Digestion is incredibly complex. It relies on various organs to release specific enzymes that help to promote the breakdown of foods. From here, these molecules are either absorbed or excreted. When this process is impeded, our body is not able to adequately absorb the nutrients from our food and excrete harmful toxins, which can lead to a multitude of issues in the body.
There are various factors that can impede digestion, from consuming a diet that is high in processed foods, to irregular meals, eating on the run, emotional and environmental stress, consuming too many raw foods, eating disorders, lack of sleep, certain drugs and medications, stimulants (think: caffeine and nicotine), gastrointestinal infections, and lack of movement.
Impeded digestion can present in a variety of ways. The symptoms may seem obvious (i.e. irregular bowel movements, bloating, indigestion), seemingly unrelated (i.e. bad breath, autoimmunity, fatty liver, fertility concerns, metabolic disorders) or there may be no symptoms at all. In short, every symptom and health concern can be connected back to one’s gut health - whether it is the root cause of the issue or simply aggravating it.
With this in mind, it becomes clear why everyone could benefit from tending to their gut health a bit more. Below, we touch on some simple ways to support digestion.
Consume more whole foods, fresh foods, organic poultry and beef, extra virgin olive oil, and fewer processed ingredients.
Modify Meal Hygiene
Avoid eating on the go and embrace mindful eating and fasting between meals.
Optimize Your Lifestyle
Hydrate properly, manage stress, practice deep breathing, and get adequate sleep.
When gut issues seem to persist, it may be appropriate to incorporate supplements into one’s regime. Below is a list of common supplements I recommend to my patients in practice.
Digestive enzyme formulas are an excellent way to supplement the body’s natural release of enzymes. There are a variety of different enzymes produced by the body and each one is responsible for breaking down a different macronutrient.
For example, amylase is released by saliva and the pancreas and it breaks down carbohydrates. The pancreas also releases the enzymes proteases, lactase and lipase, which break down protein, dairy, and fats.
Temporarily supplementing with the appropriate digestive enzyme can help to alleviate digestive burden and may be helpful for those who cannot produce enough enzymes on their own. These are particularly helpful to have on hand to take with heavier meals.
Exercise caution with enzymes if you are pregnant or have a chronic health condition. These should not be used long-term unless directed by your ND.
Teas are a gentle way to begin to harness the healing power of nature. Herbs are nature’s healers and teas can be used on a daily basis to promote digestion.
For bloating and gas, try peppermint or fennel. For tummy aches, try chamomile. For reflux, marshmallow and for nausea, try ginger. When drinking tea, always select organic and loose leaf or use tea bags that are only made of paper.
Herbs in the form of tablets or tinctures are a potent way to use herbal medicine for digestion. Each herb will have a different impact on digestion and can help to support the body to do what it is naturally meant to do.
Bitter herbs like gentian and wormwood can stimulate the release of hydrochloric acid from the stomach, and bile from the liver and gallbladder which can help to break down proteins and fat. Slippery elm is a great herb to assist with regular, easy-to-pass bowel movements. It also helps to heal the gut lining and feeds the healthy bacteria in the gut. Marshmallow root can help heal the stomach lining. When taken properly, turmeric can reduce inflammation in the gut.
Remember, herbs can be as strong as pharmaceutical medications and must be used very carefully. They can interact with medications and can cause more harm than good when used incorrectly. Not all products are created equally, and there are many poor quality products on the market. Always consult with a naturopathic doctor or licensed herbalist for herbal prescriptions.
Other Nutraceuticals and Supplements
There are a variety of other remedies available to promote digestion. For example, betaine hydrochloric acid is a common supplement but I do not recommend this unless under the supervision of a naturopathic doctor or other licensed medical professional. Bile is another beneficial supplement to consider, particularly if you have issues with digesting fats or have had your gallbladder removed. Melatonin can also be a helpful tool for indirectly promoting digestion when taken before bedtime.
This list is not exhaustive, and each person’s digestive system requires unique support depending on the individual. Always work with a health care provider before selecting a remedy. This will ensure the correct supplements or herbs are used based on your needs. The practitioner will also consider the quality of the supplement; higher quality products are safer, more effective and will offer more predictable results.
Lastly, keep in mind that if you suffer from digestive disturbance, it is important not only to help manage symptoms with the above but also address the root cause, or the “why” behind the digestive disturbances. When the root cause is addressed and digestion is balanced, you will rarely require supplementation, if at all.