Why an unhealthy digestive system can affect fat loss or muscle gain

Written by Mark Coles - Follow on Google+ | Facebook | Twitter

You may be familiar with the phrase, you are what you eat, but have you considered the phrase, you are what you can break down and absorb?

I’m always amazed by the amount of people that I see who have never considered that their digestive function could be one of the causes of their stubborn fat loss or difficulty in gaining muscle.

Before I begin to explain the role of the digestive system, I’d like to share with you a story about myself. This will shed some light on the effects that your digestive health can have on your body.

Over 10 years a go now, I began to develop small bumps around my eye. They were quite painful and understandably concerned me. I was struggling to gain muscle mass and I had a lot of fatigue on a day to day basis. Not only that but my joints ached all the time, and I was gaining body fat. My first reaction was to visit my local doctor to ask his advice, unsure he sent me to see a private consultant. The consultant was also unsure and so he sent me to visit a panel of 15 dermatologists, who I was told were some of the most respected in the UK. 

They all came up with a conclusion that it was Acne Rosacea, this is a form of acne that does not come to a head and sits under the skins surface. My advice was to take a prescriptive drug called Roaccutane and it would then go away. Alarm bells rang within me immediately as I had heard of this drug and I knew that it had very powerful side effects. The advice from my doctor was to buy some moisturiser as my skin would dry up when I started using it! Now being naturally minded and having studied Functional Medicine for some time, I refused the drug and decided to go alone.

As soon as I got back, I ordered a CDSA stool test to check my digestive health (I knew from my research that many skin problems were closely linked to the health of the digestive system). Four weeks later my results came back to reveal that I had a pathogenic parasite living in my gut called Blastocystis hominis. This was the main reason why I was struggling to break down the protein that I was eating. Not only that but my immune system was under a huge amount of pressure from the parasite. 

unhealthy digestive system


Wanting to delve more into this I consulted a Functional Medicine Doctor that I know on Harley Street in London. He promptly arranged a consultation with me and within 45 minutes, he had explained the link between my fatigue, skin problem and my inability to gain muscle mass. He advised me to take a blend of herbs that would deal with the parasite and suggested that I remain on the healthy diet that I had followed for some time. Within 6 weeks, the rash had gone, I started to gain my muscle mass again and my fatigue had completely disappeared. In a matter of 8 weeks I had gained up to 4 kg of lean tissue, and my body fat had dropped around 4%. This was from doing nothing other than the protocol that I was given. 

Now it’s not very often I can use myself as a case study but I hope this gives you a very clear idea of the power of the digestive system. Yet again in western medicine the initial doctors I saw were trying to treat my symptom (skin) and not the actual cause (my gut health).  

So let me explain a little more about the role of the digestive system.

The digestive tract extends over 25 – 30 feet and runs from the mouth to the anus. It helps breakdown the large protein, carbohydrate and fat molecules found in the food we eat so they can be absorbed into the blood stream.

The first stage of digestion begins in the mouth, this is where fluids are secreted, these are essential for the digestive process and just the very thought of eating promotes their release.


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The second phase which is the stomach is where some of the problems start to appear. Quite a common problem nowadays is something called hypochlorhydria, this is basically where the cells of the stomach wall produce an inadequate amount of stomach acid. The acid is responsible for breaking down the protein you consume and also the absorption of essential minerals. Absorption of amino acids from protein is necessary not only for your health but also for your ability to develop muscle mass (a must for fat burning).

Naturally as we age, we produce less stomach acid but the amount of people in their younger years with a stomach acid imbalance is on this increase. Why is this? Well certain things affect the production of stomach acid:

  • Elevated stress levels. Stress levels in people nowadays are so much higher than in years gone by.
  • Zinc deficiency.
  • Excess calorie intake,  poor food quality and drinking fizzy drinks

Here are some very common signs and symptoms of low stomach acid:

  • Bloating, belching, burning sensation and gas right after meals
  • Candida infections
  • Intestinal parasites or an imbalance between good and bad bacteria
  • Indigestion, diarrhoea or constipation
  • Food allergies
  • Nausea after you take your supplements
  • Sense of fullness after eating a meal

Now if you do suffer from hypochlorhydria, you will more than likely have some bacterial overgrowth in your small intestine. The overgrowth affects the digestion and absorption of various nutrients, especially the B vitamins. Now in relation to fat loss, your liver requires B vitamins to support detoxification and they are also essential in the production of energy (mitochondria). If you’re trying to lose body fat, it is essential that your body is able to detoxify toxins which are stored within the fat cells and you must also ensure that you have enough energy to exercise.

