Digestive Disorders: Part One
Digestive Disorders: Part OneThank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
The prevalence of digestive disorders these days is indicative of both a lack of necessary nutrients, and of dietary patterns that are not supportive of digestive well-being. But the worst of it is the constant misdiagnosis of one of the most common digestive complaints: excess stomach acid. This usually manifests as reflux (stomach acid rising up the back of the throat) and/or a burning sensation in the stomach.
Most doctors only look at the obvious symptoms and, asking no further questions, prescribe antacids, or even worse, acid blockers, known as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). This is not only the wrong prescription for many people but, as we shall see, is actually dangerous in the long run, for everyone who is put on these drugs.
But, to begin, a simple way to look at treating digestive problems is to first locate the position of the discomfort. Digestion begins in the upper stomach where enzymes are secreted. Next, the stomach acids kick in, mostly if animal proteins are involved (meat, fish, cheese, poultry, eggs, etc). Finally, the intestinal tract depends on friendly bacteria to properly finish the digestive process and help transport the nutrients into the bloodstream for use by the body.
In the following material, we will examine these three steps in the digestive process, and find out how to keep each functioning effectively.
So, to begin, if one has upper distress such as burping, belching, or the sensation of food sitting in an undigested lump in the upper stomach, they are most likely lacking in enzymes.
Digestive enzymes are technically a type of protein, which the body produces in order to break down food and aid digestion.
It is well accepted that “digestion begins in the mouth”, as this is where the initial signals are sent to the digestive system as to what type of food is coming down the pike, and what digestive enzymes and fluids will be required to handle the job. (This is why we need to take fat-soluble supplements at a meal containing fat, if the nutrients are encased in a capsule.)Chewing and saliva start the process of digestion, and the production of enzymes also begins in the mouth. Further down, the stomach, small intestine, and pancreas also produce digestive enzymes. But, of these production sites, the primary producer of enzymes is the pancreas which makes the most-required enzymes: those that break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
The primary digestive enzymes are:
- Amylase: made in the mouth and pancreas – breaks down complex carbohydrates.
- Lipase: made in the pancreas – breaks down fats.
- Protease: made in the pancreas – breaks down proteins.
- Lactase: made in the small intestine – breaks down lactose.
- Sucrase: made in the small intestine – breaks down sugar.
When all these enzymes are present in a formula we have a “full spectrum” product, which will usually include a few other enzymes as well. For example, those with trouble digesting beans or cruciferous vegetables, should find an enzyme product that contains a good amount of alpha-galactosidase. This digestive enzyme breaks down the carbohydrates in beans, and other sulfur-bearing foods, into simpler sugars, making them easier to digest.
Full spectrum enzyme supplements are to be taken with the first bite of food, but are only required with cooked foods.
As I mentioned in the Longevity blog, when they are not busy digesting your food, enzymes are cleaning your blood. Therefore, a dramatic depletion of enzymes leads to allergies and a weakened immune system, as well as premature aging. In fact you can take enzymes on an empty stomach to help treat these conditions.
Protein digesting enzymes (proteolytic) are especially valuable on an empty stomach as they serve a powerful anti-inflammatory function, and are used to treat ailments ranging from arthritis and injuries, to cancer and arterial blockages. Such proteolytic enzymes include bromelain (from pineapple), pancreatin (from pig), serratiopeptidase (from silkworm), and protease (from fungal fermentation).
(This anti-inflammatory benefit is why we have serratiopeptidase and bromelain in the JointStart Supreme product, and why the product needs to be taken away from food.)
Raw and fermented foods contain their own enzymes, and this is one reason they are so valuable for our health. Your pancreas will continue to produce enzymes for many years but eventually, if your dietary emphasis is on cooked and processed foods over raw, fresh foods, the pancreas will no longer be able to keep up. Thus enzyme supplementation is usually a need for older individuals, however if I am consulting with someone younger, I will try to get them to rebuild their pancreas rather than becoming dependent on enzyme pills.
In order to rebuild our pancreas there are a couple supplements that can be used, as well as modifying the diet to include a better balance of raw to cooked foods. (At this point I will mention the approach taken in Chinese medicine, which is to keep the raw foods emphasized in the warmer seasons and cooked food in the colder seasons.)
