Digestive health is crucial for a speedy metabolism, high energy levels, good immunity and a whole host of other factors related to your health. And that’s why I want to share this comprehensive guide to digestive health.
First I’ll go over how the digestive system works. Then I’ll explain six of the top digestive health complaints, why they happen, why conventional treatments aren’t ideal and some alternative natural remedies. Finally I’ll leave you with my top tips for maintaining good digestive health.
Hopefully by the end of this you’ll have a good idea of how to take care of your digestive system and be inspired to make some changes right now.
So How Exactly Does Our Digestive System Work?
Knowing how a healthy digestive tract should work is crucial for understanding what can go wrong along the way. I mean when you really think about it, how amazing is it that our bodies are able to magically transform the food we eat into energy that fuels our growth? This happens through a step by step process that takes place pretty much all on its own accord.
Here are the six major components of the digestive system from start to finish (1).
As soon as you take a bite of food the mouth begins to release enzymes in the saliva that help to break it down. Chewing also breaks it down into smaller and smaller pieces, meaning that the more you chew, the less work your stomach and small intestine have to do.
This is a tube-like pathway that connects the throat to the stomach and it contracts to move food down. A little valve called the lower esophageal sphincter opens and closes to let food into the stomach and then keep it down there. When it works properly it also keeps stomach acid from moving up into the esophagus, which is sensitive and not made to come in contact with acids.
Oh the stomach. This is where all the magic happens. It kind of works like a giant mixing bowl, using powerful enzymes and acid to melt food down into the consistency of a liquid. It’s important to have just the right mix of acids and enzymes to do this properly, and to kill off any pathogens that may have entered the body through food or water.
After the stomach does its job, the liquid-y food moves down into the small intestine. This is by far the largest part of the digestive system, in fact it’s over 15 feet long for most people.
The liver, pancreas and gallbladder are also important for this part of the process. The pancreas releases enzymes that further break down fats, proteins and carbs in our food. The liver releases bile which is important for breaking down fats and also helps eliminate toxins. The gallbladder is like a little storage vessel for excess bile and after you eat it releases the bile into the small intestine to help with digestion, especially of fats and proteins.
The small intestine contains healthy bacteria that break down food and neutralize any bugs you may have take in with your food. The small intestine then absorbs all the nutrients and water your body needs from eating and drinking, before using powerful contractions, to pass any waste products down into the large intestine. It’s important for the gut to be healthy and intact, like a closed system, so that waste products don’t leak out of the intestine and into the blood.
This is another tube that’s about 5 feet long. It contracts to move waste through, extracting even more water and turning waste into solid stool that’s then excreted. This process can take anywhere from 24-36 hours, and the waste is mostly made up of food debris and bacteria.
The rectum is another sphincter like the one in the esophagus. Except this one opens and closes to let waste out. It receives stool from the large intestine and sends a signal to the brain that it’s time to go! In an ideal situation the sphincter is able to relax and allow you to go, otherwise it stays closed until you’re able to use the toilet.
The healthy digestive system works like a well-oiled machine, breaking down your food, absorbing nutrients, vitamins and water and then releasing anything your body can’t use into the toilet. From mouth to bottom its a closed system that’s designed to keep waste, food and toxins from getting into your bloodstream. When it’s functioning well, you won’t be experiencing nausea, indigestion or pain and you’ll have a bowel movement once or twice daily.
But what about when it’s not functioning well? Read on for six of the top digestive health complaints, why they happen and some natural remedies you can use to get back on track.
Indigestion – What Is It and Why Do You Get It?
Also known as heartburn or dyspepsia, indigestion occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter isn’t functioning properly and allows stomach acid to move up into the esophagus. There could be many reasons for the esophagus not functioning properly, but some common ones include food allergies, too much or not enough stomach acid, inflammation in the stomach or an H pylori infection (2).