You can address hypochlorhydria by taking a simple HCL (hydrochloric acid) test. You use a supplement form of the stomach acid to test your deficiency level. If you fail the test, you then use the supplement at meal times until levels are restored (further information about this test is available upon request).

The next phase of the digestion process happens in the small intestine, the food which has been broken down travels along as a mixture known as chime.  Pancreatic enzymes and bile (from the liver) are then released which breakdown the protein, carbohydrates and fats. If you have a problem within your pancreas (such as pancreatitis) or liver you will not release the necessary enzymes, this leads to a problem where you are unable to digest or absorb your fats, carbohydrates and proteins. 

The next stage, assuming your nutrients have all been absorbed by the intestine, is when they are transported into the liver. This is where they are processed and then delivered throughout your body in the blood system. Anything that is left will be moved along the digestive system and into the colon. It is here that stool is formed ready for excretion.

Now as you’ve learned, a malfunctioning digestive system can cause a host of problems along the way, but two main ones that I have not highlighted yet are inflammation (inflamed digestive tract) and dysbiosis (this is an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria). An imbalance in either of these areas can dramatically affect the following:

  • Neurotransmitters/Brain function (mood, memory, drive, relaxation)
  • Immune health (frequent illness e.g. colds and flu)
  • Stress (cortisol and the belly fat connection)
  • Thyroid regulation (which affects your metabolism)
  • Insulin resistance (inability to handle sugars which makes you more prone to fat storage)
  • Oxidative stress (depleted antioxidant levels)
  • Depleted HCL (hydrochloric acid) and Zinc (both essential for optimal digestion and absorption)

I’m sure throughout this article you will have resonated with quite a few points, it’s very rare that people don’t. And if you’re also familiar with a lot of the articles on this website, you will have already learned that stress, neurotransmitters and insulin resistance are major problems when it comes to losing body fat.  You may try and fix the one thing such as stress, but I hope you now realise that there could be a further underlying cause to your problems in the digestive system.  It’s not the only place to look but it’s a safe place to start.

So what is the solution?

Well a very popular program that I learned about when I studied with the Institute of Functional Medicine is called the 4R approach. It is a step by step process designed to help heal your digestive system after damage and one that I have a lot of success with.

  • Remove – Possible pathogens, toxins or allergens that may have shown up in a lab test (remember I referred to these at the beginning of this article)
  • Replace – add back essential digestive enzymes, zinc, HCL (hydrochloric acid)
  • Reinoculate – add back healthy pre/probiotics and fibre
  • Repair – finally you will add additional nutrients such as glutamine which helps repair the intestinal wall when it has been damaged (such as inflammation).

Following this process is pointless if you are still continuing to stress your body with all the foods and drink that may have given you the problems in the first place. The following foods are best to be avoided for at least 28 days when you follow the 4R system, caffeine, gluten, wheat, dairy and eggs.

So to summarise, you need to do the following if you suspect you have a faulty digestive system.

  •  Improve your diet (eliminate allergenic or intolerant foods) and add in more nutrient dense foods (lean meats/fish, healthy fats, colourful vegetables and salads) 
  • Add in essential fatty acids (such as fish oil), fibre, plenty of rich phytonutrients
  • Support  your digestion with enzymes and HCL
  • Support normal digestive flora with healthy pre and probiotics
  • Support the repair process with glutamine etc
  • Improve the health of your immune system with antioxidants, herbs and nutrients
  • Remove digestive system infections and toxins that may have shown up in a lab test.

Don’t let your digestive system get in the way of your attempts to be healthy, lean and strong.

Would you like to know the exact processes we use with all of our M10 personal training clients to help them achieve results and optimal health? Pick up your copy of the M10 Blueprint today.

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