Gut Adaptation; the body’s natural ability to “heal” itself.
The human body is nothing short of miraculous. It can create life, perform incredible feats, and allow us to experience the world through a number of senses. But what happens when the body becomes damaged from illness or injury?
Medical advancements have helped us come a long way in fighting disease, injury and maintaining our health. But our bodies are also equipped with tools to help us feel healthy again, to heal. For example, if you cut your finger while opening the mail, the cut will clot and stop bleeding, scab over and before you know it, it’ll be like it was almost never there. And that’s just what you can see of the process.
So much of the ‘healing’ processes happen behind the scenes, under the surface. From cells dying and being replaced with new ones to your internal organs working daily to cleanse, adapt and fight for your body’s success, there’s no denying the magic of the human body.
For patients with short bowel syndrome (SBS), the body is adapting in ways that may not be so apparent on the surface.
How the digestive system is impacted by short bowel syndrome
Unlike a cut that is visible to the eye, the intestinal tract is deep beneath the many layers of our skin. The intestine works overtime to aid in the digestion of food and the crucial absorption of vital nutrients that keep us alive. Patients with short bowel syndrome are either living without a significant portion of their intestine or the bowel is not functioning properly.
The goal for patients with SBS is much like everyone else’s; live a long, healthy, happy and “normal” (whatever that means) life. The ability to eat food by mouth, avoid medication and go about your daily routine without interruption may seem like a simple expectation, but for patients with short bowel syndrome, it may be a bit further out of reach.
While there are countless pharmaceutical, clinical and overall scientific approaches to managing SBS and maintaining the quality of life, the real wonders are all beneath the surface in what is known as gut adaptation. To better understand what gut adaptation is and what it may mean for a patient with short bowel syndrome, we first need to break down the digestive system and tract.
Believe it or not, one of the most important points of the digestive journey begins with your mouth. When food enters our mouth, the chewing of our food and mixing with saliva is actually a primer for the traditional digestive process. For short bowel syndrome patients, chewing the food and breaking it down sufficiently can make a huge difference in the intestines ability to absorb those nutrients later on.
The next stop on the digestive journey is the stomach. The rumbling, sometimes uneasy and gassy sound system that sits in our abdomen. The stomach is our container. It holds all the food and liquid safely while working diligently to prepare that food for digestion. Stomach acid and digestive enzymes make it possible for our bodies to break down the nutrients later on. The stomach is the powerhouse muscle of the digestive journey and plays a vital role in breaking down food into small and easy pieces to pass through the remaining digestive tract.
The Small Bowel.
Once the food is done dancing around our stomach, it heads right for the small intestine. Some patients with SBS are missing a significant portion or function of this vital piece to our digestive journey. The small bowel is broken up into three sections: duodenum, jejunum, and ileum. Each section plays a different role in absorbing unique nutrients into our bodies.
The Role Of The Intestines In The GI Tract
Think of the intestines like a pipe. Food goes in one end and the intestines job is to slow things down and to facilitate the absorption of nutrients from that food. Simple enough? Well now, think of that pipe or straw lined with little tiny “hairs” or “fingers” called villi, and on top of them, microvilli. These little finger-like pieces line the intestinal tract and play a vital role in increasing the surface area for nutrients to be absorbed. Still a little complicated? Let’s break it down even further…
When you turn the water on at one end of a pipe, it runs straight through. The shorter the pipe, the less distance the water needs to travel and the faster it comes out. Now, let’s add a bunch of leaves to the pipe, the water has some resistance when traveling through and therefore slows down the flow.
For short bowel syndrome patients, the intestines work the same way. However, their shorter intestinal tract means food passes through faster, the same as water moving through a shortened pipe.
What Is Gut Adaptation?
After a significant portion of the bowel is resected or removed, gut or intestinal adaptation is the body’s natural ability to increase its ability to absorb water and nutrients. The remaining section of the small intestine is capable of growing in length, width or even its inner lining.
The slight lengthening or widening of the small intestine is greatly beneficial. However, even more important is the growth of the inner lining. As the inner lining of the bowel grows, its surface area and ability to absorb water and nutrients increases. Remember, the small intestine has all of those tiny “hairs” and “fingers” in its lining that help slow down the rate at which food passes through the bowel. The more surface area and villi present, the greater the patient’s ability to absorb essential nutrients into their body.
How Can You Support The Adaptation Process?
Eat! Think of the small intestine like any muscle. The more a muscle is expanded and contracted, the better. You wouldn’t expect to have massive biceps without ever exercising, would you?
Whether consuming foods by mouth or feeding tube, putting the bowel to work promotes the release of necessary hormones and blood flow required to facilitate the adaptation process.
Intestinal growth rates have been found to grow at more significant rates in pediatric patients and can take up to two years.
While not every patient’s ability to adapt is the same, the body’s natural ability to listen to changes, understand differences and make up for areas that may not be as they naturally should, is a miracle in itself!
For tips, tricks and insights on gut adaptation, talk to your intestinal rehabilitation clinic or nutritional expert. A combination of diet, feeding therapy, medicine and more can aid in the body’s natural ability to work its wonders.