Other possible causes are genetics or the stomach’s inability to relax and contract as it should when consuming food (3). The stomach is a highly acidic environment designed to break down food and kill bacteria. It’s also a muscle that must be able to hold its contents in so that they don’t rise up into the more sensitive esophagus, causing pain and inflammation.
There are lots of other causes of indigestion, some can be chronic and some just happen occasionally from indulging in bad habits like eating too much, too fast, drinking lots of coffee or alcohol. Some people who suffer with ulcers or hernias have indigestion all the time and sometimes its a simple food allergy. One common cause of indigestion is pregnancy, especially in later stages when the baby is tightly squeezed in and compressing your stomach.
Many people suffer from indigestion without ever seeking medical attention. Either they snack on tums like candy or regularly down a cup of alka-seltzer after a meal.
But like any pain in the body, indigestion can be valuable information letting you know that something is off with your health. Covering up the symptoms doesn’t actually fix anything and in fact, some of these conventional treatments are downright dangerous.
If you do visit a doctor, they might run tests like an endoscopy to check your upper digestive tract. They might also check for H. pylori bacteria, which is commonly treated using antibiotics (but there are natural remedies that can be highly effective). Commonly prescribed medications for indigestion include omeprazole or ranitidine. But here’s the deal with those.
Ranitidine also known as zantac, works to reduce the acid in your stomach. Now if you have a condition in which you produce too much acid, that could be a good thing. But remember that your stomach acid also works to kill off pathogens you may accidentally digest. Low stomach acid could mean increasing your risk of infection. And because sometimes acid reflux is actually caused by low stomach acid, it could lead to further indigestion in the long run.
Some of the other potential side effects of zantac are jaundice, a loss of appetite, bruising, chest infections or even decreased sex drive (4).
Omeprazole or prilosec is a proton pump inhibitor which also works to decrease stomach acid. It comes with the same risks as zantac due to lowered stomach acid as well as others like kidney problems. Some potential side effects of prilosec are kidney problems, seizures, stomach pain or diarrhea (50).
If reading about these side effects makes you a little nervous, you aren’t alone. And if you’re feeling inspired to try some natural remedies instead, you’re in luck!
Natural Remedies (6)
- Apple Cider Vinegar
Drinking 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in some water before meals can help indigestion in a few different ways. For one thing the acetic acid works to kill off any bad bacteria and increase stomach acid. If you suffer from indigestion because of low stomach acid then this might be the remedy for you. It’s also packed with digestive enzymes and probiotics which both improve digestion of your food, helping things move along.
- Artichoke Extract
There is a compound in artichokes called cynarin which can help to increase bile flow from the the liver (7). Bile is needed to break down and digest fats which speeds digestion so food doesn’t get stuck in the stomach.
This is one of the gentlest digestive aids out there. Ginger helps the stomach to relax and so that food can be released into the small intestine. This helps ease indigestion because food doesn’t stay stuck in the stomach for too long. Taking ginger capsules, drinking fresh ginger tea, adding grated ginger to your food (which is especially good in salad dressings) or even breathing it as an essential oil are all great ways to use ginger for indigestion.
- Dietary Changes
Experiencing chronic indigestion is probably a sign to cut out those deep fried chili cheese fries. Dietary changes are the simplest most natural way to remedy indigestion. Some of the most common triggers of indigestion are fried foods, spicy foods, or other heavily processed stuff.
Cutting out, or at least decreasing, alcohol and caffeine is also important, since they both interfere with the parasympathetic nervous system. Have you ever heard of rest and digest? Our nervous system needs to be relaxed state in order to work optimally.
- Lifestyle Changes
Some other easy ways to support digestion are reducing stress, eating slowly, chewing your food well and saying goodbye to those late night snacks. This feels like common sense but sometimes it’s not easy to make a practice of following these good habits.
Remember that digestion starts in the mouth, so slow down, chew well and try to enjoy eating your food instead of scarfing it down on the go. Late night eating doesn’t allow you the time to actually digest before you sleep and laying down can actually increase heartburn. Stress reduction works because stress interferes with that rest and digest function of the nervous system.
