Maintaining a healthy digestion is super important, and not just for the absorption of nutrients and excretion of waste products. Did you know that most of your neurotransmitters AND immune system cells are made in the gut? A healthy gut equals a healthy mind and healthy body. Have an unhealthy gut and you have an uphill battle with your overall wellbeing, no matter what else you do.
Everyone is different. You might be fine in terms of bowel function, but have reflux or heartburn. Or your upper digestion may seem fine, but you have constipation or diarrhoea. Or are you one of those people who fluctuates, where no two days are the same? Some days are ok, but others are just a mess of bloating, pain or less-than-pleasant bowel functions.
These can all be indicators of upper digestive issues.
Here’s a run down of some of the more common situations that can cause our upper digestion to become out of balance. (Warning – We’re going to be talking about poo… yep, we’re going there! Be brave and read on…)
Low digestive enzymes
If you are regularly experiencing burping or flatulence, bloating after meals, or the feeling that your food is still waiting to be processed by your stomach for quite some time after eating, it may be an indication that you are low in digestive enzymes. Additionally, already feeling full after eating just a few bites of food, noticing undigested food after moving your bowels, or experiencing floating or oily stools in the toilet bowl can be signs that there isn’t enough enzyme activity in your digestive system to properly break down the components of your meals.
Low stomach acid
Similarly, if your mealtimes are followed by indigestion, gas, bloating, constipation, heartburn, or nausea, you could be experiencing symptoms of low stomach acid. You may also notice food sitting in your stomach for a longer period of time and it may feel like there is a fermentation process going on. This will feel higher in your abdomen than low enzyme activity. Although you may feel “acidic,” contrary to popular belief, these symptoms are much more likely to be an indication that there isn’t enough hydrochloric acid (HCl) in your stomach, as very rarely is there too much acid. Medications that lower your HCl may bring instant relief, but in the long term could make the problem worse.
What happens next?
Whether you have low digestive enzymes or low HCl, the food you eat won’t be broken down sufficiently for the body to absorb the nutrients. This can lead to chronic bacterial or yeast overgrowth (candida), and food sensitivities, as unfamiliar components make contact with the immune system. Long term signs and symptoms include weight gain, thyroid problems, constipation or diarrhoea, fatigue, nutrient deficiencies, fertility problems, and poor quality hair, skin and nails.
What causes of these conditions?
We know that HCl production decreases with age, and when you’re in your sixties, you’ll only produce a quarter of the HCl that you would in your twenties. Common causes in younger people include bacterial overgrowth (H. Pylori), overuse of antibiotics, and chronic inflammation in the gut due to stress, food intolerances, and candida. Excessive alcohol consumption also damages the cells that produce HCl in the stomach. Unfortunately, these conditions are exacerbated by the vitamin and mineral deficiencies that they may cause, resulting in a cycle that can be hard to break. It’s no wonder that so many of us suffer from these issues!
What to do about it
The first step is to stimulate digestion naturally with bitters. This is a natural way in which to increase production of both HCl and digestive enzymes. Bitter flavours stimulate the tastebuds – these are connected to the vagus nerve, which in turn stimulates the whole digestive system into action. This process stimulates saliva production (which contains enzymes too), bile production (to break down dietary fats), and peristaltic action in the bowel (that’s what pushes everything along!).
Stimulating this process before eating may also help to relieve symptoms of heartburn, gastritis and indigestion. It may also assist to reduce allergy symptoms, regulate the appetite, help you to feel fuller sooner, and help balance blood sugar. Not to mention it breaks down the food more effectively for increased absorption of nutrients!
Try these natural digestive stimulators
A squeeze of lemon, or a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in a small glass of room temperature water, half an hour before meals, is a simple way to start. Have some bitter tasting greens as an entree with a squeeze of lemon; try roquette, dandelion greens, or radicchio. Try to resist the urge to add sweet dressings – you want the bitter taste to hit that vagus nerve! Swedish bitters are a centuries old concoction similar to Angostura aromatic bitters, both are great stimulants for digestion taken alone or in water before a meal.
(Note: Lemon, lime and bitters won’t work though… sorry! The sugar neutralises the bitter action.)
Fermented foods will provide a boost of probiotics to assist with digestive enzymes and to balance bacterial overgrowth. Adding some sauerkraut or kim chi to a main meal can increase digestibility (and they taste awesome too!).
Other ways to improve digestion
Avoid drinking large amounts of water with meals as this will dilute your gastric juices. Chew your food thoroughly as this gets your stomach ready to break down the food. Add a squeeze of citrus to meats and as dressings to help acid production. Avoid antacids unless absolutely necessary, as they may actually make the problem worse by further reducing the amount of stomach acid.
Being constantly busy or stressed can also negatively affect our digestion (if you think this may be you, read my post on Adrenal Fatigue here). If you’re stressed, then practicing relaxation or mindfulness can do wonders for your tummy troubles.
When to resort to supplements, and what to buy
If you feel that the symptoms are severe or persistent, speak to a practitioner to ensure you are not at risk of malabsorption or other consequences. You may like to try Swedish bitters to stimulate enzyme production, or make up the shortfall with enzyme supplements like papain, betaine, or bromelain. A pepsin supplement can help stimulate HCl production and you may also want to consider a probiotic supplement to assist in restoring balance. Aloe vera or slippery elm may help soothe your gastrointestinal tract if it’s inflamed. Your naturopath or herbalist may also recommend herbs including Dandelion, Gentian, Wormwood, Angelica, Yellow Dock, Yarrow, Century, or Mugwort (if you’re on medications, you will need to check that there are no contra-indications here).
Don’t put up with dodgy digestion! Remember, if heal the gut, you’re also helping to heal other important systems in the body. So don’t wait for it to get worse.
Psst! And if you need a little extra guidance, you can always book in to see me here.
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