WHETHER YOU’RE SOMEONE WHO LIVES TO EAT or eats to live, there’s no getting around it—our digestion is central to our being. In fact, the center of the digestive system is located at the body’s center point. When digestion is going smoothly, we’re rewarded with a sense of well-being—and when it’s not, the stomach lets us know.
Digestion affects our lives on many levels. For example, there’s the obvious physical discomfort that occurs when the process goes awry. This is an evolutionary “safety mechanism”—the body telling us that something needs to be fixed. However, poor digestion can have much deeper consequences than a stomachache. The digestive tract’s primary purpose is to extract nutrition from food and discard the rest. How efficiently the stomach, intestines, and other digestive organs do their jobs has a profound impact on quality of life. People who eat healthy diets but have poor digestion may be allowing optimal nutrition to pass them by. And those who eat primarily processed foods are just making a bad situation worse. In addition to poor nutrient absorption, bad digestion can lead to acid reflux, indigestion, irritable bowel disease, and other uncomfortable conditions. It can also have a direct impact on the nervous system, emotional health, immunity, and hormones. In other words, nutrition offers a bounty of health opportunities. If we take care of the center, the rest will quite often take care of itself.THE IMPORTANCE OF BACTERIA We’ve been trained to believe that bacteria are the enemy. We see this in our overreliance on antibiotics and antibacterial soaps, and our sometimes obsessive focus on cleanliness. While this phobia can be justified by some dangerous bacteria—E. coli, Staphylococcus, and Salmonella, to name a few—we should never forget the crucial role friendly bacteria play in maintaining our health. Humans and the bacteria that inhabit our guts have developed a symbiotic relationship over thousands of years. We provide them with a home, and they help us with digestion, immunity, and other functions. They manufacture vitamins, boost immune cells, and prevent us from absorbing harmful pathogens.TOP FOODS AND SUPPLEMENTS FOR DIGESTION Given that good digestion and good bacteria protect against disease, it only makes sense to ensure that we’re getting supplements and foods that enhance and support these two features.PROBIOTIC AND PREBIOTIC SUPPLEMENTS support the growth of healthy bacteria in two critical ways. Probiotics provide live strains of friendly bacteria that are crucial to digestive, immune, and neurological health. Prebiotics (food for probiotics) ensure that friendly flora have a nourishing environment in which to thrive.DIGESTIVE ENZYMES support digestion and help improve nutrient absorption. In addition, enzymes, which break down proteins and other nutrients into smaller parts, increase digestive capacity. For best results, use a combination enzyme formula with protease, lipase, amylase, and other enzymes.ZINC is a critical nutrient required to make many digestive enzymes. It is also involved in hormone regulation, immune health, and neurological function.HERBS can also play a role in digestion. Here are a few of my favorites for better digestion:
Chinese Cardamom increases antioxidant levels, and supports immunity and digestion.
Cinnamon soothes discomfort, improves digestive capacity, boosts immunity, and balances blood sugar.
Ginger Root improves digestion, reduces inflammation, increases antioxidant levels, and boosts immunity.
Chamomile and Mint are especially comforting for the stomach and contribute to healthy digestion. They ease stomach irritation and relax the smooth muscles of the digestive tract.
FISH OIL reduces inflammation and helps heal the gastrointestinal tract; improves nutrient absorption; balances hormones; bolsters neurological function; and boosts immunity.
FIBER keeps things moving, which prevents the colon from collecting toxins that can cause disease. Fruits, such as prunes, and gluten-free grains, such as quinoa, legumes, and flax seeds, all contain ample amounts of healthy fiber.
CULTURED, FERMENTED FOODS are rich in digestive enzymes and probiotic bacteria that can help improve digestive function. Some examples are sauerkraut, kefir, and apple cider vinegar.
ALKALINE FOODS: One of the most common digestive complaints is an overly acidic stomach. An ideal way to neutralize acidity is to eat more alkaline foods. The body has mechanisms to restore alkaline/acid levels, but a chronically acidic state can tax these mechanisms and impair digestion.
Alkaline foods include kale, kelp, spinach, parsley, broccoli, and sea vegetables.
Keep in mind that in many cases, too much stomach acid is due to a hydrochloric acid (betaine HCL or HCL) deficiency. Low HCL causes food to stagnate in the stomach, resulting in acid reflux and a feeling of hyperacidity. Taking digestive enzymes that contain HCL can help. You can also find HCL as a single supplement. Take with meals.
FOODS TO AVOID
Some foods are notorious for causing digestive discomfort, and eating them can lead to long-term digestive problems.
Dairy is one of the top offenders because it’s simply difficult to digest. Specifically, the lactose found in dairy products contributes to gas, bloating, diarrhea, and digestive dysfunction, especially in people who have trouble metabolizing the enzyme. One way to get the nutrition of dairy without the gas and bloating is with yogurt or kefir, which are easier on the digestive tract.
Gluten-containing foods, such as wheat, barley, and rye, can interfere with digestive capacity. They have also been found to contribute to inflammatory conditions, heartburn, autoimmune disorders, neurological and behavioral issues, skin diseases, osteoporosis, chronic fatigue, and other conditions.
If you have chronic digestive or immune issues, it’s possible that you may have a gluten sensitivity or even celiac disease, an autoimmune condition in which any intake of gluten damages the intestinal lining. Interestingly, a strict gluten-free diet can clear up symptoms even in people who have tested negative for gluten intolerance or celiac disease.
Processed food, with its artificial ingredients, can definitely cause digestive problems. Sodas, coffee, alcohol, and certain pharmaceutical drugs can kill beneficial bacteria and lead to an overly acidic pH. Avoiding these substances can improve digestive health significantly.
BY ISAAC ELIAZ, MD, LAc, MS, is an integrative medical doctor, licensed acupuncturist, and researcher with more than 25 years of experience based in Santa Rosa, Calif. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.
DIGESTIVE TUNE-UP CHECKLIST
It’s not enough to change what we eat; we must also address how we eat. Late meals, rushed eating, and stress—along with a poor diet—can contribute to digestive issues. Simply taking time to slow down and chew thoroughly can improve digestive health and relieve tension. To support digestive health:
√ Avoid eating anything two to three hours before bedtime.
√ Have yourself tested for common food allergies and sensitivities.
√ Avoid sodas, and drink plenty of filtered water and herbal teas to stay hydrated, instead. Many experts assert however, that it’s important to obtain hydration between meals, as too much water during a meal can dilute digestive fluids.
√ Take a daily supplement that helps enhance digestive function. One product to try: The Vitamin Shoppe Digest Extra. See products to the right for more suggestions.
√ Find healthy ways to relieve stress, such as meditation, exercise, and laughter.
√ Practice yoga: it will improve your digestion and reduce stress.
√ Limit your intake of over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
√ Reduce the amount of caffeine and alcohol you consume. They can both damage friendly digestive bacteria.
OUR PRODUCT PICKS:
WORLD NUTRITION Vitälzym provides a broad range of enzymes and features an enteric-coated gel capsule to ensure enzymes are not destroyed by stomach acids.
NATURE’S SOURCES AbsorbAid Platinum Super Digestive Blend delivers 100% vegetarian plant enzymes that aid in digestion and help prevent stomach distress.
RENEW LIFE Ultimate Flora Critical Care, boasting a 50 billion Bifido bacteria count, is recommended for people with particularly troublesome digestive tracts.