Digestive issues are incredibly common, with as many as two-thirds of Americans dealing with issues such as bloating, heartburn, acid reflux, and diarrhea each year. To help support these issues and restore gut health, folks are reaching for supplements and other over-the-counter products to support their digestive health and relieve these bothersome symptoms.
Each year we spend billions on antacids, proton-pump inhibitors, H2 blockers, and medicines such as Pepto-Bismol and Imodium. We’re spending over a billion dollars a year on digestive health products like probiotics and digestive enzymes.
Unfortunately, all these drugs and supplements don’t seem to be helping. Doctor visits for GI complaints continue to rise.
Annually, there are over 50 million ambulatory care visits for digestive issues like peptic ulcers, pancreatitis, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, hemorrhoids, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), diverticular disease, and chronic constipation. The annual cost of all these GI diseases is estimated to be over $135 billion each year.
And these numbers just keep climbing.
How digestion should work.
Your digestive system is a complex group of organs that work together to break down the food you eat into a structure your body’s cells can use. The organs involved in digestion include your brain, mouth, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, and large intestine.
Let’s take a quick look at what happens when you sit down for a meal.
When you start thinking about food, smelling it, and seeing it, your brain kicks off the digestive process by stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest).
The food gets broken down and mixed with enzymes like amylase (which breaks down starchy carbs) and lipase (which breaks down certain fats).
Your stomach produces hydrochloric acid to kill microbes, produces intrinsic factor to absorb vitamin B12, breaks down protein, and mixes the food with gastric juices so the nutrients can be absorbed in the small intestine.
This accessory organ pumps pancreatic juice into the small intestine. This liquid includes enzymes like proteases (to digest protein), amylases (to digest carbs), and lipases (to digest fats). It also contains bicarbonate to help create the optimal environment for these enzymes to do their job.
This organ produces bile and plays a key role in the metabolizing of carbs, fats, and protein. It also stores glycogen, certain vitamins (A, D, E, and K), and minerals (iron and copper), and participates in the activation of vitamin D.
This is the storage depot for bile. When you eat, the gallbladder releases bile into the small intestine to help break down fats.
Digestion wraps up here and most nutrient absorption—about 90%—happens in the small intestine. This includes the absorption of simple sugars, amino acids, ions (like sodium, potassium, calcium, iron, and magnesium), water, fats, and vitamins.
This is the end of the line where the final bits of absorption takes place, and gut bacteria feed on fibers, resistant starches, and polyphenols to produce vitamins like K2, B vitamins, and short-chain fatty acids. About 90% of the body’s serotonin is also produced here.
With all of these different organs working in concert together, having one go off the rails can cause a negative downstream effect. And each of these components is equally important. If you’re not relaxed and mindful when sitting down to eat, your parasympathetic nervous system may not be stimulated. This can result in the other organs of the digestive system not being prepared to process the food you eat. If your liver doesn’t have the nutrients it needs, it can hamper bile production, which can disrupt your ability to digest fats. Inflammation in the small intestine can cause damage to the villi, which can lead to poor nutrient absorption.
The root of the problem.
Products like probiotics and digestive enzymes can certainly be helpful in shoring up certain parts of the digestive process. Probiotics can potentially restore and maintain a healthy microbiome. They may be able to crowd out the number of “bad” bacteria, reducing inflammation and other issues. Digestive enzymes can help break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in folks who how issues like lactose intolerance and pancreatic insufficiency. The problem is we’re still not getting at the root cause of our issues.
Optimizing health is impossible if you don’t restore gut health first.
There are many factors that can affect the proper functioning of your digestive system—including inflammation and how relaxed you are when you sit down to eat. A regular diet of highly processed foods, added sugar, and constantly eating on the go can be a recipe for dysfunction when it comes to digestion.
If you experience issues like heartburn, bloating, gas, brain fog, erratic energy, and food sensitivities, you may benefit from supporting your digestion. But as I mentioned before, spending a bunch of money to load up on medicines and supplements may not be the best place to start.
(Free) Strategies to restore gut health
These simple strategies don’t cost any money and can be incredibly effective at priming your digestive system and helping to restore gut health. Each of the following creates a more hospitable environment for beneficial bacteria while helping to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system which can increase the production of saliva and gastric juices, digestive enzymes, and bile.
