Fixing Digestion for Good
The gastrointestinal (GI) system is our opening to the outside world. From mouth to anus, this one long tube processes the raw materials that become our body and influence our thoughts and emotions. Our “gut instinct” is a feature of the enteric nervous system, the consciousness of our GI system, that helps form the foundation of human experience. Clearly, there is a lot more at stake in seeking healthy digestion than just avoiding heartburn or bloating.
On the quest to fix digestion for good, it is helpful to divide the GI system into three areas based on function. The organs of the upper GI tract include the stomach, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas. These are the true organs of digestion that break down food for assimilation in the small intestine, with further assimilation and elimination occurring in the large intestine.
The intestines, particularly the colon, house the largest diversity and volume of symbiotic and commensal microbes, known collectively as the human microbiome. These microbes thrive on fiber from the diet and produce a multitude of beneficial nutrients to sustain life. To be responsible intestinal gardeners of these microbes and optimize downstream intestinal assimilation and elimination, we must cater to the upstream organs of digestion. That begins with the stomach’s role as the first stage in digestion.
Gastric Acid: The Fire of Metabolism
The stomach is the holding tank that initiates the breakdown of foods with an acid so strong that it reduces food to a semiliquid state known as chyme. Parietal cells that line the stomach wall secrete gastric acid until the pH of the mixed contents drops to as low as 1 or 2, akin to the strongest hydrochloric acid.
Diagnosed on a spectrum from heartburn to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), indigestion is typically thought to be caused by excess stomach acid. But more often, indigestion stems from an underlying condition in which too little stomach acid, hypochondria, gives rise to the proximate cause of delayed gastric emptying known as gastroparesis. In short, if the fire of metabolism isn’t robust enough to liquify food and convey it to the small intestine in a timely fashion, the resultant acidic sludge is prone to being pushed up the esophagus as the stomach churns vigorously to mechanically compensate for the blunted chemical breakdown from gastric acid.
How do you know if indigestion stems from a lack of gastric acid? Increase acidity in the stomach, and see if symptoms improve. A safe and inexpensive way to do so entails drinking a tablespoon of raw, organic apple cider vinegar diluted in a small amount of water before each meal. The organic acids in the vinegar supplement the action of gastric acid and stoke the digestive fire.
If symptoms of reflux improve only partially with this whole food remedy, a stronger intervention that I recommend is Zypan, from Standard Process, at a dosage of 2 or 3 tablets with meals. Zypan contains hydrochloric acid to support the action of gastric acid. This is an old remedy (formulated in 1958) that is more relevant today than ever before.*
Bile: The Gut’s Surfactant
If the fire of metabolism within the stomach is strong, when the semiliquid contents are introduced into the first part of the small intestine, the enteric nervous system senses the presence of dietary fats and signals the gallbladder to release bile into the duodenum. The liver produces bile acids, whereas the gallbladder stores them. Bile is the gut’s surfactant, emulsifying fats and allowing for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Signs that bile acid output is sluggish include pain and bloating after eating fatty meals; constipation, as bile is the lubricant for the colon; and skin disorders, as fat-soluble vitamins are essential for skin health. I might also prescribe a high-quality (to avoid rancidity) fish oil and inquire during the next appointment if the patient is experiencing fishy burps. This is my cue to suggest a supplement to thin the bile and decongest the gallbladder.
The whole food solution is juiced beets including the greens. Young beet greens are high in a compound called betaine that thins sludgy bile and helps it flow smoothly. The supplemental counterpart is A-F Betafood. Standard Process juices beets and beet greens and then cold presses the dehydrated powder into tablets for easy consumption. I prescribe 5 tablets with meals and often observe a quick resolution of upper digestive symptoms stemming from sluggish gallbladder function.*
Enzymes: Nature’s Catalysts
Enzymes in saliva begin to break down carbohydrates, but the majority of these biological catalysts cleave larger chains of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates into amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars that are released from the pancreas into the small intestine.
Pancreatic insufficiency is a nonspecific condition suggesting low enzyme potential. Getting to the root cause takes
some detective work, but the condition can result from a low-protein diet or an inability to properly break down and assimilate proteins, as is often the case when gastric acid in the stomach is hampered. Enzymes are proteins, and thus a vicious cycle ensues if stomach function is compromised.
For stimulating stomach, liver, and pancreatic function, there is nothing better than digestive bitters. This can include eating more greens in the Brassica family, such as kale and collards, or supplementing with digestive bitters in liquid or tablet form. Supplementing allows for the consumption of strongly bitter herbs that are unpalatable. I prescribe 1 tablet of MediHerb’s DiGest Forte with meals. Note that it does help to briefly taste the bitter tablet before swallowing as this signals the brain to begin the digestive process. The swallowed bitters further stimulate bitter receptors in the stomach and small intestine.*
Digestion is way too important of a process to entrust to a gastroenterologist. Being your own advocate begins with eating a whole food, nutrient-dense diet and using simple approaches to improve digestion rather than blunting digestive fire with acid-suppressing drugs like proton pump inhibitors. We have to appreciate that the combined contributions of gastric acid, bile acid, and enzymes are a fiery cauldron of transmutation.
Downstream lower GI issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome and chronic constipation, can often be addressed by working upstream and stoking the fires of digestion. With these principles of physiology in mind as you leverage whole food solutions, all the cards will be stacked in your favor to fix digestion for good.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.