We only feel as good as what we are able to consume, digest, and absorb into our bodies. There are many factors that can contribute to digestive dysfunction including stress, aging, and poor diet. Stress is a major cause of digestive distress; often contributing to heartburn, irritable bowel, and triggering flare ups in inflammatory bowel conditions. Our gut is sometimes referred to as the “second brain” because there is a direct connection between our brain and our intestines. The intestines are a concentrated source of neurons – actually containing more than are found in the spinal cord. It is also a neurotransmitter-rich environment, producing 95% of the body’s serotonin. No wonder we often feel emotion via our gut, get butterflies from nerves, and experience digestive upset from stressful events. Learning to manage stress is a must in your quest for digestive peace and calm.
A diet heavy in refined processed foods, inadequate chewing, or eating late at night and “on the run” can all stress the digestive system. Practicing mindful eating, where you focus on the meal in front of you can help prepare your body for the digestion process. Digestion starts in the mouth where chewing physically begins to break down food and saliva enzymes start to break down carbohydrates and fats. Simply chewing more thoroughly is a simple way to ease the workload of the stomach and intestines. Drinking adequate amounts of water is also important as dehydration can reduce saliva production and compromise digestion.
Many diets today are lacking foods that are a natural source of enzymes that may help with digestion. Raw fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and sprouts are enzyme-rich foods. Food enzymes are destroyed during the cooking process but you don’t have to go on a totally raw diet, just try to include some raw foods with your meals and snacks throughout the day. Bromelain from pineapples is a commonly used supplement to assist with digestion of protein and also acts as an anti-inflammatory. Papain is an enzyme complex from papaya fruit often used to aid with protein digestion and may have some effect in digesting starch and fats.
Digestive enzymes produced by the body break down the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in the diet into smaller nutrient molecules that can be absorbed by the body. Salivary amylase and lipase kick off the digestive process, followed by pepsin in the stomach which is activated by stomach acid (HCl) and starts breaking down proteins. Hypochlorhydria or low stomach acid is an under-recognized contributing factor to digestive-related problems. Some symptoms associated with low gastric acidity include undigested food in the stool, bloating, nausea after supplements, and food allergies.
Pancreatic enzymes take over when food enters the small intestines. Proteases, lipase, and amylase target their individual macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates). Pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis can cause severe malabsorption problems due to impaired enzyme output requiring supplemental pancreatic enzymes. Chronic under-secretion of these enzymes can lead to fat and protein malabsorption and reduced micronutrient absorption contributing to various health conditions. Digestive problems due to inadequate enzyme production may increase the risk of food allergies. If proteins are not fully digested, they can cross the gut wall into systemic circulation where they may be perceived as a threat and stimulate an immune response. This effect is known as “leaky gut”. Supplemental proteases taken with food can help reduce the size and number of larger proteins that may cross the gut wall into the blood stream.
Lactase is produced in the small intestine, along with other enzymes. Lactose intolerance occurs when there is reduced lactase activity and the milk sugar lactose is not digested leading to diarrhea, bloating, and gas. An estimated 75% of people worldwide experience some degree of reduced lactase activity. Lactose intolerance can be genetic or due to damage to the intestinal lining from autoimmune inflammation or from infection. Taking the lactase enzyme can help those suffering from lactose intolerance avoid unpleasant digestive symptoms.
Probiotics also play a very important role in your digestive system. These “friendly bacteria” are working hard to keep your GI tract in healthy balance. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria include a variety of beneficial strains among others that make it an inhospitable environment for harmful bacteria, yeasts, and parasites. When antibiotics wipe them out along with the bad bacteria, imbalances can occur. Disruption in the ecology of your gut can even lead to the development of food sensitivities, Candida yeast overgrowth, or other inflammatory conditions.
There are a variety of herbs and spices that have been used throughout history for their digestive benefits. Ginger, cardamom, fennel, peppermint, and anise are a few. Ginger can help ease nausea. Cardamom may have anti-spasm and anti-flatulence activity and has a history of use with dyspepsia and irritable bowel syndrome. Peppermint may help ease dyspepsia and fullness and has also been used for irritable bowel syndrome, although it may worsen heartburn for some.
Finally, get moving! Regular exercise can be a great way to manage stress which is important for digestive health. It also helps keep one regular and reduces constipation, gas, and bloating. It stimulates contraction of intestinal muscles and moves waste through the colon faster.
Megan Witt, RD
This article is for information only and is not intended to diagnose, cure, or treat any conditions. Please seek the advice and care of a qualified healthcare provider if you have any concerns about your digestive health.
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