Gut health. It’s a topic most people rarely think about—until something goes wrong. However, every single bite you take and every mouthful of food you swallow must go through the complex process of digestion to be broken down into components the body can use.
As food passes through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract (mouth, esophagus, stomach, and small and large intestines), the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas do their parts to transform it into amino acids, fatty acids, carbohydrates, and micronutrients that can be absorbed and delivered in the bloodstream to cells throughout the body.
It’s a fascinating process, as long as everything is running smoothly. But what happens when gut health goes awry? Let’s look at natural solutions for some of the most common digestive disorders.
Before we get into specific conditions, I want to emphasize the basics for gut health. Regular physical activity is particularly important for the intestinal tract, as it helps keep things moving through the system. Weight loss can have a dramatic impact on stomach problems, and stress management reduces irritable bowel syndrome and “butterflies” in the stomach.
Diet is obviously a significant contributor to digestive problems, and too little fiber is a primary culprit. Recommended daily intake is 30-38 g for men and 21-25 for women, yet we average just 15 g per day. No wonder 63 million Americans are constipated.
In addition to improving elimination, fiber cultivates bacteria in the GI tract, which has profound effects on multiple aspects of gut health.
Twenty percent of adults regularly experience heartburn, belching, regurgitation, nausea, or other symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is triggered by stomach acid backing up into the esophagus. Peptic ulcer disease, a less common cause of stomach pain, is usually due to a bacterial infection and can generally be eradicated with antibiotics.
Acid-reducing medications provide temporary relief but can cause serious problems over the long term. Safer solutions include eating smaller meals, avoiding foods that cause symptoms (such as fried foods, carbonated drinks, coffee, alcohol, citrus, spicy foods, and tomatoes), remaining upright after eating, drinking more water, and losing weight—which may completely eliminate GERD.
Folk remedies for stomach distress include cabbage juice and apple cider vinegar. My number-one supplement recommendation is deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), which reduces inflammation and regenerates mucosal cells lining the GI tract for lasting relief. Zinc, melatonin, aloe vera, and Iberogast (a German herbal tonic) are also helpful when it comes to improving gut health.
Counterintuitive as it seems, low stomach acid may also be a problem. As we get older, our stomachs produce less hydrochloric acid, which interrupts the digestive process and can result in pain and bloating. Restoring stomach acid with betaine hydrochloride capsules may rectify this condition.
Chronic constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, and cramping, are also incredibly common—and embarrassing—gut health issues. But because they are generally functional in nature—function is impaired but there are no underlying physical problems—they’re tricky to treat.
Constipation can be prevented with increased fiber intake, but far too many people rely on laxatives. Occasional use of osmotic laxatives such as Miralax, Milk of Magnesia, or magnesium 500-1,000 mg is acceptable. However, with the exception of bulk-forming fiber products like Metamucil and Citrucel, regular use of laxatives can make matters worse.
Pepto-Bismol and Imodium are helpful for infrequent bouts of diarrhea, and over-the-counter products like simethicone, activated charcoal, and digestive enzymes reduce intestinal gas. None of these quick fixes, however, gets to the bottom of the problem.
Furthermore, many patients suffer with multiple GI problems. This constellation of symptoms, called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), can be treated, but it requires a personalized program of diet changes and targeted supplements—and a commitment from patients to stay the course.
Common Culprits and Solutions
Every person’s dietary hot buttons differ, but common culprits are gluten, cruciferous vegetables, beans, grains, and fermentable carbs such as lactose, fructose, and sugar alcohols. Helpful gut health supplements include the amino acid L-glutamine, which bolsters the integrity of the intestinal tract; inflammation-reducing omega-3s; and peppermint for gas and cramping.
Imbalances in gut bacteria, or dysbiosis, may also underlie IBS—or any intestinal issue. If you suffer with digestive distress, promoting a healthy microbiota (see below) should be your first order of business. If problems persist, natural antimicrobials such as garlic, oregano oil, and berberine are recommended. Serious overgrowth of candida yeast or pathogenic bacteria may call for antifungal drugs or narrow-spectrum antibiotics (Xifaxan).
These same recommendations may also provide relief for inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, serious autoimmune disorders that usually require more intensive treatment.
Nurture Your Gut Bacteria
The microbiota (gut flora) is involved in much more than digestion. This collection of trillions of microbes synthesizes vitamins K and B12 and fatty acids used for energy, fights infection and boosts immune function, reduces inflammation, protects against allergies, and aids in overall gut health. Believe it or not, gut flora even affects weight—thin individuals harbor different bacterial species than heavy people. It also produces or regulates neurotransmitters and hormones that influence mood, emotions, and cognitive function, and plays a role in anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and autism.
Nurture your gut bacteria by avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, taking probiotic supplements, and eating whole, unprocessed foods, lots of fiber, and fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi, which promote beneficial bacteria and fewer pathogenic microbes.
For serious intestinal infections and inflammatory bowel disease, fecal transplant, which involves transferring “donor feces” from a healthy person, refurbishes the microbiota and often results in remarkable recovery.
Say Goodbye to Digestive Woes
Small changes can go a long way toward improving gut health. I recently received this note from Liz, a Health & Healing subscriber from Ohio. “My husband, Joe, has had digestive problems for as long as I can remember. A few months ago, we decided to clean up our diet, cut out processed foods and sugars, and add probiotics, fiber, and fish oil to our supplement regimen. Within weeks, Joe’s issues rapidly improved. He was having solid bowel movements for the first time in over a decade and he lost a few pounds in his waistline as well.”
Gut Health Recap
Suggested supplements for stomach pain include deglycyrrhizinated licorice 1 tablet chewed 20 minutes before meals, zinc 30 mg, melatonin 3 mg at bedtime, and betaine hydrochloride, starting with one capsule and increasing gradually as needed. Use aloe vera and Iberogast as directed.
For intestinal issues, aim for 30-40 mg total of dietary and supplemental fiber with lots of water. High-potency probiotics are particularly important for optimal gut health. Take digestive enzymes with meals and L-glutamine 3.5-5 g and enteric-coated peppermint capsules twice a day between meals. Use natural antimicrobials (high-dose garlic, oregano oil, and berberine), as directed.
Look for these supplements for gut health online and in stores, or call the clinic at 800-810-6655 to order.