Digestion – a facet of health we think little about if all is well, but which has the potential to send our overall levels of wellbeing plummeting if something’s wrong. In this blog, we’ll look at the supplements you should be reaching for when bloating, gas, stomach pain, diarrhoea or other symptoms of poor digestion threaten to ruin your day.
What is Digestion?
Most people have at least a basic understanding of digestion, without necessarily being able to sketch out the gastrointestinal tract with a high degree of accuracy. In simple terms, the word describes the process by which food and drink is turned into energy – and by which the body expels waste. Think of the digestive system as a kind of disassembly line, where nutrients are extracted from food and absorbed into the bloodstream to fulfil the body’s various needs.
The digestive system encompasses the pancreas and salivary glands, the oesophagus, stomach, liver, small intestine and large intestine: each has a role to play after food passes your lips, and the entire organ system is known as the gastrointestinal tract.
Some assert that digestion starts in the brain, since stomach acid secretion and the release of digestive enzymes rely upon this ‘cephalic’ phase: the thoughts that circulate through our heads when we see, smell or even just think about food (as anyone is wont to do when hungry). Thus, before the mechanical processes kick into gear, thoughts warm up the engines.
After we have chewed a piece of food, aided by the saliva in our mouths, it travels down the oesophagus and into our stomach, where it mixes with digestive enzymes and gastric juices like hydrochloric acid. Hydrochloric acid may not sound like the most helpful substance in the world, but in fact it is completely essential. Secreted by special cells in the stomach’s lining in response to a meal, this acid not only kills germs that may be in the food but also helps us digest protein by stimulating pepsin production.
Like a biological food processor, the stomach turns dense food matter into a semifluid soup known as ‘chyme’ which then passes into the small intestine. Once there the chyme stimulates the pancreas to release bicarbonates, which neutralise the highly acidic gastric juice and prevent it from damaging the intestinal membrane. Further secretions from the pancreas (enzymes), liver (bile) and gallbladder (bile) are added to the chyme, digesting it into yet smaller nutrients to be absorbed in the intestines and transported to the bloodstream. Once in the blood, the nutrients are carried to cells throughout the body.
At the end of the production line, the large intestine performs the important task of absorbing water and essential vitamins while converting the remainder of chyme into faeces. The large intestine is also home to resident beneficial bacteria, whose microbes digest substances in the chyme the stomach is unable to take care of.
Supplements for Digestion: A Guide
Now that you have a broad understanding of the digestive process, let’s look at products which could help enhance digestion itself.
Bacteria living in the gastrointestinal tract – usually referred to as gut flora – help with digestion. They do so by ensuring proper food breakdown, manufacturing vitamins and preventing other microbes from infecting the GI tract.
What’s more, probiotic supplements have proven effective for constipation, antibiotic-associated diarrhoea and even irritable bowel syndrome. In the case of IBS, those struggling with the condition tend to have less ‘good’ bacteria in their guts, leading to symptoms such as abdominal pain. Probiotics can rebalance the microbiome and help to achieve the desired 85:15 ratio of good-to-bad bacteria.
Probiotics have also shown themselves to be capable of buffering stress, effects of which are often manifested with stomach upset. Of course, probiotics are useful for all kinds of things; but the best strains for digestion include L. acidophilus, L. bifidus, B. longum and B. bifidum. Choose a high-strength probiotic like Progurt if you require a digestive boost. Not only is it far stronger than other probiotics, containing a huge one trillion beneficial bacteria, but its strains are human-derived. This is important, since strains isolated from plants and animals are unlikely to colonise as well as human-derived isolates. There are many reasons for this, but one is that bovine animals have a higher body temperature than humans.
Incidentally, the probiotic strains in Progurt are L. acidophilus, L. bifidus and S. thermophilus.
Incorporating greens into your diet comes with a swathe of benefits, not least antioxidant protection and an abundance of vitamins and minerals. They’re also good for digestion, since their fibre content helps maintain bowel regularity.
Moreover, proteins found in cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts etc) play a role in ‘turning on’ the T-bet gene. This is important, since T-bet produces the innate lymphoid cells that keep the bad bacteria out of the intestine and mitigate the risk of conditions like bowel cancer and inflammatory disease.
The pH of your body is highly influential in regulating digestion, and thus it makes sense to eat alkaline foods which keep the body’s balance at an ideal level. Fresh vegetables and fruits are among the most alkalising foods you can find.
As well as pH-balancing greens, lacto-fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchee are excellent detoxifiers and brimming with live probiotics. Be sure to opt for the fresh, raw kind, or better still make them yourself from scratch.
Supplementing with a raw greens formula is a good bet, particularly if you might otherwise struggle to hit the 10-a-day target. Field of Greens is classified as raw vegan food and contains 14 potently alkalising green ingredients – parsley leaf, wheatgrass and and kale leaf to name a few. The freeze-dried powder is non-GMO, devoid of gluten, soy and dairy, and certified kosher; blend it with water (alkaline is best) or add a scoop to your usual smoothie recipe.
