Exploring Digestion

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By: Ira Cantor, M.D.

Digestion is a parallel process to inflammation. With an inflammatory process the organism confronts something foreign: a virus, bac­teria, or splinter, and reacts, saying "Noth­ing foreign is allowed to come inside my special domain. I will remove the foreign­ness from whatever it is I am confronting, break it down (digest it) and then find a way to assimilate it." Both processes, di­gestion and inflammation, can range from very subtle to gross. For example, as you read this article you will try to digest the thoughts, taking some and rejecting oth­ers. Eventually you might assimilate their essence; then they become a part of who you are. This is an example of digestion on a subtle, spiritual/mental realm.

Probably the most material level of di­gestion is digestion itself, which comes in contact with a foreign substance—food. The mystery of the digestive tract is that it is not really us—it is part of the outside world, as though invaginated in our cen­ter. An indigestible object could pass right through us from mouth to anus and never affect our organism at all. The digestive tract is also filled with things that are not us, other organisms, yeasts, sometimes even parasites. In a healthy state we live in symbiosis or balance between this inner foreignness and ourselves. In unhealthy states there is reaction, often producing clinical problems.

The purpose of our digestive tract is to meet food and to break it down until it attains a somewhat neutral qual­ity. Certain foods must break down vastly more than others. It is most important to break down proteins and peptides, since incomplete transformation of these sub­stances is often the basis of allergic reac­tions. Fats don't have to be broken down as much at all.

Next, these digested substances pass through the barrier of the intestinal wall into the blood stream, and a large propor­tion enters the liver via the portal vein. Much can go wrong along this whole pro­cess, and does go wrong because of the way we live. For example, everyone knows that antibiotics can cause diarrhea or have a dis­ordering effect on our digestion. And we know everyone gets antibiotics, because they are contained in many foods. Other disordering aspects that can affect the di­gestion are stress and the speed of life.

The mystery of the digestive tract is that
it is not really us—it is part of the outside world

The allergic diseases I see in my prac­tice such as chronic inflammatory illnesses, childhood eczemas or dermatitis often have their root causes in something that is for­eign to us. It has been documented that 30% of children with chronic severe der­matitis have food allergies. If we can find the food causing the reaction, the eczema clears up dramatically, although not many dermatologists work along that route. A food foreign to a child can cause an in­flammatory reaction, which in turn affects intestinal permeability. Then the abnor­mal particle of food reaches the portal vein and, still as a foreign body, enters the blood stream, causing a reaction, which is exactly what the organism is meant to do. The ex­ternal manifestation of this reaction, or at­tempt at expulsion, is eczema or chronic dermatitis.

Many upper respiratory allergies are reactions to something within the diges­tive tract. If we can identify the food, we find that the nasal symptoms improve.

The way I understand the process of digestion anthroposophically is that when we first take food into our digestive sys­tem, there is an inflammatory process di­rected at the food, breaking it down, di­gesting it. This involves the higher mem­bers of the human being, specifically the ego and astral body. The organs such as pancreas and spleen are manifestations of these higher members at work. Beyond the intestinal wall ties the etheric, or upbuilding, inner realm. Many things can damage this intestinal barrier, starting with anti-inflammatory medicines.

Now the food enters the liver which has two main functions among its many tasks. One is continuing digestion not completed before, and the other is upbuilding processes. If there are too many substances that must be taken into the pro­cess we call detoxification (a kind of di­gestion, but basically still dealing with the foreign irritative nature of what was ingested), the liver is overtaxed. In fact, a great percentage of our body's energy and liver function goes towards detoxification. If we are constantly bombarded by toxic substances we experience fatigue, because the liver is forced to work at garbage re­moval rather than using its energy for the upbuilding process. Thus it is a kind of sensitive switch-point, connected with etheric upbuilding, energy producing pro­cesses. A "liver problem" is often not that at all, but a bombardment from elsewhere, and at a certain point it can't do its work adequately. When I treat a patient that fits into a typical liver constitutional picture, I have to look at the entire digestive sys­tem to see why the liver is stressed. Lab tests are often helpful. Frequently I will prescribe an elimination diet.

What I often tell my patients, though, is finding food allergens is just a first step. The goal is not just to avoid wheat or dairy for the rest of our lives, it is to find out what disorder we contain in our constitu­tion. Once we investigate, we can begin to correct and heal abnormalities, and then people are again able to tolerate foods they could not deal with before.

Ira Cantor, M.D. is medical director of Steiner Medical Center in Phoenixville, PA. He is also associate clinical director at the new Jefferson Center(or Integrative Medicine, which is affiliated with Thomas Jefferson University Medical School and Hospital in Philadelphia. The center has clinical, educational and research programs. It is at the forefront of evaluating the clinical efficacy and validity of holistic and an­throposophical medical approaches.

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