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Larry Newman is the Chief Operating Officer, Technical and Regulatory Affairs of Kirkman Group, Inc. (Kirkman). Contact Kirkman at 1-800-245-8282; 6400 Rosewood St., Lake Oswego, OR.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gastrointestinal Considerations in Special Needs Individuals

By Larry Newman

The Importance of Gastrointestinal Health

Physicians have known for centuries that a well-functioning gastrointestinal tract and digestive system are crucial to good health. When digestion is working optimally, other organs and systems in the body have a better chance of working optimally, as well.  
This is because the digestive system is responsible for processing the nutrients in our food, which in turn are used for all of our biochemical processing including growth, reproduction, development, tissue repair, healing, and for the optimal functioning of every organ in the body. Therefore, the digestive system is very much responsible for supporting the health of the body as a whole.

In addition to providing fuel for the body through nutrition, the intestinal tract also plays an integral role in the operation of our immune and nervous systems.  This association is often referred to as the gut-brain connection. 

Signs of Gastrointestinal Disorders


There are many distinct, recognizable signs of gastrointestinal disturbances, but often with special needs individuals who can’t communicate, these are not obvious to the caregiver. 

Examples of these symptoms are:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping (often includes crying, screaming or holding the abdomen) 
  • Constipation or diarrhea 
  • Indigestion, bloating, gas 
  • Inadequate digestion (evidence often seen in stools) 
  • Leaky gut 
  • Inflammation 
  • Yeast or bacterial overgrowth 
  • Ulceration 
  • Colitis 
  • GERD (Reflux)  
  • Serious food sensitivities
When gastrointestinal disorders are suspected, a thorough examination by a gastroenterologist is called for.  That examination very well may include an endoscopy and/or colonoscopy.  Based on this exam, the physician has many options to help support whatever conditions are present in a patient’s gastrointestinal tract.  These options may include:

  • Prescription anti-fungals or antibiotics
  • OTC Pharmaceuticals 
  • Special diets including GF/CF or SCD 
  • Probiotics to support good flora, which in turn crowds out undesirable bacteria or yeast 
  • Colostrum or L-glutamine to promote tissue healing
  • Herbal support products containing components such as Turmeric, Quercetin, Ginger, Slippery Elm, and Cats Claw, all of which support soothing, immunity, or anti-inflammatory activity. 
  • Digestive Enzymes, which may aid in the proper breakdown and digestion of food and the proper assimilation of nutrients from that food.
The Intestinal Immune System

The intestinal tract represents an important barrier between the external world and the internal environment, and there are a number of immune mechanisms built into the gut lining that help ensure that invading organisms from the outside are neutralized before they can do potential damage inside the body.  It is postulated that up to 70% of the body’s immune system is associated with the digestive tract. This intestinal immune network is known as Gut-Associated Lymphatic Tissue (GALT).

Throughout the gut tube there are cells of the immune system - gut associated lymphatic tissue. When the specialized immune cells lining the digestive tract detect an unknown or possibly harmful substance (called an antigen), they signal the immune system to provide antibodies to help fight these antigens. Another immune defender that is present in the lining of the gut wall is known as Secretory Immunoglobulin A (SIgA).  When antigens are present, SIgA can help to trap them in the mucous layer of the intestinal tract, thereby rendering them ineffective or unable to cause an undesirable reaction. Because the immune system has such an integral involvement with the digestive system, diseases or imbalances of the gastrointestinal tract can often result in significant immune dysfunction and further complications in the medical conditions of the individual.

Gastrointestinal Tract:  Top Priority for Individuals with Special Sensitivities and Requirements

Because of its involvement in the rest of the body processes, the gastrointestinal tract should be the top priority in getting proper care for special needs and sensitive individuals.  Without the proper functioning of the GI tract, trying to correct other conditions may be futile and nearly impossible.  Discuss this priority with your physician early on in your association.