Digestive Function

Restoring Digestive Function

by Catherine Wilbert, ND
Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine,
Nutrition Consultant & Nationally Recognized Wellness Expert

More than 60 million Americans experience acid indigestion, or heartburn, and spend literally billions of dollars on pharmaceuticals in an attempt to ease their burning pain.

Over 8 billion dollars is spent annually on drugs to relieve indigestion, with additional billions spent annually advertising those drugs. In fact, in 1999, Prilosec, a powerful acid suppressing drug, surpassed Prozac and Premarin as the top selling prescription medication in the United States.

Clearly America is experiencing an epidemic of gastrointestinal disorders. So why does it seem necessary to spend billions of dollars taking countless medications to coax our gastrointestinal system into doing what it’s supposed to do. Digestion is a complex process that is both mechanical and chemical. It involves and relies upon the proper functioning of the mechanical processes of grinding, churning, pumping, squeezing, valves and gates opening and closing, as well as the chemical processes of the secretion of enzymes and the breakdown of nutrients to be absorbed and utilized. When any part of this process malfunctions, indigestion of some sort may occur. Factors such as the foods we eat, how much we eat, drinking too much with our meals and smoking all can contribute to the disruption of proper digestion.

Indigestion refers to any number of gastrointestinal complaints, which can include anything from gas, belching, bloating, and flatulence, to heartburn, which is the pain caused by the backing up of hydrochloric acid from the stomach into the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. The hydrochloric acid in stomach fluid helps to breakdown and digest the food we eat as well as prevent the growth of bacteria in our stomach and intestines. Hydrochloric acid is very strong and corrosive, and while the stomach has a special lining to protect it, the esophagus does not. When this potent stomach acid accidentally backs up into the esophagus, the result is burning pain.

This accidental backing up of hydrochloric acid into the esophagus is caused when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the muscle at the end of the esophagus, doesn’t function properly. The LES is the stomach’s gatekeeper and uses pressure to open and close. When food travels from the mouth down through the esophagus the LES opens allowing food to enter the stomach then closes keeping it from going back up the esophagus. When the LES opens at the wrong time hydrochloric acid and other stomach fluids back up into the esophagus. The result — heartburn. Persistent heartburn may be a more serious problem known as GERD or gastro esophageal reflux disease which can, over time, erode the delicate lining of the esophagus and increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer as well as cancer of the larynx and throat.

So how do we eliminate these worrisome and potentially hazardous digestive disorders and live symptom free without harsh drugs or extraordinary medical intervention? Simple changes in habits and diet, such as making better food choices, considering portion size, quitting smoking and limiting coffee and alcohol can have a profound effect on relieving simple digestive disorders. And while taking antacids and heartburn medications may seem easier and provide temporary relief, they do not cure the problem and come with many severe side effects. Inhibiting or shutting down the production of hydrochloric acid can actually cause serious long-term problems such as interference with the absorption of important nutrients, such as calcium, increased vulnerability to bacteria in the stomach and food poisoning, and even acid rebound, where the stomach tries to produce even more acid to do its job. Too little stomach acid actually creates an environment where food cannot be completely digested, and further down the digestive tract, cause symptoms such as gas, belching and bloating, which in turn brings on the repeated use of antacids thus the cycle of antacid addiction.

What we choose to eat can play the most fundamental role in breaking this cycle and restoring digestive health. A balanced diet, complete with essential vitamins, minerals and fatty acids is critical not only to digestive health, but processes and functions in our bodies, as well as our overall vitality and sense of well being. A simple approach to a balanced diet is choosing foods proportionately from three categories of foods – Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary. The Primary group is the one that comprises the majority of your dietary choices. These are whole grain foods and proteins. The best choice of proteins are from lean animal sources, soy protein foods, such as tofu, tempeh, soy burgers and dogs and the growing number of tasty soy food products on the market today, as well as beans, but to a much lesser extent. Next, are the Secondary foods, which consists of seasonal fresh vegetables. Finally, there are the tertiary foods, such as dairy, eggs, and fruits, as well as unsaturated fats. Unfortunately, the typical American diet bears little resemblance to such balanced nutrition, with over processed, over refined carbohydrates, consisting of little more than sugar, completely lacking in fiber and important minerals, and saturated, or worse trans-saturated fats, occupying staple positions. And, the availability of these nutritionally empty and potentially harmful foods is far more abundant than their healthful counter parts. This, coupled with the lack of critical nutrients without supplementation, contributes significantly to America’s disordered digestive situation.

Not only what we eat, but how we eat it plays a role in relieving indigestion. Portion control is also important, as large portions of any foods can overfill the stomach and force stomach acid past the LES, causing heartburn.

Even something as simple as practicing the lost art of chewing is an important first step on the road to recovering digestive health. By skimping on this first, most important step in digestion, we fail to adequately start the digestive process not only mechanically by the lack of grinding our food, but chemically by limiting the exposure of our food to the digestive enzyme amylase which is contained in saliva. By the time our food hits our stomach it then requires additional digestive enzymes to further break it down. This, combined with the fact that as we age the amount of digestive enzymes we produce decreases, creates a prime environment for indigestion. Supplementing with digestive enzymes can significantly improve the breakdown and absorption of our foods and nutrients. Look for full spectrum vegetarian enzyme, such as in nZymax, which works in all Ph ranges to break down all food groups – proteins, carbohydrates, fats, dairy, and even fibrous vegetables, seeds, sprouts, and beans. The mere addition of a digestive enzyme such as this often eliminates many digestive disorders.

Herbs are also a useful way to supplement our diet, providing not only important and often deficient nutrients, but also improved assimilation of those vital nutrients. One simple (and tasty) method of doing this is by way of common kitchen spices and culinary herbs. Most herbal spices are carminatives, herbs that stimulate and aid in the digestive process and subsequently relieve gas and bloating. Basil, ginger, bay, garlic, dill, oregano, sage, thyme, cloves, cumin, fennel, cardamom and caraway are all tasty spices that can help with digestion. Parsley, dandelion, alfalfa, yellow dock and seaweeds are all important for adding important vitamins and nutrients to your foods.

While cooking with herbs provides an easy means of including these digestive and nutritive aids to your diet, additional herbal support may be necessary to repair or restore digestive function. There are numerous useful herbs for digestion. Papaya, ginger root, peppermint, fennel seed, goldenseal, licorice, and gentian are but a few. These are often commercially packaged as single herbs or herbal formulas, sold as either capsules or tinctures. While this is certainly the mostconvenient method of supplementation, it can be the most disappointing. It is important to understand that many companies package herbal products with little to none of their active ingredients present in them, and frequently the dosage is significantly less than an efficacious amount. Where and from whom your purchase your herbs is also of utmost concern. Whether commercially prepared or in bulk, the standardization is important if you expect results. Combining several of these herbs, such as peppermint and papaya leaves with ginger root, catnip, fennel seed and saw palmetto berries in some type of infusion device to make an herbal tea is fairly simple and proves quite beneficial as a digestive aid when sipped prior to and after a meal.

Additionally, FOS (fructooligosaccharides), and acidophilus may prove beneficial to improving digestion. Including cultured friendly flora containing foods, such as yogurt or kefir have also been helpful in improving digestive function. Compounds like DGL, the deglycyrrhized form of licorice, and d-limonene, from orange peel extract, can actually repair damage causes by chronic digestive disorders and help you maintain a symptom free lifestyle.

By incorporating these herbal, supplemental and nutritional therapies in our fight against heartburn and indigestion, we are providing our bodies the best treatment possible – one that restores the body to its normal function, rather than one that interferes with it.