The Ileo-Caecal Valve
Many people have never heard of the ileo-caecal valve (ICV), but it’s surprisingly important to your overall health, and malfunction is all too common.
The ICV is a small but important part of your digestive system, found just above the appendix.
It is a one-way valve that both joins and separates the small and the large intestines. As these two areas have quite distinct environments and functions, maintaining an effective barrier between the two is important when it comes to healthy digestive function. The ICV's primary purpose is to manage the flow of waste out of the body in a controlled way, so that it doesn't stay in the small intestine for too long or have an opportunity to flow back after passing into the large intestine. This ensures that the goodness is absorbed from our food, but that waste matter is expelled before it can do us harm. Problems with the ICV can lead to IBS symptoms of bloating, nausea, indigestion, constipation and diarrhoea plus it's been linked to many other health problems.
Where is it?
The ICV is located in the lower right-hand side of the pelvis - imagine drawing a diagonal line between the navel and right hip bone, and it's about half way between the two. You may feel some tenderness around this area when it is massaged.
Problems that can occur
The ICV may stay open for too long, allowing waste to pass through before nutrients have been absorbed, or even 'back-flow' from the large intestine into the small intestine, effectively polluting the body with the toxic matter designed to be excreted. Bacteria from the large intestine may also find its way into the small intestine in this way, which could contribute to SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth), more on that later. Another possible problem with ICV function is that after the nutrients have been absorbed by the small intestine, the valve may not open to allow the waste to move on into the large intestine. If the waste matter stays in the small intestine for too long, toxins can be reabsorbed into the body.
Both situations encourage increased toxicity, which is connected to a long list of possible symptoms and ailments, including..
Burping and flatulence
Candida Albicans overgrowth
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Chest pains and palpitations
Colds and flu symptoms
Dark circles under the eyes
In fact ileo-caecal valve malfunction is thought by many natural health practitioners to be an important cause of ill health.
A number of factors can interfere with the smooth functioning of the ICV and result in an unhappy digestive system. The first, and in my opinion most common reason for repeated ICV malfunction, is stress.
It may seem strange that your daily worries and pressures could lead to problems in this seemingly unrelated part of your anatomy, but actually they are much more closely connected that you would think. That's because the ICV is under the control of the autonomic nervous system, which is part of the limbic system in the brain, an area also responsible for our perception and experience of stress. The autonomic nervous system has two branches known as the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). They are closely connected to the stress response because the SNS represents the fight or flight response that keeps us safe when we're in danger, busy and on the go; and the PSNS is the rest, digest and reproduce state we should be in the rest of the time. The reality is that most of us spend far more time with our SNS activated than should be the case, because we live in a world, and in a way, that presents our nervous systems with repeated stressors that activate our SNS even though we may not technically be in any danger.
Going back to our ICVs, it is the PSNS and SNS that control the opening and closing of the valve. If we are suffering from chronic stress and our SNS is dominant, our valves may be stuck in the shut position too often, preventing waste from getting through. If your PSNS dominates, which may be the case if you are suffering with adrenal burn out, chronic fatigue or similar, then your ICV may be stuck open too much of the time, preventing nutrient absorption from taking place in the small intestine, and allowing toxins and bacteria to flow back from the large intestine.
Other factors that can impact the ICV are infections or imbalances within the gut, such as Candida overgrowth, parasite infection, low stomach acid or enzymes, and dysbiosis (bacterial imbalance). These problems are all too common thanks to our processed diets, overconsumption of sugars and refined starches, reliance on medical drugs like antibiotics and antacids, and stressful lifestyles. You may like to try including digestive enzymes with your meals, or fermented foods and probiotic supplements to help to restore bacterial balance, but be mindful that in some cases probiotics can aggravate digestive conditions, so consult an expert if needs be.
Certain food and drinks may also irritate the ICV, including caffeine and alcohol, chocolate, raw and spicy foods, crunchy foods like popcorn, crisps, nuts and seeds, plus allergenic foods like soya, wheat and dairy. Avoiding these foods for a limited period of time, or longer if you suffer with an intolerance, can help to re-establish the function of the ICV.
Eating habits can also impact the ICV such as eating too quickly, too often and too much, habitual snacking, and failing to chew properly. Dehydration is another factor that seems to upset things in this department.
We can also look at the function of the ICV and the intestines from a Chinese medicine viewpoint, to consider what an imbalance in this area may reveal about our emotions and tendencies. The large intestine is linked to an ability to transform and emerge, to let go of the old and move forward to the new. You may want to ask yourself, are you holding on to things that don't serve you or bottling things up emotionally? Do you find it hard to let go of things generally in your life, whether that be foods that don't suit you, relationships that hold you back, negative habits and patterns? The large intestine is an organ/meridian that falls within the metal element in the Chinese five element model, which features grief as its primary emotion. So perhaps there is some unresolved grief in your life, or are you attached to a sad memory that you can't let go of. These emotional and spiritual factors are well worth considering alongside the more physiological aspects of ICV problems.
ICV and SIBO
SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth) refers to a condition whereby much larger numbers of bacteria are found in the small intestine than appropriate, and the types of bacteria that are found are more suited to the colon. This overgrowth of bacteria can promote unpleasant symptoms due to their impact on carbohydrate digestion, as the bacteria feed on the sugars and starches in the food, producing hydrogen and methane gas. While there are many reasons why SIBO may develop, a malfunctioning ICV is one underlying pathology that may contribute both to its incidence and persistence, because when the ICV is stuck open, bacteria from the large intestine is able to access and colonise the small intestine. By failing to recognise and correct problems with the ICV, SIBO is unlikely to be successfully treated in the long-term.
Diet and natural therapies for ICV health
Establishing the cause of any ICV problems, plus prevention of recurrence, includes a close look at what and how you're eating. While there are dietary factors common to most ICV problems, a tailor made programme particular to your dietary requirements is best for long term benefit.Once ICV problems are established, there is also an effective Energy Medicine protocol that can be used, involving stimulating a range of specific acupressure points and lymphatic reflex points, to help correct malfunction. Many clients that come in with digestive symptoms respond very well to dietary changes and regular ICV treatment, which they can continue to work with at home for maximum benefit.
Other therapies to support mood, stress and digestive function include essential oils and flower remedies. Essential oils can be diluted and applied topically to the skin over the abdomen to benefit digestive function as well as used in a burner or diffuser, directly accessing the limbic system and positively impacting mood and emotional health. Flower remedies support health on a more subtle level, easing any emotional states that may be holding us back, perpetuating physical problems.
Looking after your ICV
Now you know how important your ICV is to your overall health, try taking some daily steps to support function and prevent problems from occurring.
Eat cooked food that is easy to digest - reduce intake of raw, crunchy and processed foods
Avoid alcohol and caffeine
Avoid excess sugars and refined carbohydrates
Avoid foods you are sensitive to or get tested if you're not sure
Chew your food really well
Use digestive enzymes with meals to help break down your food effectively
Leave a decent gap between meals, only snacking if you really need to
Don't eat when you're stressed, sit down and relax first
Stay well hydrated between meals, but don't drink too much with your food
Massage the area over and around your ICV regularly - perhaps morning and evening in bed. Your ICV can be found midway between your navel and right hip bone.
Identify your stress triggers and look to reduce exposure
Actively manage stress using techniques such as meditation, mindfulness and yoga
If you think you may have a more persistent problem with your ICV, or a chronic infection or imbalance within the digestive system, it's best to work with a practitioner who can help to identify problems and recommend treatment
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