A few years ago I wrote a series of articles entitled "Four Steps to Building a Healthier You." In those steps, I covered: How to Build Your Own Personalized Supplement Program, The Importance of Cleansing/Detoxification, Using Superfoods as Part of Your Everyday Diet/Supplement Regimen and Following My 4 Pillars of Health.
Looking back on this series, there could have been either a huge subcategory or fifth step added: Digestive Support.
Digestive Issues: Inside the numbers
• More than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month, and about 25 million are daily sufferers
• Chronic gastrointestinal disorders plague more than 95 million Americans
• Two of the top five most widely prescribed prescription drugs in this country are for digestive disorders
• Digestion-related problems cost Americans more than $100 billion dollars annually
• Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths behind lung cancer
So, do those numbers get your attention? They definitely grab mine. Considering these numbers and what digestion does for the body, you can see why we need to focus on either fixing our messed up digestive system, or keeping it fine-tuned. Optimal nutrition begins and ends with healthy digestion. Instead of "death begins in the colon" we should say "life begins in the digestive tract."
The 4 Functions of the Digestive System
Having a healthy digestive system is critical for ALL of us, regardless of age. The digestive system is responsible for these four critical functions in your body:
1. Digestion: Breaks down food into micro-particles
2. Absorption: Converts nutrients into absorbable forms
3. Elimination: Removes waste/toxins
4. Immunity: Protects from foreign microbes either in or on your foods
The Keys to Healthy Digestion
A healthy digestive system is built on the basics: It comes back to Diet, Exercise, Spirituality and Supplementation—my 4 Pillars of Great Health.
We know that a diet high in fiber and water and low in bad fats and refined foods will lead to a healthier digestive system. We know that exercise will significantly improve digestion (for multiple reasons). We know that spirituality (reduction of stressors, etc.) will dramatically improve digestion. And supplements can and do play a critical role for all of us, whether or not we have a digestive disorder.
Risk Factors for Digestive Problems
Before I get into what supplements you need, let's take a look at what factors can increase your risk of developing digestive problems:
• Poor diet
• High stress
• Habitual eating on the run
• Use of NSAIDs
• Dairy consumption (in excess)
• Use of antibiotics
• Use of OTC or prescription antacids
• Use of hormones (even bio-identical)
• Use of steroids (not necessarily the ones athletes use)
• Health issues (diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular, arthritis, depression, eating disorders, etc.)
The Effects of Poor Digestion
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that digestion could have been part of "Four Steps to Building a Healthier You." Let's say that I am eating the best possible diet and taking the best possible supplements, and my digestive system is functioning at 100 percent. Then I will get everything possible out of my foods and supplements to aid my body. However, if my digestive system is only operating at 75 percent, then my digestion and absorption of the nutrients in those awesome foods and supplements will be decreased. I would guess that most Americans are functioning at 50-60 percent digestively.
This would be like using the best possible fuel for your car—but having a clogged up fuel line or filter. The car (your body) won't function the way it was designed to function. Now, take that same person with poor digestion and give them a poor diet (typical American diet)—and the car becomes more like a freight train headed out of control. If you ever wonder why you can't get better or achieve better health, just take a look at your digestion and diet.
Your poor digestion will lead to nutrient depletions that could end up causing other health-related issues. Even modern medicine understands that prolonged depletions of different nutrients can and will lead to serious health problems. Whether it is Vitamin D and the increased risk of certain cancers, or magnesium, vanadium and chromium in Type II diabetes, nutrient depletions have pretty significant effects on your long-term health. And these are just two of hundreds and even thousands of possible depletions linked to life-threatening diseases.
So, let's fix our digestive system! There are a few key areas to look at in the supplement section of your local Vitamin Shoppe: probiotics, prebiotics, enzymes, fiber and cleansing are some great areas to start.
