The Keys to Great Digestive HealthNovember 11th, 2009
Digestive issues have become extremely common and are often a result of the typical modern lifestyle. Unfortunately, most people perceive digestive issues as nothing more than an inconvenience and fail to recognize that they can easily lead to compromised health and disease.
Digestive issues range in form and severity from mild cases of gas and bloating to severe cases of Crohn’s disease or diverticulitis which can require that sections of the intestines be surgically removed. Mild digestive issues are so common that most people consider them normal. However, they’re an undeniable indication of compromised digestion, and over time, can progress to more serious issues including food sensitivities, toxicity, susceptibility to illness, and autoimmune diseases, all of which can effect the entire body and initiate a downward spiral of poor health.
Your digestive system is the foundation of your health, and as such, it’s in your best interest to ensure that it’s functioning well, even if you’re not experiencing any symptoms.
The Foundation of Good Digestive Health
Fortunately, restoring and promoting excellent digestive health is mostly a matter of implementing the same healthy nutritional habits that promote optimal health and a better life. As indicated by the work of Dr. Weston A. Price, the primitive cultures that he studied enjoyed excellent health and rarely experienced the digestive issues that are so common today. Their diets consisted entirely of natural whole foods which are the foundation of good health and good digestion.
The Ecosystem Within Your Intestines
There are more bacteria cells in your intestines than there are human cells in your entire body. Your intestines house between 2 to 5 pounds of bacteria cells which represent hundreds of different species. While this may sound unsettling, we depend on these bacteria to help digest our food, defend against disease causing microorganisms and parasites, and produce essential vitamins. Once the delicate balance that exists among these varying species of bacteria is disrupted, which is typically referred to as dysbiosis, digestive issues and compromised health are likely to follow.
Some of the more common causes of intestinal dysbiosis include stress, excessive carbohydrate consumption, and the use of antibiotics or antacids. The artificial sweetener Splenda and chlorinated tap water have been found to promote dysbiosis as well.
Be Cautious with Grain and Dairy
Many people react negatively to the gluten protein frequently found in grain based foods. These reactions are often damaging to the intestinal lining and can severely impair digestion, especially in the case of celiac disease.
The casein protein commonly found in dairy can cause damaging reactions as well. This is especially the case with dairy from breeds of cattle that produce a mutated form of casein called A1 beta casein which tends to be more problematic. In addition, people who have digestive issues, or have had them in the past, are often lactose intolerant which means that they’re unable to digest the lactose in milk. Although this doesn’t damage the intestinal lining directly, the undigested lactose can cause damage and impaired digestion by promoting dysbiosis.
Based on these risks, anyone who’s concerned about their digestive health should consider eliminating grain and dairy from their diet for at least a few weeks to see if it provides any improvement. By following a diet based on natural whole foods such as meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables, the potential risks associated with grain and dairy are automatically eliminated.
Limit Carbohydrate Consumption to a Reasonable Amount
The modern diet is excessively high in carbohydrates which is a major reason why obesity, digestive issues, and other symptoms of poor health have become so common. As such, limiting carbohydrate consumption to a reasonable amount is critical to good digestive health. Although this may sound like an endorsement for “low carb” dieting, it’s anything but. Because fruits and vegetables typically contain much less carbohydrate than most grain based foods, a whole foods diet that excludes or limits grains is fairly low in carbohydrates by default rather than design, especially in comparison to the typical modern diet.
Foods such as grains, milk, beans, and potatoes contain disaccharides and polysaccharides which are carbohydrates that contain multiple sugar molecules. These carbohydrates need to be broken down into monosaccharides, which contain only a single sugar molecule, before they can be absorbed through the intestinal wall. As such, the carbohydrates from these foods are more difficult to digest and are more likely to fuel the proliferation of undesirable bacteria and cause dysbiosis. The immediate byproducts of this proliferation can impair digestion even further and are a common cause of bloating and flatulence. Fruits and vegetables are the preferred source of carbohydrates because they contain monosaccharides which makes them easier to digest and less likely to cause digestive issues.
Sugar and refined carbohydrates are problematic as well even though they’re monosaccharides. In contrast to fruits and vegetables, the excessive amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates in most modern foods feed the growth of undesirable bacteria and is another common cause of dysbiosis. In addition, sugar and refined carbohydrates cause many health problems and their assimilation requires the use of more nutrients than what they provide.
