Hard to Stomach?
You are what you absorb won’t catch on as a replacement for the old standard, you are what you eat—but it’s much more accurate. Whether faulty digestion causes food reactions or the reactions cause digestion woes is debatable. Either way, one condition rarely exists without the other. The fact is, for those with food allergy or intolerance, digestion needs help.
Just like your mom said, digestion starts with chewing. Sufficiently chopping up food with your choppers means less chemical work for your stomach and intestines down the line. In addition, saliva contains starch-busting amylase enzymes that get mixed into the food the more you chew it. So far, nobody is selling a saliva supplement, so take some extra time to chew up your food as a logical first step to help your digestion.
Chewed food travels down the esophagus and passes through the opening to the stomach. The stomach reacts to the arrival of food by producing hydrochloric acid and then pepsin (an enzyme), both of which break down protein. Acid build-up can take up to an hour, giving the saliva enzymes more time to work. The symptoms of poor acid response are a heavy feeling in your stomach long after eating, bloating and reflux (from food backing up the esophagus rather than moving forward).
When the proper acid/food balance is reached, little balls of acidy mush are spit out of the bottom valve of your stomach into the small intestine. There, bicarbonate is excreted to raise the pH so enzymes can further break the food down. Bile is also added to the mix as a degreaser to work on fat. The food particles are absorbed through the intestinal wall as they travel the length of the intestines. Fiber cannot be absorbed; it becomes the carrier for removing the trash.
Lining the intestinal walls are 400-plus species of beneficial bacteria. These good bugs are critical for proper digestion. A variety of beneficial species are also needed to maintain the gut lining, produce some vitamins and suppress harmful bacteria. Think of them as the bowel police that move things along and keep the riffraff in check.
Finally, digestion runs on a diurnal cycle, meaning its functions ebb and flow in predictable ways over 24 hours. Digestive capacity is strongest first thing in the morning and reduces slowly throughout the day. This natural rhythm explains why people with food sensitivities tend to become more reactive as the day goes on. If the intolerance is mild, you may do better consuming the iffy food in the morning rather than waiting until dinner.
The symptoms of digestive imbalance are many and non-specific. They include, but aren’t limited to, tiredness after eating, bloat, gas, diarrhea, constipation, dizziness, pain, reflux and food reactions. A problem at one point can have a ripple effect throughout the digestive tract, making it hard to pinpoint the origin. Bloating, for example, could mean bacteria imbalance, low hydrochloric acid, a need for enzyme support or all of the above.
Consequently, finding the right supplements means embarking on a course of trial and error. Imagine a biochemical treasure hunt so that it feels fun and challenging, rather than annoying and frightening. Any supplement that can ease symptoms for some can potentially irritate symptoms for others, so stop taking anything that causes more distress and consult your medical professional.
Boosting stomach acid is the most powerful of the interventions and the trickiest. Proper acid response sets up the rest of the system but swallowing acidic compounds can potentially irritate the stomach lining. (August/September’s column will be devoted entirely to managing low stomach acid.)
Probiotics supplements are widely available and safe. Products maintain potency best if refrigerated (despite what some labels say). Studies match specific species to a condition. Knowing which species has been used successfully to treat what is useful in tough cases but rarely necessary for garden-variety gas or loose stools. Start with a moderate potency product (10 to 20 billion bugs or colony-forming units) and if nothing happens, consider using a high potency (100+ billion bugs) supplement. Gas and cramping are common, usually transient, side effects. (See LivingWithout.com/probiotics&prebiotics.)
Finally, enzyme supplements can promote healthy digestion. Enzymes are specific to their function: lipase breaks down lipids (fat), protease breaks down protein, and so on. Most enzyme supplements contain a blend of fat-, protein- and starch-busting enzymes. Some target specific proteins, like gluten and casein, or are geared toward starch digestion. Enzymes targeting gluten proteins sometimes help people with gluten sensitivity tolerate small amounts of gluten but they are not meant to treat celiac disease. Those with celiac may benefit from taking fat-, starch- and protein-digesting enzymes but they must continue to strictly avoid gluten.
If your gut lining is irritated, taking enzymes can improve symptoms or increase irritation. Adding enzymes gradually into your daily dining regimen can help you develop tolerance. No response may signal a need for a higher dose—or that you need a different intervention.
Understanding your digestive process will help you partner better with a knowledgeable healthcare professional and if the trial-and-error period goes well, hopefully reduce reactivity.
Licensed nutritionist dietitian Kelly Dorfman, author of What’s Eating Your Child?, has 29 years of clinical experience developing nutrition and lifestyle strategies to address complex health problems.
Consult a qualified healthcare professional before taking supplements.
For gluten-free digestive supplements, check out these companies.
Garden of Life
Institute for Specialized Medicine
North American Herb & Spice
Renew Life Formulas
Not every product sold by every company listed is gluten free or allergy friendly. Read labels carefully. When in doubt, confirm ingredients directly with the manufacturer.