Probiotics Probiotics have been covered before in my past newsletters. Refer to the article section of vitaminshoppe.com for more details. In short probiotics are “friendly” bacteria that are found in your digestive system. Probiotics serve two purposes: they complete the digestive process and help protect against pathogens (disease- causing bacteria, fungus, yeast, etc.) found in or on your food. Without enough of these beneficial bacteria, you will be unable to fully digest your food particles into “micro” particles, or convert some of those nutrients into the absorbable or usable forms that the body needs. Probiotics are essential for the absorption of nutrients, and also help the body to synthesize Vitamin B and K, absorb minerals and digest proteins, fats, carbohydrates and fiber. Throw in the benefits to your immune system and we have a winner. Probiotics are depleted by stress, aging, high-carbohydrate diets, antibiotic use and also by consuming non-purified water and non-organic foods. Lack of proper levels of probiotics can also lead to the overgrowth of E. coli and H. pylori.
Prebiotics Prebiotics are often overlooked. A prebiotic is considered food for your probiotics. A probiotic that contains a prebiotic is like using grass seed with a starter fertilizer added. If you don't have enough food for your good bacteria (probiotics) they will die off prematurely. You can find inulin or FOS (the two most common prebiotic supplements) either by themselves, or added to your probiotic formula.
Digestive Enzymes Digestive enzymes are used to help support the breakdown of your foods. I often estimate that 70+ percent of your body's energy goes into digesting your foods. Coming up short on enough digestive enzymes will lead to nutrient depletions, and having food particles go through your system undigested. This can lead to problems such as toxin buildup, flatulence, odor issues, allergies, sensitivities and more. The primary digestive enzymes are: protease (for proteins), amylase (starches), lipase (fats), cellulase (plant cell membranes). There are also targeted enzymes available for specific needs, such as lactase for lactose intolerance.
Fiber Fiber should never be overlooked. The average diet contains around 20 grams of fiber each day yet we should be consuming 35+ grams per day. Fiber can help you manage your weight, balance blood sugar, lower cholesterol, keep your digestive tract clean, decrease constipation and diarrhea, improve immune function, reduce your risk of heart attack and much more than I can list here.
I tell my children that fiber is the snowplow of the colon (this always makes them laugh). A friend of mine described fiber as the toothbrush of the colon. Regardless, fiber is another critical component in digestive system health. If you can't get enough fiber from your diet (fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, legumes, etc.) then you need to supplement. The most popular fiber sources are psyllium and flax seeds. You can also find chia seeds, inulin and glucomannan at your local Vitamin Shoppe. All of these are great fiber sources, but I prefer flax and chia seeds. Flax and chia are not only awesome sources of fiber, but can also provide your body with other healthy nutrients (why not get more bang for your buck?). If you have issues with fiber supplements, you can always cheat and buy fiber bars. These bars usually taste great and contain 10 to 15 grams of added fiber taste great. Personally, I prefer you to get fiber from your diet, but I also understand that most people will never change their eating habits.
Cleansing Cleansing is something that often gets overlooked with regard to digestive maintenance and care. Colon cleansing and liver cleansing will help keep your colon, liver and gallbladder clean and functional. We need to cleanse all systems, but for those with digestive issues, periodic colon and liver cleansing is even more important. Cleansing will help eliminate the buildup of environmental toxins, metals, airborne chemicals, water and foods we consume. Remember, your colon is on the inside of your body what your skin is on the outside of your body. Cleansing will improve energy, digestive function, immune function, nervous system function, hormonal balance, sleep, skin and a whole lot more!
Finally, there are many other supplements that
support healthy digestion. Many of these can be
purchased separately (or in a combination formula) to address your specific digestive issues. Here is a short list to get you started:
• Ginger: indigestion
• Slippery Elm: soothing
• DGL: heartburn and acid reflux
• Dandelion: constipation, indigestion
• Mastic Gum: heartburn and acid reflux
• Peppermint: indigestion, cramping, gas
• Magnesium: safe and effective for constipation
• Aloe: soothes inflammation and helps with constipation