The primary supplements to help rebuild the pancreas’s ability to produce enzymes are pancreatin (derived from pig pancreas), lactic acid found in fermented foods, and the supplement Molkosan (produced by Vogel), which is a liquid lactic acid product derived from fermented whey (but is lactose-free).
Those foods richest in lactic acid are pickled vegetables, sourdough bread, beer, wine, sauerkraut, kimchi, and fermented soy foods such as tamari and miso. (Source) Be aware that pickles made with vinegar are not what we mean when recommending pickled foods. Only those vegetables fermented in salt will produce sufficient lactic acid to be of benefit. Most commercial dill pickles are made with vinegar, but salt fermented pickles, such as “Bubbies”, are still available and are a far better choice from a health perspective.
Moving down the digestive tract to our next level, stomach acid production, is where the aforementioned medical misdiagnosis commonly occurs. Unfortunately the symptoms of excess stomach acid and insufficient stomach acid are virtually the same: a burning sensation in the stomach and acid reflux. But acid insufficiency is actually more common in older people than excess, since as we age our stomach acid levels tend to decline. A vegetarian diet will also cause a decline in stomach acid, and certain blood types have a genetic predisposition to low stomach acid (types A and AB).
There is essentially a “governor” (regulator) at the top of the stomach that prevents acid from rising up the throat. But, if there is insufficient acid this governor does not kick in, and one gets reflux, not due to too much acid, but rather to too little acid. Fortunately there is an easy experiment that one can do to test which extreme is causing the symptoms. There is also a medical test but it seems to be seldom used, and the doctor’s assumption usually is that one has too much acid and it must be reduced.
The home test to determine if one’s acid levels are too high or too low, is to take a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice in a little water, before each meal, especially those containing animal proteins. If this improves the digestion then indeed you have low stomach acid; if it aggravates the condition (i.e. it burns more), then you do have stomach acid levels that are too high.
At this point, if your stomach acid level appears to be too low, one can simply purchase Betaine Hcl capsules, which is essentially stomach acid in a pill. Take one or more of these at meals containing protein. It is usually suggested that one take more capsules until there is a distinct warming sensation in the stomach, then roll it back by one, to get to the ideal dosage level.
If your stomach acid level turns out to be too high, the safest supplement are natural antacids, which include alginates or pectin. These products will contain some mild acid reducers (like calcium carbonate) along with alginates or pectin, which put up a protective barrier instead of excessively reducing stomach acid levels.
Remember that I said add the cider vinegar to a “little” water. Those who have read my blog “How to take NutriPods”, will know that I am of the camp that believes drinking with meals impedes digestion. Swallowing your vitamin pills with a glass of water will dilute the stomach acid reducing the digestibility of both the food consumed, and the vitamins as well. Therefore, one should avoid drinking liquids for 20 to 30 minutes before and after eating a major meal. Green tea is considered the only beverage supportive of digestion, and even here I would be careful if my digestion were not optimal.
Also, according to the principles of the Blood Type Diet, coffee can be of benefit for types A and AB, because it can increase stomach acid secretion, but it is best taken black, since sugar and milk modify its benefits. Chewing gum will also increase stomach acid secretion, which is why it is not good to chew on an empty stomach, but it can be of benefit following a meal. However, try to avoid chewing gum that is artificially sweetened, which seems to be most of those commercially available.
One final point on the stomach and burning sensations, based on my own observations. If I eat more than two servings of carbohydrates in a day, I will get a sensation like heartburn. It doesn’t matter if I am consuming the highest quality organic whole grain bread, pasta and/or rice, this sensation will still occur. However, the more fruit (non-acidic), veggies and salad I eat, the more I can neutralize this tendency that the carbohydrates cause. Now, I am a type AB blood and mostly vegetarian, so I tend towards low stomach acid, but this sensation feels very much like too much acid in the stomach. So, when observing your symptoms, be sure to factor in your carbohydrate intake.
In Part 2, I will look at the dangers of acid-blocking drugs, and we will examine the third stage of digestion, the intestinal tract and probiotics.