Originally published October 1 2009
Simple Solutions Help Common Digestive Complaints
by Dr. David Rostollan, ND
(NaturalNews) Poor digestion is a problem most of us will probably face at some point in our lives. It is disrupting in a number of ways, whether through heartburn, gas, constipation, or a number of other uncomfortable conditions. We see products like Gas-X, TUMS, Benefiber, and MiraLAX being heavily advertised every single day. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, more than four million Americans have frequent constipation, and we spend $725 million dollars every year on laxatives alone! (1) It's obvious that we have a problem, but what is causing it, and what can we do about it?
Although poor digestion can have several different causes, such as unbalanced intestinal bacteria or a digestive enzyme deficiency, the main culprit is usually bad eating habits. Indeed, the diets of most Americans leave much to be desired. The extreme overconsumption of sugar, "fake" or processed foods, unhealthy industrialized oils, and refined grains have produced chronic health problems unseen before our time. As we have strayed away from the more natural and traditional diets and lifestyles of those who have gone before us, chronic diseases of all kinds have exploded. Many traditional cultures were more hunter-gatherer in nature rather than agricultural, and it is notable that the "diseases of civilization" were - for the most part - nowhere to be seen. This ought to cause us to ponder the wisdom of consuming an agriculturally-based diet, complete with industrialized vegetable oils and other processed foods. Is it wise to make such food the foundation of our diet? It seems doubtful.
Agriculture has played an important role in the growth of civilization, no doubt, and for this we should be thankful. But at what price? (2)
This brings us to our present concern with digestive difficulties. It is widely known that agricultural foods contain a broad variety of antinutrients. Most grains, for instance, contain substances such as phytic acid and lectins. Phytic acid binds beneficial minerals - such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc - in such a way that they cannot be absorbed by the body, and lectins, which are particular kinds of proteins found in grains, cause many problems of their own. For example, a specific lectin in wheat, known as wheat germ agglutinin, or WGA, has been linked with interference of digestion and absorption, shifts in bacterial flora, and changes in the immune system of the gut. In a study with rats, WGA disrupted normal gut metabolism, and caused enlargement of the pancreas, among other things (2,3). What's more, if one is partaking heavily of a grain-based diet, damage to the intestines can occur whether celiac disease (an autoimmune disease of the small intestine) is present or not (4).
Historically, grains were prepared much differently than they are today in order to get around some of these drawbacks. They were soaked, sprouted, or fermented, which greatly reduced or eliminated many of the antinutrients such as phytic acid and lectins. This made the nutrients far more accessible and the grain in general much more tolerable. What we have today is a very different story. Grains are pulverized at high temperatures and are usually modified genetically, chemically, and hormonally. Proper grain preparation is exceedingly rare.
Is it any surprise, then, that Americans, who are urged to eat 6-11 servings per day of these digestion-disrupting foods, are annually spending three-fourths of a billion dollars on things like laxatives? It's time we considered getting back to a truly traditional diet, a diet centered around foods like vegetables, berries, nuts, proteins, and healthy fats. Not only is such a diet far more nutritionally dense than the current grain-based diet (5), but it also eliminates those foods which contain the most antinutrients - the very substances that are proven to cause many of the digestive disorders that we see to be so prevalent today. If more people would eat a consistently healthy diet, with a de-emphasis on the modern foods, there can be no doubt that many of these digestive issues would become a thing of the past.
Even problems such as heartburn are amazingly responsive to changes in diet. In a study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, a reduction in carbohydrates was shown to significantly reduce both the amount of acid and the symptoms of GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease) in study participants after just six days (6). Truly, eating the right foods can have amazing healing potential!
A good diet is a powerful weapon in the war against digestive disorders - and it should be a priority, no doubt - but health problems are rarely fixed overnight, even with the healthiest of diets. What is usually needed is comprehensive digestive support, and this means looking beyond your bare diet. It means there might be an advantage to searching out gentle, herbal remedies to help your body through this time of healing transition. Herbs have an incredible ability to sooth and heal in mysterious and complex ways.
Since an improvement in diet is probably needed anyway, one of the best ways to make this more interesting and to incorporate healing herbs into one's life is through the generous use of spices. The possibilities for flavor are nearly endless, and it's gratifying to know that you're doing something great for your body. Do you have a problem with excess gas? Try cumin, garlic, ginger, basil, or cloves. How about indigestion? Try incorporating cardamom, peppermint, ginger, caraway, or cinnamon. Are you constipated? Spice up your dinner with basil, fennel, caraway, mustard seed, or coriander. There are never-ending possibilities. Be creative!
Incorporating such powerful "medicines" in the form of herbs or spices directly into one's own food is obviously the most natural (and enjoyable!) way to go. Sometimes, however, it's hard to be consistent. For those people, supplementation is definitely an option to consider. Many of those same herbs and spices, such as ginger, cinnamon, garlic, and peppermint are available as encapsulated preparations. Or if you're a little more ambitious, they can be purchased in dry bulk for making teas, fomentations, ointments, or any other kind of preparation that you'd like. Ginger tea with a little bit of stevia is a favorite of many. Not only is it good for digestion, but it's also delicious. Many herbalists recommend combinations of herbs for specific conditions, and indeed, this approach can be quite powerful!
There are other supplements to think about as well. Since intestinal flora play a strong role in digestive health and in peristalsis, it might be wise to consider a probiotic supplement, some good kefir, or other fermented foods to incorporate into the diet. Many today have unbalanced microflora in the gut due to heavy and indiscriminate antibiotic usage, and/or bad dietary habits.
The amino acid l-glutamine also has an impressive history for helping all kinds of digestive problems, from healing the intestinal lining to treating stomach ulcers (7). There are many possibilities, and a well-rounded approach of correcting the diet and supplementing where needed might be a great combination to think about.
While we're on the topic of supplements, a quick word about fiber might be in order here, and please understand that what follows is simply my cautious opinion. Fiber supplements are heavily promoted both in popular advertising and in the alternative health community. Fiber is found naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables, and in normal quantities, it's fine. However, unnaturally high intake of fiber may not be the best idea. The reason fiber "works" is because it causes damage to the inside of the intestinal wall (8). This damage provokes a defensive, mucosal response by the body, and this mucus, of course, will help to keep things moving. Is this repeated, chronic intestinal damage good for us? No one knows for sure. It is interesting, however, that in one of the only controlled clinical trials ever conducted on the independent effects of fiber, it was discovered that those who ate the most fiber actually had the greatest increase in mortality! (9) At the very least, this should give us pause about the wisdom of consuming inordinate amounts of extra fiber in the form of supplements. As always, a good diet should be the focus. Once healing begins to take place, the fiber supplements, laxatives, and other "helper" products might not be so necessary anymore.
Be good to your body. Eat fresh food; drink clean water. Get some quality exercise! The strategies for a healthy digestive system are really just the strategies for good old healthy living. This is something everyone can do! And really, can you think of any problem that's this much fun to fix? The healthy digestive lifestyle involves things like:
- Eating mouth-watering, real foods, seasoned with a variety of herbs and spices.
- Drinking delicious teas of all kinds and combinations.
- Being playful and active. Engaging in exercise that you enjoy!
Who wouldn't want to live this way? It's natural, healthy, and thoroughly enjoyable. The closer we get to the natural diet and lifestyle of the past, the healthier and happier we will undoubtedly be.
About the authorDavid Rostollan holds a Bachelor of Science in Natural Health and a doctorate in Naturopathy. He currently works as a professional health and nutrition consultant. His primary interests include heart disease prevention, chronic illness support, and diet and lifestyle coaching. He can be reached through www.reforminghealth.com
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