Nausea – What is it and why do you get it?
Nausea is that icky, queasy feeling you get in your stomach when something feels “off.” It could be from eating something harmful, feeling nervous or even just being jostled around in a car.
Whatever the cause, it’s not a very good feeling and can lead to other symptoms like light-headed or faintness, a cold-sweat or increased heart rate. Often these are signs that your body wants to vomit, or forcibly release whatever is in your stomach. Vomiting can sometimes relieve those nauseous feelings. But if it doesn’t, there are plenty of other remedies you can try.
Before we get to those, let’s look at some different causes of nausea. Morning-sickness is pregnancy induced nausea that comes on because of changing hormones. Some people get it from riding in cars or on boats. Sometimes it comes on from being emotionally disturbed or even afraid. It could be a sign that you’ve got food poisoning, a stomach virus or even an ulcer. Experiencing intense physical pain or a brain injury can also cause nausea.
Since nausea can be caused by some serious conditions so contact a doctor if you exhibit any of these symptoms (8).
- Nausea that comes on after an injury
- If you think you could be pregnant
- If there is anything resembling blood- it could be red or dark and dry like coffee.
- If you’re experiencing a severe headache
- If you’re stomach pain is severe, which could be an appendix or gall bladder issue.
While most of the time nausea can be resolved on its own by avoiding food for a bit and drinking additional fluids, sometimes doctors will prescribe medication if it is severe, especially if it’s caused by pregnancy or cancer-treatments.
Zofran works by blocking the chemicals that tell the body it’s nauseous. Some side effects are more common than others and include dizziness, anxiety, headaches, difficulty breathing, or constipation. Some less common but potentially dangerous side effects include kidney problems or allergic reactions (9).
One common over the counter treatment for nausea is pepto-bismol, you know, that “pink stuff” your mom probably gave you for an upset stomach. It has an active ingredient in it called bismuth subsalicylate.
While pepto-bismol is commonly used, it is not good for people with certain health issues like bleeding ulcers, diabetes or kidney problems. Plus, I’m of the mindset that in most cases, natural remedies should be used a first line defense before jumping to medications.
Here are some safe and effective natural remedies for nausea.
Back again, ginger can help with indigestion and nausea, which often happen hand in hand.. One U.K. study in 2000 showed that ginger was an effective remedy for nausea caused by motion sickness, pregnancy and chemotherapy (10). A great way to get all the medicinal benefits is to cut up a knob of fresh ginger into water and cook it down for about 12 minutes. Strain the pieces of ginger out and drink it right away or store it in the fridge. The tea is excellent hot or cold, or even mixed up with a little lemon and honey.
- Peppermint Tea or Peppermint Essential Oil
The volatile oils in peppermint help to relax spasms in the stomach, cool down acidity and help with digestion. Use the essential oil on pulse points as aromatherapy or make a soothing tea to help with nausea. This is another one that you can sip on cold or mix with black tea to freshen it up.
Have you ever heard of drinking a glass of warm water with lemon in the morning? It is a known detoxifier for the liver but it’s also great for easing nausea too. Squeeze a little lemon in your water or ginger tea. If you’re not into drinking teas you can inhale some lemon essential oil on your pulse points or in a diffuser.
- Leaky Gut
Chances are if you’re into natural health you’ve heard of leaky gut. This is a biggie when it comes to digestive health and could get a whole guide to itself. It is also the root cause of many autoimmune conditions. We’ll get into that side in a bit, but for now let’s break down the basics.
Leaky Gut – What is it and Why Do You Get It?
A healthy digestive system uses acids, bile, enzymes and bacteria to break down food into usable energy (12). Those nutrients are then allowed to pass into the bloodstream through tiny gateways in the intestinal walls.
But if the lining of the intestines (or gut) is irritated and inflamed it can become permeable. What that means is those little gateways malfunction, becoming a little too wide and allowing toxins, waste products and pathogens into the bloodstream too. This can cause all kinds of health issues.