While foods play an important role in keeping your digestive system running smoothly, there are a number of lifestyle factors that also play a role. These strategies don’t cost anything and can be incredibly beneficial when it comes to optimizing digestion.
Be more present at mealtime. Put the phones away. Turn off the TV. No multitasking. Make mealtime about mealtime. Eating should be enjoyable and relaxing.
Eat slow. Make it a goal to chew each bite 30 times. Put your fork down and take a deep breath between bites. This will give your salivary enzymes more time to begin the process of breaking down the food while prepping the downstream digestive system for the incoming food.
Breathe before meals. Take a couple of minutes to do some breathing exercises before each meal. One of my favorite apps, Breathwrk, has effective breathing exercises that take as little as a minute to perform. It’s an excellent tool for this.
Include healthy fats and proteins with every meal. While these foods don’t directly impact your “rest & digest’, they have been shown to reduce inflammation and preserve intestinal barrier function.
Manage stress. Stress has many detrimental effects on your body, including reducing the number of beneficial Lactobacilli while creating a more welcoming environment for pathogenic bacteria. Finding sustainable ways to manage stress can help keep more beneficial bacteria and less harmful bacteria in your gut. What you do to lower stress levels is less important than making sure you do it regularly.
Exercise regularly. Regular, consistent movement may help support gut health by increasing the diversity of beneficial bacteria in your gut. The more diverse your gut bacteria are, the more likely they are to be successful at doing their job of aiding in digestion, absorbing and producing nutrients, and helping to modulate your immune system. (The Keelo app is one of my favorite apps for managing my workouts!)
Studies have shown that these foods can impart therapeutic effects on various parts of the digestive system. Regularly including these in your diet may help restore gut health and keep your digestive system optimized and working properly.
This colorful root veggie is rich in bioactive compounds that support and stimulate the growth of beneficial gut microbiota. They may also help support the liver by lowering oxidative stress and chronic inflammation.
This easy-to-make drink is used to promote the proper functioning of the digestive system by soothing the digestive tract and supporting the integrity of the gut lining. It’s important to note that the amount of beneficial compounds in bone broth, like amino acids, varies depending on the bones and other ingredients used as well as preparation methods. Making your own bone broth at home is most likely to yield the best results.
This lowly weed is actually a powerful, multi-tasking “superfood” that has been shown to have a positive effect on multiple systems of the body, including the digestive system. Dandelion root is rich in carbs like inulin, carotenoids, fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, mucilage (stimulates normal bowel function), and pectin (has a positive effect on gut bacteria). One of the main components of dandelion root, inulin, has been shown to help rid the body of pathogens in the gut while promoting the growth of healthy bacteria. Research has also suggested that dandelion root may have positive effects on Gi disorders such as GERD, ulcerative colitis, and gallstones. It may also support proper liver function.
This tuber is a rich source of inulin, a prebiotic that has been shown to help boost gut health and promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the intestinal tract. Research has also suggested Jerusalem artichokes may also lower intestinal pH levels and positively impact the lymphatic tissue of the digestive system. It also helps protect the mucosa of the digestive tract and improve gut flora disorders.
The simple act of adding a bit of lemon juice to your water may help stimulate acid production and ratchets up the speed that foods move from the stomach to the small intestine.
Studies have shown that bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapple, may be effective at reducing intestinal inflammation and lowering the incidence of colitis. Because bromelain helps break down protein, eating pineapple with meals may be helpful for those with pancreatic insufficiency. This tasty fruit also contains a good amount of fiber which can make bowel movements more regular and maintain the health of the large intestine.
While there are bitter foods that can certainly also be beneficial, I’m referring to digestive bitters supplements here. These have numerous benefits in the digestive system including supporting the production of hydrochloric acid, enzymes, and bile when taken at mealtime. They may also help relieve heartburn and provide nourishing support to your liver.
In typical modern-day fashion, we’re often trying to band-aid things when it comes to digestion. Chances are however that popping HCL, digestive enzymes, or the latest-and-greatest probiotic so you can eat while driving or running frantically to your next meeting isn’t going to fix anything. While it’s easy to grab supplements to try and restore gut health, I strongly recommend you try these free, foundational solutions first. Be consistent with these basics, give yourself a solid base to start with, and you’ll be surprised at how much things improve. All without spending a small fortune.