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Ileocecal Valve: Preventing Backflow

Introducing Your Ileocecal Valve

Between the small intestine and the large intestine is a sphincter-type valve called the Ileocecal Valve (ICV). The purpose of this valve is to “prevent backflow” from the Large Intestine, once any material leaves the Small Intestine.

Not all the contents entering the digestive tube are going to be absorbed as food. In fact, much of what is ingested and processed continues to flow through the tube for eventual elimination. At the point where the small intestine ends, it sends its watery waste products into the large intestine.

IF things “are normal” the ileocecal valve:

  1.  Remains closed most of the time.
  2.  Opens briefly to let the contents of the small intestine exit.
  3.  Closes again quickly to prevent any materials in the large intestine from leaking back.

This very important anatomical structure does an unheralded job. The Ileocecal Valve is such a major cause of digestive symptoms for people that the problem has reached epidemic proportions; yet, outside the chiropractic profession, its function and importance are practically unknown.

Problems with an open ileocecal valve (Ileocecal Valve Syndrome) are extremely common in today’s society yet its symptoms are often misdiagnosed. Very few health practitioners understand the significance of the ICV in digestive problems.

Anatomy of the Ileocecal Valve

The function of your ileocecal valve is similar to the functioning of the anal sphincter at the very end of the tube. It’s supposed to remain closed most of the time, open briefly to let its contents exit and then close again.

The purpose of this valve, which is critical for your digestive system, is to prevent the backwards flow of waste from your large intestine into the small intestine. You don’t want the juices in the garbage disposal area to mix with the juices from the nutritional area.

Let Me Share an Analogy I Used Often in my Clinic

Let’s say you have just finished preparing a wonderful meal and are about to sit down to enjoy it. Just before you do, you place the meal on the counter next to the sink. You take the remnants of the preparation process–carrot tops, meat gristle, pineapple thorns, and whatever else–and put them in the garbage disposal to be whisked away.

For our example, let’s say you forget to put the cover on the garbage disposal. What happens when you flick the switch? As you might imagine, the contents of the garbage meant for disposal could fly all around the kitchen area mixing with your newly prepared meal. If this happened, you wouldn’t want to eat your meal.

It goes without saying that you don’t want the contents of the garbage area of your intestines mixing with the contents of the kitchen area. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens in the body’s most important “kitchen area,” the small intestine.

The ileocecal valve serves the same function as the cover or cap on the garbage disposal. If the ileocecal valve becomes open and remains open, the contents of the large intestine can and do leak back into the small intestine. This is not good for many reasons.

One reason is the contents of the two different sections of the tube have different pH chemistry. If the two juices mix, this immediately causes gas. Another is that the contents of the small intestine are to be absorbed; whereas the contents of the large intestine are to be eliminated.

The whole purpose of the ileocecal valve is to prevent the contents of these two distinctly different parts of the digestive tube from coming in contact. Probably very few people have not had some discomfort from their ileocecal valve at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, a large number of people have daily or weekly episodes of open ileocecal valve syndrome.

For these people, the natural ability of their ileocecal sphincter to open and close at the appropriate times is lost. This may be due to food toxicity, which overwhelms the muscles of the valve, or it may be that the nerve supply to the muscles of the valve has been compromised. Whatever the cause, once the ICV remains open too long, the insides of the valve become irritated and inflamed.

Now it won’t close because it’s too sore and damaged. All this can happen internally without you knowing about it. If you take all the people who are known to be suffering with the diagnosed conditions of ileitis, Crohn’s Disease, spastic colon, chronic fatigue, gluten intolerance and irritable bowel syndromes, and add the people with non-specific bowel complaints with “no cause,” you are looking at least 25 percent of the population.

In my clinic, 80 percent of my clients with the difficult digestive symptoms had to work through their ileocecal valve problems before they could gain their way back their health.

Typical Symptoms of Your Ileocecal Valve

The ICV causes so many different symptoms that it has been called the “great mimicker” by the chiropractic profession. Its symptoms can manifest far from the source of their cause and are often very perplexing until you understand what is creating them.

ICV symptoms can present as joint pain, circulation problems, muscular aches and pains, pinched nerves, or even whole body arthritis. The following lists many of the common symptoms attributed to the malfunctioning ICV, as related to how the patient experiences them. See if you have experienced any of them in the past. If you have, perhaps you can check them off and discuss them with hopefully your chiropractor or natural therapies provider.

