Digestion 101: What Can Go Wrong & How to Fix It
Note: This series was originally posted to the blog in 2017, but has been updated to reflect new information.
Today, I'm continuing on with my digestion series with a look at what can go wrong with digestion and how to fix it.
What Can Go Wrong: Not Properly Starting the Digestive Process
Symptoms: Bloating, gas, undigested food in your stool
When we don't start digestion with the brain (see, smell, think about our food), chew our food thoroughly, remain in "fight or flight" mode, and/or eat in a stressed or hurried state, we set ourselves up for failure as the digestive process continues.
How to Fix It: Start each meal with a couple of deep breaths to help move from "fight or flight" to "rest and digest" mode. Eat slowly without distractions in a calm environment. And remember - chew really, really, really well!
What Can Go Wrong: Malfunctioning Gallbladder
Symptoms: Bloating, gas, undigested food in your stool, light or gray colored stools, nausea
If your gallbladder isn't activated by acidic enough chyme or is removed or weakened by from years of low-fat dieting or autoimmunity, you might have improper breakdown of fats.
How to Fix It: Slowly start increasing your fats at each meal if you've been on a low-fat diet for several months or years. Avoid high fat meals in the morning when you digestion is still a bit sluggish after a night of sleep. Using coconut oil as your main fat is a great choice because it bypasses bile emulsification.
If you do not have a gallbladder, typically you will need long term supplementation help. I like Beta Plus from Biotics Research, which is a practitioner-grade supplement. They also have a great product for those who do not have their gallbladder out yet, but have issues called Beta TCP. Contact me for more information on either option.
What Can Go Wrong: Low Stomach Acid
Symptoms: Bloating, gas, undigested food in your stool, heartburn
Most of us don't have enough stomach acid, not too much, because stomach acid is suppressed by stress (and who isn't stressed!) and eating processed foods in a hurried/stressed state.
When we don't have enough stomach acid, the bolus (mass of food) isn't broken down properly. Rather, it sits in the stomach and ferments, and the gas that rises up into the esophagus is what we feel as heartburn or reflux. Other signs of low stomach acid include food sensitivities, allergies, GI infections, asthma, belching, feeling full quickly, heartburn, GERD, reflux, and undigested food in the stool.
In addition, with low stomach acid, pathogens aren't killed leaving us susceptible to illness. Chyme doesn't become acidic enough, so bile and enzymes aren't properly released from the pancreas. And we also find that we have an increase in nutrient deficiencies because our body isn't able to properly extract nutrients from the foods we are eating.
In short - you probably need more, NOT less, stomach acid!
How to Fix It: First, follow the steps for starting digestion off on the right note - start digestion with the brain, chew well, eat in a calm environment, etc. Also, take a look at the stress in your life and consider how it is affecting you when you sit down for meals. Removing chronic stress from your life can be so powerful!
Otherwise, you might consider food or supplementation to increase stomach acid. Apple cider vinegar and/or lemon juice before meals can be helpful (about 1Tbsp of each). You can take it straight (good luck!) or add a little water. Drink it through a straw to protect your teeth!
However, this will NOT increase your stomach acid levels like a supplement will, so this isn’t always the best option for chronic conditions.
You can also supplement with Betaine HCl, which is the same acid as our stomach acid. However, do NOT use this if you are on anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) or aspirin. Add 1-2 tablets before meals and see what happens. I have a specific way of starting clients on stomach acid (HCl), so if you would like to know more, please contact me! Digestive enzyme supplementation is also helpful in this case. I recommend NOW Foods Super Enzymes.
What Can Go Wrong: Poor Enzyme Production
Symptoms: Bloating, gas, undigested food in your stool, constipation, diarrhea
Our natural digestive enzymes can be suppressed by stress, inflammation, autoimmunity, long term poor diet, gut damage, and so much more. If you feel like food sits in your stomach or isn't broken down in a timely manner, you might be lacking digestive enzymes.
How to Fix It: Follow the steps for starting digestion off on the right note, and remove chronic stress from your life. Digestive enzyme supplementation is also very helpful - take 1-2 capsules before meals. As mentioned above, I recommend NOW Foods Super Enzymes.
What Can Go Wrong: Dysfunctional Large Intestine
When we have a poor ratio of good to bad bacteria in our gut or have a history of chronic stress, antibiotic usage (especially as a child), inflammation, gut damage, and a processed foods diet, we are susceptible to problems with our large intestine.
Symptoms: Bloating, gas, brain fog, constipation, diarrhea
How to Fix It: Follow the steps for starting digestion off on the right note, and remove chronic stress from your life. Add in probiotics and probiotic rich foods on a regular basis, and avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. We will talk about this in more detail in the last post in this series.
What Can Go Wrong: Leaky Gut/Dysfunctional Small Intestine
Symptoms: Bloating, gas, undigested food in your stool, food sensitivities and allergies, autoimmunity, brain fog, skin issues, mental problems (depression), fertility struggles, nutritional deficiencies, and more
When the gut is mechanically damaged and irritated by harmful foods (processed grains, vegetable oils, sugar, etc), we develop "holes" in the gut lining that breaks the barrier between our gut and rest of our body. This is known as a leaky gut, and is commonly caused by chronic stress, inflammation, and autoimmunity.
How to Fix It: Follow the steps for starting digestion off on the right note, and remove chronic stress from your life. Consume gut-healing foods, such as liver, bone broth, seafood, and vegetables and avoid gut-damaging foods like grains, vegetable oils, processed foods, and refined sugars. In the next post in this series, I'll lay out the 4R protocol, which is another amazing way to heal the gut as well.
What Can Go Wrong: Poor Nutritional Choices
Overtime, eliminating or avoiding one particular macronutrient (commonly animal protein or fat) can weaken our ability to digest it. Also, eating a diet high in grains, vegetable oils, and refined/added sugars can also impact our digestion, leaving us feeling bloated, gassy, constipated, constantly craving sugar, and lacking essential nutrient stores
How to Fix It: Eat plenty of real, whole foods (animal protein, healthy fats, veggies, fruits) and avoid the more inflammatory foods (grains, vegetable oils, refined sugars, soy). You might also need to add digestive enzyme or HCl supplementation for a bit if you've excluded a particular macronutrient from your diet for some time and are struggling to digest it.
Obviously, there is so much that can go wrong with our digestion - every individual has certain triggers and foods that they react to and from which symptoms develop. What's crucial to discover for yourself is what step of the digestive process is going wrong, and what steps you can take to fix it. And remember - digestion starts with the brain (and chewing really, really, really well!).
In the next post in this series, I'll outline the 4R protocol, which is one of the best strategies to use for healing your gut and digestion!