Few things slow us down more than digestive discomfort.
We’ve all been there: the bloating, gas, nausea, vomiting, reflux, diarrhea, constipation, heart burn; the list is endless.
As we age, it seems to get worse; almost anything can throw digestion off, including stress, travel, overeating, certain foods (food intolerances), infections… almost anything.
Digestive problems are not simply an inconvenience or a bother; how well your digestive process works is closely tied to your overall health.
You Are What You Digest!
It has been said that digestive health is equal to overall health. Without the ability to properly digest food, there is no way you can survive. The only way your body gets the essential building blocks to run itself is through the food you consume. When you encounter digestive problems, the digestive system no longer does its job as well and your body begins to starve for essential nutrients. You can put all the high-quality health foods and supplements into your mouth that you can afford, but what good are they if they can’t be used?
Just some of the things that can go wrong with your digestive system:
- Acid Reflux or GERD
- Candida overgrowth
- Celiac Disease
- Constipation or Diarrhea
- Food Allergies
- Gas, Bloating, and Fullness
- Heartburn & Indigestion
- Helicobacter pylori infection
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s Colitis)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Lactose Intolerance
- Parasite infections
- Stomach Ulcers
- Upset Stomach
And that is just a sampling of the common conditions and symptoms.
What you Choose to Eat
What you choose to eat can have a dramatic effect on your digestion.
For example, it is estimated that between 30 and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant (meaning they lack the enzyme to digest milk sugar) and yet most of these people continue to consume dairy products. This means that they are likely experiencing cramping, bloating gas, diarrhea and other symptoms. But what they don’t realize is that those are just the symptoms of lactose intolerance, what is going on in their body is much more serious.
Since people with lactose intolerance cannot digest the milk sugar (lactose) it is being consumed by bacteria in the gut. These bacteria feed and grow off of the milk sugar (and these bacteria are what cause the gas and bloating). Beyond that, the bacteria create waste and other byproducts that can be harmful to the cells that line the digestive system, which, in turn can lead to inflammation, immune problems, and even more digestive problems.
This increase in inflammation and immune system problems can also happen with other foods you may be eating. Common food allergies include: soy, wheat, nuts, shellfish, citrus, eggs, and many others.
And then there is gluten intolerance. We have devoted an entire section to this profoundly important issue.
Another often overlooked aspect of digestion is the body’s pH level. There is a basic pH balance in your body called the acid/base or acid/alkaline balance. Every food we eat has an impact on the pH level of our bodies. While the body thrives at a close to neutral or slightly alkaline pH, many foods we eat throw our bodies into too much of an acidic state. Acid-forming foods are mainly meats, sugars and grains, while alkaline-forming foods are mostly fruits and vegetables.
pH is also impacted by environment and emotions.
Optimizing Digestive Function
There is much you can do to optimize your digestive system. The following focuses on some of the basics. Also see the Lifestyle Section on Diet..
- Get Tested for Intestinal Parasites and Bacteria: Microbiological examinations of feces can reveal harmful organisms that have taken up residence in your intestines, if not other organs. An increasingly common danger to health is the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which is now known to cause almost all stomach ulcers, as well as a plethora of other conditions, some leading to cancer and heart disease.
- Eat food: While this sounds like a simplistic recommendation, it is actually fairly hard to follow. Many of the foods we eat are not foods at all, but processed food products. Take the time to find and eat foods that are as close to their original form as possible. This means choosing the apple over the apple pie, choosing potatoes (red are best) over French fries, and—if you eat meat—choosing a steak over a fast-food hamburger. Always add as many fruits and vegetables into your diet as possible.
- Digestive enzymes: The body produces enzymes that break down food particles into useable portions. These essential enzymes (such as Papain and pancreatin) fade as we age and must be supplemented in order to maintain good digestion, absorption, and assimilation. You can find digestive enzymes in supplemental form. See Support Digestion.
- Healthy bacteria/microflora: Our digestive systems are full of bacteria and having a good balance between good and bad bacteria is important to our health.1 Given the things we do to encourage the growth of bad bacteria: stress, eating sugar, taking certain drugs, etc) it’s a wise practice to supplement with good bacteria (known as probiotics), including Acidophilus, Bifidobacteria and others. Shop for probiotics here.
- Water: Water is essential for the proper functioning of the digestive tract. You should drink enough so that your urine is clear or slightly straw-color. Keep your drinking water pure and avoid plastic bottles by installing water filter systems with enhancement media.
- Specific nutrients: L-Glutamine,2 licorice,3 slippery elm, turmeric root extract, and a host of other nutrients are great to help ensure the health of your digestive system. See Support Mucosa.
- HPA hormone balancing: When the HPA glands are performing at their best, digestive harm can be drastically reduced. With saliva based lab tests that measure cortisol and DHEA patterns, natural therapies for hormone balance can be developed. These doctors know hormones.
- Relax and enjoy meals: Stress tends to impact the digestive process negatively. Take the time to enjoy your food. Chew well. Turn off the TV. Eat with friends and family.
1 Saulnier DM, Kolida S, Gibson GR. Microbiology of the human intestinal tract and approaches for its dietary modulation. Curr Pharm Des. 2009;15(13):1403-14.
2 Blachier F, Boutry C, Bos C, Tomé D. Metabolism and functions of L-glutamate in the epithelial cells of the small and large intestines. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul 1.
3 Madisch A, Holtmann G, Mayr G, Vinson B, Hotz J. Treatment of functional dyspepsia with a herbal preparation. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial. Digestion. 2004;69(1):45-52.