Signs of leaky gut
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Weight gain
- SIBO or small intestinal overgrowth
- Gluten sensitivity
- Eczema and other skin issues.
- Nutrient deficiency
Leaky gut also interferes with the immune system and can cause the body to start attacking itself, also known as an autoimmune condition. Here are some of the common autoimmune conditions that could be affected by leaky gut.
- Hashimoto’s Disease
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Crohn’s Disease
- Celiac Disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
Some specialists believe that these newer chronic conditions are a result of our unhealthy modern lifestyles and ultimately boil down to gut health, which means that if they are right, we should really take our digestive health seriously!
Here are some of the causes of leaky gut:
Some people can eat croissants everyday for breakfast without gaining a pound or having any negative side effects and some can’t. I know it’s unfair but in order to heal we need to work with what we’ve got. Listening to your body (and even making the next step to invest in advanced lab testing)
- Toxicity in the Body
This could be from smoking, drinking alcohol, medications, water with high levels of chlorine and fluoride, GMO and processed foods, and foods laden with pesticides (this is why organic is so important!)
- Inflammatory Diet
Conventional dairy and meats, ultra processed foods, lots of non-sprouted grains and legumes and other allergenic food can cause inflammation in the stomach and gut lining.
This is a bacterial imbalance usually caused by too much antibiotic use, therefore killing off the good bacteria in your gut that helps to break down food, kill toxins and protect the intestinal wall.
As of now, the conventional medical system doesn’t really acknowledge leaky gut. This can be frustrating for many people who receive autoimmune diagnosis without understanding the why behind their conditions. But there are a lot of functional and integrative medicine doctors working to support people in healing leaky gut. And there are many natural remedies to consider. If you’re interested in getting tested for leaky gut as well as a healing protocol through one of our customized health programs, apply for a consultation with us.
- Dietary Changes
I know we all want a magic pill to cure us without having to change anything, but removing certain foods is the number one way to support your digestive health. And in order to heal leaky gut you have to stop eating certain inflammatory foods (13).
- Gluten and other unsprouted grains
- Sprouted legumes and nuts that are heavy in phytic acid.
- GMOs and hydrogenated oils
- Synthetic additives
- Processed sugar
Adding in certain gut healing foods is important too. And it’s definitely more fun to think about what to add instead of what to take away.
Here are some examples of gut healing foods:
- Bone broth
- Fermented veggies like kimchi and sauerkraut
- Cooked veggies for easily digestible fiber.
- Coconut products
- Healthy fats
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Try to eat slowly and mindfully. This means turning off the TV, focusing on your food and chewing it well so that digestion truly begins in the mouth. This makes for less work on the gut. Stress is another huge factor in leaky gut so do whatever you can to lower your stress load. Maybe you’d like to try deep breathing exercises, yoga or meditation?
- Supplements (14)
- Probiotics are important to repopulate the gut with good bacteria, kill off the bad and help the gut to heal.
- Digestive Enzymes before a meal will help your body break down and digest foods that could damage the intestinal wall.
- L-glutamine helps to lower inflammation and repair the gut lining.
- Licorice root not only lowers stress and cortisol production, but also maintains the mucus the lines the stomach and gut.
- Slippery elm powder is another one that increases the mucosal lining in the gut. It’s mucilage helps combat irritation, ulcers and excess acidity.
If you have any chronic health issues going on, working to heal leaky gut is a great place to start.
Diarrhea – What Is It and Why Do You Get It?
Diarrhea is defined as having three or more loose or liquid bowel movements in a day. Not something you want to be dealing with. Diarrhea occurs because digestion speeds up, keeping the large intestine from absorbing water as it normally would. This can happen because of infections, parasites, food allergies, medications or other diseases of the bowel (15).
While it is generally more annoying than dangerous, here are some complications of diarrhea.
- Dehydration. This is more dangerous in children than adults and infants can become dehydrated in only 24 hours after having diarrhea.
- Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. This is a complication of E.coli and can cause kidney failure if left untreated. See a doctor immediately if diarrhea is accompanied by bruising, decreased urination, bloody stools, high fever and extreme abdominal pain.
- Chronic Diarrhea. If it’s lasting longer than a month its chronic and a doctor should probably run tests to rule out a more severe condition.
Over the counter treatments for diarrhea work to stop bowel movements from occurring. This can be convenient if you’re traveling, but keep in mind that diarrhea means your body is trying to get something out of it and interrupting that process could prolong illness. Anti-diarrhea medicine also shouldn’t be used for more than a few days.
One common medication is imodium, which slows transit time of the digestive tract. Some potential side effects of imodium are dry mouth, dizziness, pain in the stomach or diarrhea (16).
Natural remedies are always my first choice and luckily for diarrhea you have quite a few options (17).
- Stay Hydrated
This is so important and instead of choosing sugary drinks, hydrate with purified water and added electrolytes. Bone broth and herbal tea are other great options. Whatever you choose, drink about 16 oz of fluids an hour to replenish.
- Eat Soothing Foods
Anything that is easy to digest and non-inflammatory is great. Soups, brown rice, apples and bananas are all great healing foods to eat after suffering diarrhea. Avoid caffeine as it can stimulate your bowels!
As with other digestive health issues, a good starting point with supplementation is probiotics, digestive enzymes and soluble fiber.
- Peppermint tea or essential oil is back again to soothe the digestive tract and relax the muscles of the gut.
- Aloe Vera Gel (the edible kind not the bottle found in the sun care section!). Aloe is very soothing to the intestinal lining and can be taken 3 times a day.
Constipation – What Is It and Why Do You Get It?
The opposite of diarrhea, constipation is equally frustrating. In fact about 20% of the population find constipation enough of a problem to see a doctor (18). It can cause bloating, stomach pain and even hemorrhoids.
The conventional definition of constipation would be less than 3 bowel movements a week, but going at least once a day is ideal for a truly healthy digestive system. There could be many causes but some common ones are too little exercise, dehydration, using too many laxatives, stress, medication and most importantly: inadequate fiber and a bad diet (19).
Usually if you’ve got some constipation, you’re sent to the laxative section. These drugs work to stimulate the bowels and loosen stools. Common side effects of laxatives include gassiness, bloating and abdominal pain, especially when they start to work!
There are many different kinds, but most of them are intended for short term use only. This is because they can damage the intestines over time. If a person takes laxatives long term or uses more than indicated, they can experience mineral imbalances, dehydration, organ damage and laxative dependence (20).
Luckily there are healthier and more sustainable ways to get your intestines moving again. This includes some very basic changes to your diet and lifestyle (21).
- Drink Water
Your bowels need enough water to move waste through. Make sure you’re drinking half your body weight in ounces of water, minimum. Sparkling water can be even better at relieving constipation.
- Eat Soluble Fiber
This is found in oat bran, lentils, peas and certain vegetables like okra. If you’re having trouble getting soluble fiber into your diet, use a supplement like psyllium husk. Soluble fiber helps to soften stools and move them through your colon.
Digestive enzymes and probiotics help with digestion and populate the gut with good bacteria to keep your bowels moving. Magnesium citrate is also helpful in two ways. It increases water in the intestines and relaxes the muscles.
Slippery elm or senna both work for constipation. But senna is a stronger more stimulating laxative and should be used moderately.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome – What Is It and Why Do You Get It?
Like leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome is another one of those conditions that is how it sounds. Symptoms of IBS can include constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, burping, nausea, loss of appetite and abdominal pain. If your stomach and bowels are irritable for 3-6 months, you might have IBS (21).
Doctors diagnose this condition based on the amount of symptoms you exhibit and their duration so keeping track of those is important. It is most common in women, in fact IBS occurs in women twice as much as men.
While the causes of IBS vary, most doctors believe that the nerves, muscles and enzymes in the digestive tract don’t function properly. Here are some other potential causes of IBS.