Omega-3s are touted for all kinds of benefits, most particularly for brain health, heart health and vision. However, they also play a crucial part in reducing inflammation – including in the gut.
By preventing the formation of pro-inflammatory compounds from omega-6 fatty acids, and by manufacturing anti-inflammatory compounds of their own, omega-3s help the digestive system function optimally. After all, inflammation of the gut is closely connected to Candida albicans and Leaky Gut, both as cause and effect.
One of the best things you can do to improve digestion, therefore, is to limit pro-inflammatory foods. If you eat a typical Western diet, this will be no mean feat, since we tend to consume far more omega-6 than omega-3. A Mediterranean diet, on the other hand, achieves a much healthier balance.
Taking an omega-3 supplement is a great option. Go with a fish oil that’s been independently validated for purity and efficacy. Labdoor currently rank UnoCardio 1000 number one for quality of 53 products tested, citing its high levels of EPA and DHA, as well as its purity and ingredient safety. UnoCardio 1000 is bolstered by the inclusion of 1,000 i.u. of vitamin D, another beneficial nutrient for digestion given the number of vitamin D receptors on cells in the digestive tract. Like omega-3, vitamin D is widely believed to reduce inflammation.
It’s well known that magnesium regulates over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. Facilitating smoother digestion is but one of its responsibilities. It does so by helping relax muscles within the digestive tract, thereby promoting regular bowel movements. For this reason, constipation is among the most common symptoms of magnesium deficiency.
The digestive system also relies on magnesium to regulate blood sugar levels and blood pressure, assist in metabolism and activate enzymes which allow the body to break down food for energy. In fact, ATP – the main source of energy in cells – must be bound to a magnesium ion in order to be biologically active.
To quickly boost your overall magnesium levels, you can use a transdermal magnesium supplement such as the oils and gels. Unlike oral magnesium supplements, these topical versions flood nutrients into the body through the pores in your skin. They’re also known for being hugely beneficial as sports performance and workout recovery aids.
Of course, some people have greater magnesium needs than others. For example, certain heart medications as well as birth control pills reduce magnesium levels by expediting magnesium loss via excretion by the kidneys. Refined sugar consumption also causes such excretion. It may be the case that topical application AND oral supplementation is required. If so, check out Multimagnesio, which supplies magnesium in the form of different salts to increase bioavailability.
5. Digestive Enzymes
The importance of enzymes in digestion cannot be overstated. It is enzymes – mainly produced in the pancreas and small intestine – which are responsible for breaking food into its constituent nutrients (amino acids, fatty acids, simple sugars etc) which the body can then absorb.
Enzyme production can be hampered by a number of factors, not least low-grade inflammation in the digestive tract itself. Insufficient stomach acid and chronic stress also play havoc with digestive enzyme output, leading to nutritional deficiencies and, potentially, long-term health implications.
An increasing number of people factor enzymes into their digestive health protocol, usually alongside probiotics and prebiotics, though it is perhaps wiser to address inflammation in the body before resorting to enzyme supplements. Cutting our processed food, including sugar, is a good start, and eating more bile-moving foods like leafy greens will facilitate better digestion. Simple things like drinking a glass of water 15 minutes before a meal will also fire up more hydrochloric acid, thereby improving the flow of bile and pancreatic enzymes.
If you are concerned about nutrient malabsorption, or experiencing bloating, constipation or poor digestion generally, consider a supplement which contains the best-known digestive enzymes – namely protease, amylase and lipase. These will help ensure protein, carbohydrates and fat are broken down. Ginzyme by Greens Best contains all three, in addition to a blend of herbs used in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, including fresh ginger, medicated leaven and pinellia rhizome.
The Importance of Salt for Good Digestion
One underrated component of good digestion is salt. There are many reasons for this, one being that salt activates the salivary enzyme amylase, kicking the entire digestive process into gear. Salt is also essential to the production of hydrochloric acid. As mentioned, proper stomach acid levels are fundamental for good digestion.
Of course, there is a difference between highly processed, mineral-stripped table salt and good natural sea salt. Opt always for the latter. Gut care specialists Progurt have actually released a Deep Ocean Alkaline Salt Capsule with a high pH of 10.3. The capsules contain all-natural ingredients and are designed to promote better conditions in the gut ahead of probiotic use. If you have in any way subscribed to the ‘salt is bad for you’ myth, you will greatly benefit from a course of the capsules.
Good Health Starts in the Gut
In conclusion, there are many steps you can take to assure better digestion and, as such, better health. In specialised cases, however, you may wish to talk through your options with a natural health care practitioner, preferably one with experience of managing digestive disorders.