  • Sudden, stabbing, sharp low back or leg pain that feels just like a disc pain, especially when sitting or driving, with no mechanical cause
  • A standing curvature that makes it look as though your back or hip is out. There may not be a specific pain the person can perceive, yet the distorted body posture can be seen in a mirror or by others
  • Sharp, pinpoint headaches, especially on the left side, at the base of the skull
  • Dull headaches, which often linger for hours in the frontal area
  • Migraine headaches are frequently of ileocecal origin as a system-wide response to the toxicity of the ICV
  • Chronic sinus infection, dripping sinuses, especially when not during allergy season
  • Allergies, the type often wrongly attributed to dust, cat hair, and mites
  • Dark circles under the eyes, puffy cheeks
  • “Loose bowels” not quite diarrhea, but looser than should be
  • Any of the “colon syndromes” such as Crohn’s Disease, spastic colon, irritable bowel, Celiac Disease
  • Burning leg pain (that feels like a nerve) into the front of the left thigh
  • “Asthma-like” symptoms
  • General non-specific lower GI discomfort or symptoms often attributed to a psychological cause by practitioners unfamiliar with the ICV

Brain Management for Your Ileocecal Valve

More than any other digestive problem, the ICV requires ”brain management” awareness. Even when I’ve clearly diagnosed this problem for patients, they continue to have trouble understanding how their behaviors continue to their pain and suffering. If this is a problem in your situation, you’ll have to do many things to completely take care of it.

The Way You Chew Your Food

You must chew your food as thoroughly as possible. If you don’t chew your food to liquid form, you are sending boulders through the tube to the ileocecal valve.

This is particularly true for the foods that are known to create ICV problems, such as popcorn, raw nuts, and especially raw salads. You must chew these types of food thoroughly.

Many people “half-chew” popcorn or nuts for the first few bites. After these foods lose their taste appeal by the third or fourth bite, the tendency is to start shoveling in the offending food.

The Quality and Texture of Food You Are Eating

Some ICV Syndromes can be caused directly by the type of food you are eating. Ironically, “health food” can cause problems because it has a higher content of roughage. With this type of food, poor chewing is more likely to create irritation.

When you eat a typical “fast food” meal, it’s relatively easy for your body to process because the food is highly refined. Thus, relatively speaking, not chewing isn’t that bad.

When a person switches to a healthier diet (with good intentions), particularly heavy with tuberous vegetables (carrots, broccoli, or beans), chewing becomes much more of an issue. If you put nuts in a raw salad for example, the ability to digest without extensive chewing becomes practically impossible. If this person eats the same way as they did when eatingrefined foods, they will get in trouble quickly with their Ileocecal Valve.

The Condition and Toxicity of Your Large Intestine

Your large intestine (next chapter) may be so toxic that you need some type of a Digestive Repair Program to get it back to something approximating normal. Your colon may have become so toxic due to prior inattention that its overwhelming toxicity backwashes continually against the valve. This usually applies when your prior diet and eating habits were particularly atrocious or if you have taken antibiotics recently.

If your colon were a causative factor in your ICV problem, you would benefit from a Digestive Repair Program, or perhaps direct cleansing of the colon with colonics or enemas. Because the colon is the toxic dump area, when you have problems with a sluggish or severely overloaded colon, this causes problems for the entire body.

The Nerve Going To Your Valve

As every chiropractor knows, the nerve from the right side (Thoracic 12) is the main nerve that supplies the ICV. This nerve can be partially blocked, as in a spinal fixation, or irritated, as caused by a hyper-mobile irritation of the nerve root. Either way, the normal regulatory function of the nerve to the circular muscles of the ileocecal valve is compromised.

To put this simply, if you step on the hose when you are watering a plant, the water will not flow through the hose and the plant will wither and die. If the 12thThoracic nerve is being irritated at the spine, the sphincter muscles of the ICV will not receive the proper balance of nerve impulses to function properly.

This means, if you correctly follow the Digestive Awareness Diet, it may not be enough! The ICV, and indeed any digestive organ problems, cannot always be cured by dietary and eating modifications alone. You may still have regulatory nerve problems affecting the major organs. This is one reason why a holistic approach to digestive disorders is so necessary.

A chiropractor is the qualified professional to assess the nerves that supply all your digestive organs (esophagus, stomach, pancreas, gallbladder, small intestine, ICV and large intestine. If “pinched nerves” are involved in your specific situation, he/she will be able to identify which spinal segments are involved, if any, and which organs they may be affecting.

Emotional Stress Factors

Another factor in digestive health is a person’s emotional state. Emotional traumas such as a divorce, a sudden death in the family, or a stressful work situation are also known to have a direct impact on the ICV through shutting down the body in general.

If you are constantly worrying about a life problem, your ICV is under stress as well. An unhappy marriage or relationship, a stressful boss, getting fired, and especially financial problems are some examples of likely stressors that can lead to ICV episodes.

Foreign Travel

If you notice unusual digestive problems that seem to mimic the Ileocecal Valve constellation of symptoms, think back to whether you traveled in a foreign country during the prior months/year.

Sometimes that “one-time dysentery” becomes part of your permanent legacy once you return. In this case, it may even be a water borne pathogen or difficult bacteria that everyone knows about in that foreign country, but hey, you are back in civilization now, and yet you still don’t feel right.

Many current diseases, such a “heart disease” and “strokes” are being increasingly seen as being the end result of an “inflammatory” process. The mixing of the juices between your Small and Large Intestines, is about the worst “inflammatory process” you’d want to encounter, and when the Ileocecal Valve is not right, that’s exactly what happens to you every day until you correct it.