- Food sensitivities
- Traveling or other big life changes
- Hormonal imbalances
- Stress (the gut is linked to the nervous system and reacts strongly to stress.)
There isn’t a prescription cure for irritable bowel syndrome but doctors do sometimes offer medications to manage symptoms. Some of these could be anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants or a drug called viberzi which manages bowel contractions, cramps and diarrhea (22).
While taking anti-anxiety and antidepressants come with their own risks, viberzi is actually a schedule IV controlled substance and can cause some of the symptoms it’s trying to help. Some of its potential side effects include nausea, constipation, pancreatitis and upper respiratory problems (23).
Like much of the gut health issues, IBS can usually be managed naturally. Here are the natural remedies for people struggling with IBS.
- Diet Changes
Finding out what foods trigger your IBS and avoiding those foods is key. While everyone’s sensitivities are different, here are some of the more common irritants.
- Conventional dairy
- Processed foods
- Caffeine and alcohol
- Allergens like nuts, eggs and soy
- Learn to Relax!
This has been a common theme in many of the digestive system remedies. Stress raises inflammation in the body, aggravates the nervous system and has a knock on effect on gut health. Yoga, meditation, good sleep deep breathing and even aromatherapy with essential oils like lavender and peppermint could be helpful for IBS.
Again probiotics and digestive enzymes are a good first step to take for your digestive health. L-glutamine also helps the digestive tract repair itself.
Ginger and peppermint teas are both excellent for quelling nausea and indigestion. Slippery elm bark and aloe vera gel soothe the intestinal lining.
- Move Your Body
Not only does exercise release happy chemicals in your brain and lower stress, but it can also improve the health of your digestive system. Remember that a sedentary lifestyle can cause constipation, so get out there and start moving!
Okay that was a lot of information. But I hope it gave you a good overall understanding of digestive health and how you can naturally support any symptoms you may be experiencing.
From here I’d like to leave you with some tips for good digestive health that you can incorporate any time, but especially during the holiday season.
Top Tips for Holiday Gut Health
- Intermittent Fasting
If you’re eating a big holiday meal, try skipping breakfast to give your system a break. This works especially well if you’ve already started adapting your body to burn fat in ketosis. If you haven’t that’s okay too, just have a healthy protein based smoothie for breakfast.
- Apple Cider Vinegar
Often we overeat because we are thirsty. Drinking an 8 oz glass of room temperature water with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar before your big meal will fill your stomach and also prepare it to digest food. The apple cider vinegar also contains acetic acid, enzymes and probiotics which all help with digestion.
- Slow Down
No but really. Take a bite, chew well and then put the fork down and enjoy chatting with friends or family before taking another bite. You will digest better and feel full sooner. It takes a little time for your stomach to send the message to your brain that its full and eating slowly will help you not to overeat.
- Drink a Cup of Tea In Place of Dessert
If you do eat too much, skip dessert and help soothe your stomach with a warm cup of digestive tea. Some great options are fennel, ginger, peppermint or dandelion root. Dandelion root is bold like coffee and can be really tasty with a little honey and cream.
- Use Essential Oils
If the thought of drinking tea or consuming anything else for that matter is too much to bare, essential oils may be a better option. Here are some great ideas for using essential oils for digestion (24).
- A drop each of fennel and ginger rubbed over the belly to speed up digestion.
- A few drops of patchouli over the abdomen to soothe spasms.
- A few drops of peppermint or lemon on pulse points or in a diffuser. Both will support nausea and indigestion.
Digestive health is incredibly important and has a knock on effect on so many other systems in the body. If you’re experiencing digestive issues, it’s a tell tale sign that your body is asking for a little attention. This is a great time of year to make changes to your diet, lifestyle and experiment with some of the natural remedies out there.
I hope I’ve left you with some good ideas on where to start. If you have any feedback or suggestions of your own, I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below and share your digestive health tips!
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