The Lowdown on Digestive Problems

The Lowdown on Digestive Problems

Julian Whitaker, MD

Digestive problems such as heartburn, gas, and constipation are considered minor nuisances – until they happen to you. In your search for relief from these common maladies you’ve probably tried some of the over-the-counter remedies that crowd your drugstore shelves. And you’ve likely gotten temporary relief. But drugs do not address the underlying causes of these digestive complaints. In fact, they may even make things worse.

Let’s look at three very common gastrointestinal problems and safe, simple, effective solutions that go beyond symptom relief to actual healing.

Taming the Flame of Indigestion

Indigestion has been called “the remorse of a guilty stomach.” Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, what most folks call heartburn) occurs when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus. Unlike the stomach, the esophagus has no protective mucosal lining, so stomach acid backup can cause inflammation and pain. It’s no mystery what causes acid reflux: overeating is usually to blame.

Some foods are especially problematic, however, because they cause the valve at the end of the esophagus to relax, allowing acid to travel upwards from the stomach. The worst culprits are fried or fatty foods, chocolate, and alcohol. Other foods that can cause heartburn are citrus foods, tomato products, and coffee, which are directly irritating to the esophagus.

Take the Heat out of Heartburn

The best cure for heartburn is prevention. That means eliminating troublesome foods and beverages, chewing food thoroughly, eating slowly, and knowing when to stop. It takes about 20 minutes for the signal of fullness to reach your brain, so if you’re gobbling down your food in half that time, you’re more likely to overeat. Keep in mind that the digestive process begins in the mouth, not the stomach. The simple act of savoring each mouthful will go a long way towards preventing indigestion. Drinking lots of water will also help as it soothes your esophagus and flushes out stomach acid.

If you do suffer from heartburn, avoid reaching for an antacid or H2 blocker such as Zantac or Pepcid. These drugs change the pH (acidity) of the stomach, either by binding with stomach acid or blocking acid production. They may relieve the pain of heartburn, but they also impair digestion, in particular the digestion of protein. Chronic use of these drugs also allows the overgrowth of H. pylori bacteria, which can infiltrate the stomach lining to cause ulcers.

How I Spell Relief: D-G-L

A much better solution to the problem of heartburn is deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL). Unlike drugs that alter pH, DGL works on the stomach lining itself, improving the quality and quantity of protective substances. And rather than masking the burn of acid reflux, DGL actually helps heal the esophagus.

To avoid triggering reflux during sleep, wait at least two hours after a meal before lying down. Elevating the head of your bed four to six inches is also useful. Furthermore, researchers have recently found that heartburn symptoms are more pronounced in patients who sleep on their right side, so you might want to try sleeping on your left side.

The Flatulence Factor

If you’re plagued by bloating, belching, or flatulence, you’re not alone. However, the only way to avoid these embarrassing problems completely is to stop eating and drinking. Intestinal gas is an inevitable byproduct of digestion.

Carbohydrates that reach the large intestine without being digested are the foodstuff of friendly bacteria that inhabit your colon and help keep harmful bacteria at bay. Unfortunately, when these bacteria go to work, they release some not-so-friendly gases, including hydrogen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and methane.

How to Get a Grip on Gas

Some of the most nutritious foods are the most problematic. Beans, cruciferous vegetables, and grains contain raffinose sugars that our bodies are unable to digest. Rather than avoiding these foods altogether, take Beano with meals. Beano contains the missing enzyme that enables our bodies to break down these sugars before they reach the large intestine where gas is produced.

If bloating is a problem, try supplementing with digestive enzymes: protease (which breaks down protein), amylase (which breaks down carbohydrate), and lipase (which breaks down fat). Bromelain from pineapples and papain from papaya are also helpful.

Are You “Regular”?

At least four million Americans suffer from constipation, and we spend over $500 million a year on laxatives to alleviate this problem. But guess what, folks? Laxative use breeds laxative dependence, making the problem even worse. In most cases, constipation is the result of a poor diet, exacerbated by an inadequate intake of fluids and insufficient exercise. Some drugs cause constipation, but a low-fiber diet is far more likely to be the culprit.

The first step in treating constipation is to increase your intake of fiber-rich plant foods. Fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains should make up the “bulk” of your diet, as the fiber in these foods increases both the frequency and quantity of bowel movements. You should also make sure to drink plenty of water and get some exercise most days of the week.

These simple changes should be enough to produce regular, healthy bowel movements without the need for laxatives. For occasional constipation, use a bulk-forming product such as psyllium seed or ground flaxseed. I don’t recommend long-term use of stool softeners or stimulant laxatives, even “natural” herbal ones that contain senna or cascara.


  • If you are plagued with chronic gastrointestinal problems, our doctors at the Whitaker Wellness Institute can help. To schedule an appointment, call (866) 944-8253.
  • Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), enzymes, and other nutritional supplements that improve digestion may be purchased by calling (800) 810-6655.


  • Murray, M and Pizzorno, J. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA, 1998.

Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healingclick here.

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