Imagine for a moment that you’re a football quarterback and your life’s dream is just within your grasp: your team is about to win the Super Bowl. You’re on the 50-yard line, facing down the enemy and about to launch the winning pass. Those guys are rushing at you like a marauding human avalanche, and you raise your arm as high as you can to hurl that ball as hard as you ever have. The last thought in your head — but, maybe, the first thought in mine — is that that star quarterback 50 yards from the end zone is looking at the surface area of his own intestines.
There are literally trillions of microbes along the 15 feet of your intestinal tract. The football field is the area that the immune system must constantly defend from bacteria, viruses, or harmful microbes that threaten to intercept your health. There are more bacteria in one centimetre of intestine than there are stars in the known universe. The world within us is in some ways greater, more infinite, and more fascinating than the world beyond — and, this is particularly true of the intestinal world.
I believe physicians have been short-sighted about the importance of intestinal health. It’s here that the body must recognise what is an ‘enemy’ to be flushed out as waste and what is the bedrock of life, the nutrients that bring vital nourishment to every cell in the body. 30 per cent of our immune system is located around the lining of the intestine, constantly working to protect the intestinal lining and preventing toxins from entering the body.
Healthy digestion is one of my patients’ greatest concerns. And, they’re not alone: a fascinating children’s book explaining the wonders of intestinal health, My Poop,’ actually became a surprise best-seller. Adults were buying the book not only for their kids but to satisfy their own curiosity. People are fascinated by the mysterious demons and gremlins that lie within the digestive system. Why does our stomach growl? What causes constipation, or diarrhoea? How can all those colonies of bacteria live inside us? Just how does the intestinal wall act as a barrier, protecting us from potentially fatal toxins, even as it absorbs and digests our food?
Intestinal disease can be the source of many disparate conditions, from arthritis to allergies and fatigue to skin eruptions. If the intestine becomes eroded due to infection, inflamed due to allergies, or damaged due to toxins, we will become subtly malnourished and our well-being will surely suffer.
A complete nutritional programme is crucial for patients with compromised intestines, but no nutrient is more important than glutamine for our intestinal health. That’s because it’s a primary fuel for the intestine, and it helps heal the intestinal lining. Only by keeping your intestines healthy can you further repair your body with other nutrients.
In fact, a study in The Lancet, one of world’s most important medical journals, showed that out of 20 patients receiving intravenous nutrients, only the ten who were treated with glutamine preserved the mucosal cells that comprise the intestinal lining. Damage to the mucosal lining is a common problem associated with intravenous feeding. Glutamine prevented infectious bacteria living in the intestines from leaking through the intestinal walls into the bloodstream.
Amazingly, glutamine was once termed a ‘non-essential’ nutrient, and so its incredible potential was obscured by that benign description. Glutamine is anything but non-essential. It’s easy to see, though, how it earned this reputation. Although synthesised and primarily released by skeletal muscle, every organ actually contains glutamine and is capable of releasing it. It is the most abundant amino acid in the body, and the amount that we manufacture on our own — without obtaining any from the food we eat — is usually enough to fuel important metabolic processes, like the rapid growth of cells and tissues.
As an amino acid, glutamine is an important building block for many other amino acids, proteins, and nucleotides. It also regulates protein synthesis in muscles and glycogen synthesis in the liver, both of which preserve muscle mass. But, most important, glutamine is crucial as an energy source for our bodies. In fact, it is the primary fuel of the upper intestinal tract.
If the body is running smoothly, then, like other nutrients, glutamine goes about its business quietly, an unassuming but necessary member of the backstage crew. When the body is stressed, however, glutamine transforms itself and becomes a show-stopping star.
A study in The Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, which is dedicated to researching the role nutrition plays in our health, found that the concentrations of this nutrient decrease when the body is fighting disease. Glutamine is at times, therefore, extremely essential. We need extra amounts of it if our systems are stressed by sickness and depleted of this amino acid.
The typical American diet, for example, offers about 3.5 to 7gm of glutamine per day. More glutamine is needed during stress infections, trauma, inflammation, allergic reactions, or chronic illness. Under these conditions, an extra 1-3gm of glutamine per day maybe needed just to maintain normal intestinal structure and function. That’s a huge increase; but glutamine is virtually non-toxic, even in large quantities. It is rapidly metabolised.