that the practice of ripening sugar cane with glyphosate may explain the recent surge in kidney failure among agricultural workers in Central America. Celiac disease is becoming more common: 1 per 141 people in the USA have it.

Psychosocial stress, depression, nutrient deficiency and certain medications can contribute to anorexia (inadequate appetite and food consumption) and malnutrition. Certain medications can block nutrients that are typically absorbed in the gut from being available. Stress, distraction or just in a rush to eat and not taking the time to chew our food is a huge load that compromises the digestion.

Stress in the body can cause a reduction of gastric juices available in the stomach. An adequacy of gastric hydrochloric acid (HCL) is necessary, especially for digestion of proteins, adsorption of minerals and microbial actions.

The function of Hydrochloric acid (HCL) is compromised by the intake of antacid substances such as bicarbonates or Alka-Seltzer, histamine-2 receptor blockers or Zantac, proton-pump inhibitors such as Nexium or Prevacid. These reduce the amount of HCL available in the stomach to properly break down the proteins. Inadequate HCL production is noted with atrophic gastritis (due to alcoholism) and pernicious anemia; there is also a notable increased incidence of people with autoimmune thyroiditis and/or vitiligo.

Mucosal proteases and peptidases contribute to protein digestion, peptide and amino acid adsorption. These enzymes can be damaged/reduced by intestinal disorders such as celiac, Crohn’s and the degradation of mucosal enzymes by bacterial proteases as seen in SIBO-small intestine bacterial overgrowth.

Efficient nutrient adsorption is dependent on mucosal/villous integrity. Mucosal injury is always an active and current problem, since the intestinal mucosa is otherwise and generally rapidly replicative and reparative; as expected, mucosal replication and repair is nutrient-dependent (especially zinc, vitamin A, and glutamine), and malnutrition and malabsorption can become a vicious cycle. The intestines utilize non-specific, humoral, cell-mediated and probiotic immunity to protect intestinal tissues from larger peptides, toxins and invading microorganisms. This is all packaged nicely into the mucosal membrane that lines the intestines – also referred as the intestinal brush barrier.

The fact is, the intestinal barrier is part of the body’s immune system. It is the body’s most important first and/or second line of defense against invading microorganisms and toxins. This barrier also prevents larger, undigested food molecules from penetrating the body’s tissues and invoking a hypersensitive response.

The intestinal brush barrier is a complex mucosal layer of mucin, enzymes, probiotics and ionic fluid. It forms a protective surface medium over the intestinal tissue called the epithelium. It also provides an active nutrient transport mechanism. This mucosal layer is stabilized by the grooves of the intestinal microvilli. It contains glycoproteins, mucopolysaccharides and other ionic transporters, which attach amino acids, minerals, vitamins, glucose and fatty acids – carrying them across the intestinal membranes. The mucosal layer is policed by billions of probiotic colonies, which help process incoming food molecules, excrete various nutrients, and control pathogens.

This mucosal barrier creates the boundary between the intestinal substances and our bloodstream. If the mucosal layer becomes altered, its protective mechanisms become weakened, allowing toxic or larger particles to be presented to the microvilli junctions. This contact can irritate the microvilli, causing an inflammatory response. This is considered a contributing cause of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). The breakdown of the mucosal membrane causes it to thin. This thinning allows toxins and macromolecules that would have been screened out by the mucosal membrane to be presented to the intestinal walls. This mucous membrane thinning, intestinal cell irritation and inflammatory immune response causes desmosomes and tight junctions to open. These gaps allow food macromolecules to enter the tissues. This is where autoimmune disorders become apparent.

Probiotics play a critical role in many of the processes of the immune system. Probiotics help control the inflammatory processes. Probiotics also stimulate a healthy thymus gland. The bottom line is that our body’s probiotics and our immune system are interconnected. They are inseparable. At least 70% of the immune system is probiotic.

Many plants especially leafy green vegetables produce substances that will directly stimulate the rebuilding of the mucosal membrane within the stomach and intestines. In the case of s-methyl methionine, research has confirmed its ability to heal ulcers, colitis and gastritis. To this we added plant-based foods that stimulate enzyme activity and provide other nutrients used to produce a healthy mucosal membrane. Research also shows that probiotics help reverse intestinal permeability. We must remember that the cells with in the intestines have some of the fastest turnover rates of all body cells. Most of these cells will divide and be replaced by new cells within a week. While this doesn’t necessarily mean we can heal the intestinal brush barrier within a short period of time, it does mean that gradually, over several generations of new, healthier intestinal cells, the brush barrier can gradually be rebuilt.

It has also thoroughly been investigated not only the causes of the breakdown of the mucosal membrane and intestinal barrier, but also laid out a variety of strategies to reverse increased intestinal permeability. These have ranged from dietary strategies to herbs, probiotics, water and exercise. While some of these may not directly heal the barrier, most will at least strengthen the immune system to help detoxify the body of some of the elements that weaken the mucosal membrane and brush barrier.

Decreasing the body’s toxic load combined with a healthy, predominantly plant-based diet will also help our gastric and intestinal cells regenerate a healthy mucosal membrane. This will help reduce the toxic burden upon the cells of the intestinal wall, which in turn help the intestines regenerate a healthy brush barrier.

The digestive system is no doubt a complicated system of billions of wonderful gut bacteria and healthy mucosal barriers.  We can learn ways to protect it, keep it healthy and vibrant. Let’s work diligently on having less stress in our lives; the patience to slow down to eat and chew thoroughly. Learn to eat lots of different and delicious Probiotic foods.

* Samsel et al. Glyphosate, pathways to modern disease II: Celiac sprue and Gluten intolerance. Interdiscip Toxicol 2013 Dec; 6(4):159-84

* Natural Solutions for Food Allergies and Food Intolerances, Scientifically Proven Remedies for Food Sensitivities, by Case Adams, Ph.D. Copyright 2012 Logical Books.