One of the most common concerns I encounter in my practice is digestive disturbances. Digestive issues range in presentation and can include bloating, nausea, unusual gas, loose stools, constipation, indigestion or gastroesophageal reflux (more commonly known as heartburn), abdominal pain, pain with bowel movements, or a combination of these. Other secondary symptoms of gut issues include low energy, canker sores, haemorrhoids, anal fissures, yeast infections, skin issues, irregular periods, and difficulty gaining or loosing weight.
Although the root cause of gastrointestinal concerns vary dramatically, one way to help your digestion while you are trying to determine the root-cause of your concerns is to introduce digestive aid supplements. Below is a quick reference guide for some of the digestive supplements out there and what each ingredient may be used for.
Before you read on, remember: each body is unique and each person’s physiological needs are different. This is just a general guide; always speak to your trusted licensed healthcare provider before trying any new supplements - especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, on medications, or suffer from any chronic diseases.
In order to digest nutrients, the human digestive tract must excrete digestive enzymes. These substances help break down foods and ultimately allow us to absorb essential nutrients. Examples of enzymes include lactase to digest lactose (found in dairy products), pepsin to digest protein, and amylase to digest carbohydrates.
The ability for the digestive tract to excrete enzymes at appropriate levels for healthy, happy digestion can be compromised by age, chronic stress, poor diet, or irregular eating habits. Symptoms of suboptimal enzyme excretion include gas, bloating, indigestion, irregular bowel movements, and sometimes abdominal pain.
Supplements often include a combination of enzymes like pepsin, lipase, lactase, amylase, papain (typically derived from papaya), and pepsin. Depending on your needs, you may need to focus on one or more specific enzyme, but generally a blend of several in one supplement is the way to go. These can also be helpful for occasions like travel, eating out, or when consuming foods you are sensitive to.
Herbs are my favourite way to naturally stimulate the digestive tract to produce its own digestive juices. Herbal medicine for the gut can come in the form of teas, tinctures, and tablets. Below are some of my favourite gentle herbs for digestive support.
Bitters: Gentian, goldenseal, globe artichoke, and other bitter herbs are wonderful plants that promote digestion. They stimulate the release of stomach acid, bile, and enzymes. These are best taken before a meal to help turn on digestion.
Carminatives: These herbs help to soothe the gut and relieve gas and bloating. Fennel, ginger, and peppermint are my top three and are excellent as a tea following a meal.
Demulcents: This class of herbs includes marshmallow root and slippery elm. These two herbs are amazing for healing the gut lining (which is compromised in concerns like leaky gut), relieving heartburn, regulating bowel movements (both constipation and diarrhea), feeding the microbiome, and are generally anti-inflammatory for the gut. I recommend taking these in capsule form.
Please note that herbs can interact with medication. If you are on medications, always check in with a health care provider before supplementing.
The stomach produces hydrochloric acid (also known as HCl or stomach acid) in order to promote pepsin secretion, which ultimately helps digest proteins. HCl also kills unwanted bacteria and other microbes that enter the gut when we eat. Without enough acid, foods will not be digested properly (protein in particular). This can be caused by all of the usual suspects: chronic stress, poor diet, and unhealthy lifestyle habits. Those with insufficient stomach acid levels may suffer from bloating, skin issues (particularly acne), reflux, and other concerns.
Stomach acid can be supplemented by Betaine HCl. This remedy may actually retrain the stomach to produce adequate HCl on its own. This digestive supplement is only appropriate under medical supervision because too much acid can do more harm than good. It is important to rule out ulcers prior to supplementation.
Bile is excreted by the liver and gallbladder into the digestive tract to digest fats. Symptoms of bile insufficiency include indigestion, urgent bowel movements, loose, sticky, smelly and/or greasy stools, yellow stools, and abdominal pain. Common causes include gallbladder removal, poor liver function, or fatty liver. Many digestive formulas contain bile from animal sources in order to augment an individual’s own release of bile and to help digest fats more easily.
Probiotics don’t directly aid in digestion, but with the right supplementation it can rebalance the gut microbiome and lead to better digestive function long-term. More to come on probiotics in a future article!
As always, speak to your naturopathic doctor before initiating a new supplement protocol. The human digestive tract is an incredibly complex system. A multifaceted, holistic approach tailored to your unique needs is always best.