Promote Intestinal Balance with Probiotics
Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that exist in the intestines. As previously mentioned, these are the bacteria that help to digest food and strengthen immunity. With the many aspects of modern life that destroy these bacteria, it’s important to replenish them. Although probiotic capsules are the most popular way of doing this, fermented foods are a more natural source and are likely to be more effective. The best fermented foods are vegetables and dairy products that were fermented through lactic acid fermentation rather than vinegar fermentation which doesn’t provide the same benefits. Nourishing Traditions, an excellent nutritional resource by Sally Fallon, contains a variety of easy to follow recipes for healthy fermented foods.
Another intriguing source of probiotics is the bacteria that exists in soil. Plants benefit from this bacteria in a similar way to how we benefit from the bacteria in our intestines. Our primitive ancestors were obviously much less fanatical about cleaning their food than we are today, and as a result, they were likely to consume a bit of soil and its resident bacteria along with their food. In addition, some cultures are known to have buried their food prior to consuming it which would certainly increase its exposure to the bacteria in the soil. Since our ancestors obviously didn’t consume probiotic capsules, and since fermented foods are only known to have been eaten for less than 10,000 years, some people believe that they maintained a healthy population of beneficial bacteria in their intestines through the soil that they unintentionally ingested with their food.
I think this is an intriguing justification for soil based probiotics, and even probiotics in general, but it’s just a theory. Although soil based probiotics are said to be more robust and more likely to survive the stomach’s acidity, this has yet to be proven.
Facilitate Your Digestion with Digestive Enzymes and Hydrochloric Acid
Enzymes are proteins that facilitate biochemical reactions including the digestion of food. During digestion, they help to break food into the smaller nutritional components that can be absorbed through the intestinal wall and utilized by the body. Most natural whole foods inherently contain enzymes that assist with digestion, but these enzymes are deactivated during cooking at temperatures as low as 118 degrees Fahrenheit.
Avoiding the enzyme deactivation caused by cooking is one of the primary motivations behind raw food diets. However, some anthropologists believe that cooking played a significant role in our evolution and is important to our health. In addition, some foods must be cooked in order for them to be digested properly. A good compromise is to eat a combination of raw foods and foods that are cooked lightly at low temperatures.
According to Dr. Edward Howell, author of Enzyme Nutrition, we have a limited capacity to produce enzymes. As such, when your body needs to produce enzymes to assist with digestion, fewer enzymes will be available for other important physiological functions. Based on this limitation and the fact that we cook most of our food, a plant based digestive enzyme supplement is worth considering. Although I like to error on the side of getting nutrients from high quality food instead of supplements, I think digestive enzymes and probiotics are among some of the more important supplements to consider using.
Hydrochloric acid, which is produced by the stomach, is also necessary for the digestion and absorption of food. Despite the fact that heartburn often results from a deficiency of hydrochloric acid, many people take medications that reduce it even further, and in addition, its production naturally declines with age. Although hydrochloric acid supplements are readily available, you can naturally stimulate your stomach to produce more of it by using herbal bitters such as peppermint, ginger, wormwood, or dandelion.
Another important and very simply way to facilitate good digestion and reduce the burden on your digestive system is to chew your food thoroughly.
Don’t Obsess About Fiber
Dietary fiber is the indigestible plant material that adds volume to human waste. The additional volume causes intestinal pressure which facilitates regular bowel movements and is why fiber is necessary for proper elimination. Unfortunately, the deficiencies of the typical modern diet have led many people to obsess about fiber and rely on the least desirable sources of it such as grain based foods and products like Metamucil. As previously mentioned, grains can easily offset the benefits of fiber by causing digestive issues and can promote excessive carbohydrate consumption. By following a diet based on natural whole foods, you should get all of the fiber you need from vegetables and fruit.
For more information on improving your digestion, I highly recommend that you read Restoring Your Digestive Health by Jordan Rubin NMD and Joseph Brasco MD. This is an excellent book that relies on the basic principles of a healthy lifestyle to improve digestion, and in turn, overall health. After struggling for several years with an extreme case of Crohn’s disease, these basic principles are what brought Jordan Rubin back to good health and saved him from having part of his intestines removed.
The book contains a detailed 3 stage program that anyone can follow and includes specific variations to the program for a number of digestive issues. It also includes recipes for easy to digest meals and opinions on a variety of common therapies and supplements.