“All disease begins in the gut.” –Hippocrates
Was Hippocrates right over 2,000 years ago? I would have to agree with him a majority of the time when it comes to chronic diseases. A healthy digestive system begins with excellent digestion so let’s go over some tips to help you improve your digestion naturally. Firstly, I’d like to briefly cover the reason why your digestion may be out of balance.
What causes bad digestion?
Eating very quickly while on the run and not completely focusing on your meal will result in poor digestion. You must be in a parasympathetic dominant state which is your “rest and digest” branch of your nervous system. Many people are sympathetic dominant when they eat which is the “fight or flight” branch of your nervous system.
Stress is a major cause of bad digestion which puts you in a sympathetic dominant state. When your sympathetic nervous is revved up, your body produces adrenaline which takes blood away from your stomach and lowers stomach acid so you won’t digest food very well. Sympathetic dominance also shuts down the gall bladder and the pancreas further impairing good digestion. Watching television, reading, texting, checking Facebook etc. while you’re eating will draw you out of your rest and digest state resulting in poor digestion.
Antibiotics are major cause of bad digestion and the more antibiotics you have taken in your life, the more likely you are to have digestive problems. Each time you take an antibiotic the bacteria in your gut change their genes to become resistant to antibiotics. Additionally, the bacteria will behave differently and will actually be out of balance for appoximately 13 months after a single round of antibiotics.
Birth control pills have been linked to Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD) including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Birth control pills deplete the body of many vital vitamins and minerals including folic acid, magnesium, and zinc that are important for gut health. The longer you have taken oral contraceptives, the more likely you are to develop gut problems.
Dental infections can cause bad digestion if you are constantly swallowing bad bacteria from the mouth. Proper oral hygeine is vital to improve your digestive health. Sinus infections can also be connected to bad digestion as these bacteria make their way down the back of the throat and are swallowed into the gut.
Antacid medications lower your natural production of stomach acid which will impair digestion. This leads to poorly digested food entering the small intestine which can increase inflammation, cause dysbiosis, and irritate the gall bladder and pancreas. Those who take antacids are at risk for developing many nutrient deficiences as well as infections in the gut. Stomach acid is absolutely vital for a healthy digestive tract so suppressing it can only cause problems in the long run. If you have heartburn the key is to figure out what is causing it rather than just suppressing acid levels.
Are there any conditions that cause bad digestion?
Helicobacter pylori is a bacteria in your stomach that overgrows when someone is under chronic stress resulting in low stomach acid, heartburn and poor digestion. This bacteria causes ulcers and it can wreak havoc on your digestion.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or SIBO, is a condition where too many bacteria are in your upper intestine causing dysbiosis which results in the signs and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Dysbiosis mainly means that the bacterial colonies in your gut are out of balance. If you have taken a lot of antibiotics throughout your life or have eaten a lot of sugar and refined carbohydrates then you may have SIBO or dysbiosis. Symptoms of SIBO include:
- Abdominal pain & discomfort
- Abdominal cramps
- Weight gain with difficulty losing weight
- Feeling like you don’t completely empty your bowel when you have a movement
- Alternating constipation and diarrhea
- Inconsistently formed stools such as random changes in size, shape and color
- Passing mucus
- Sometimes feeling hungry shortly after meals
- Fatigue after meals
- Brain fog
Other conditions that can lower stomach acid and cause bad digestion include:
- Hashimoto’s disease
- Hyperthyroidism due to Graves’ disease
- Adrenal stress
- Zinc deficiency
- B-vitamin deficiency
- Intestinal infections such as parasites, yeast, viruses or bacteria
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Food sensitivities such as gluten and dairy
- Celiac disease
If you have any of these conditions above then it’s best to be evaluated thoroughly by a functional medicine practitioner to find the root cause of your digestive system problems.
What can you do to improve digestion?
- Chew your food slowly and completely until it is liquefied before swallowing.
- Sit in a quiet and comfortable place without distractions such as TV, your cell phone, computer etc.
- Do not read anything while eating.
- Think about positive thoughts and how grateful you are to have the food.
- Do not eat “on the run”. Put time aside each day for healthy and relaxing meals.
- Keep your portion sizes about the size of your fist so you’re not eating too much.
- Lemon or lime squeezed in warm water can help digestion.
- Do not drink ice water with meals. Always ask for water with no ice.
- Herbal bitters aka Swedish bitters taken with a little bit of water prior to eating can help digestion. These herbs stimulate HCL and digestive enzyme production.
- A tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a full size glass of water can help with digestion. Vinegar eats away tooth enamel so take it with plenty of water and ideally sip through a straw to bypass your teeth.
- Put your fork, spoon, or chopsticks down in between bites.
- Ginger tea sipped with your meal or in between meals is an excellent digestive aid.
- Breathe deeply into your belly while you are eating.
What about digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes can be very helpful and I use them regularly with my patients. These products help to ensure that the food you are eating is properly digested before it leaves the stomach. There are three main varieties of digestive enzymes:
1. Betaine HCL
Betaine HCL helps to maintain and restore healthy hydrochloric acid levels in your stomach. I like the Betaine HCL product from Moss Nutrition because it is not derived from animal products so I can use it with my vegetarian and vegan patients. 1 capsule with each meal is a standard dose but more can be taken as long as it doesn’t cause burning, stomach discomfort, or pain. This is best used if low stomach acid is suspected and you want to try a product with a single ingredient. Burping and bloating after meals are good signs that your stomach acid levels are low.
2. Pancreatic enzyme blends
These products contain a blend of enzymes and herbs to support digestion. I like the Pancreatin Select from Moss Nutrition which contains the following:
- Protease to break down proteins.
- Lipase to break down fats.
- Amylase to break down carbohydrates.
- Betaine HCL as described above.
- Ox bile to digest fats.
- Artichoke leaf and Gentian root which are herbal bitters to stimulate digestion.
- Some extra lipase for enhanced fat digestion.
I use this with most patients because it covers every aspect of digestion so nothing gets missed. 1 capsule with each meal is a standard dose but more can be taken with the same caveats as noted above for Betaine HCL.
3. Plant-based enzyme blends
These are ideal for vegetarians and vegans since they are 100% plant-based. I like Digest Select by Moss Nutrition which is a comprehensive enzyme blend with the following ingredients:
- Amylase to digest carbohydrates.
- Protease to digest proteins.
- Lipase to digest fats.
- Lactase and alpha-galactosidase enzymes are added to help support the healthy digestion of milk sugar (lactose) from dairy foods, and complicated starches such as those found in beans, grains, and cruciferous vegetables.
1 capsule per meal is usually sufficient but 2 can be taken with larger meals. Digest Select can actually be combined with Betaine HCL for stronger digestive support.
All of the above products can be taken until the gut is healed and then weaning off of them can be done over a 1-2 weeks period.
A word about probiotics and prebiotics
Probiotic and prebiotic-rich foods contain healthy bacteria and compounds that feed these bacteria which improves digestion. Foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut provide healthy bacteria which improve how you digest your food. Including some of these foods with each meal can really improve digestion. However, if you have SIBO, IBS, or intestinal dysbiosis, these types of foods may cause gas, bloating, or other unwanted digestive symptoms. If you do experience side effects from these foods then there is something out of balance in your gut that requires a thorough investigation.
Digestion requires a lot of energy and resources so you must do everything you can to take extra stress off of your body. You will be amazed how much better you feel when you begin to improve your digestion with these simple and effective tips.