A historical depiction of indigestion

Illustration of Indigestion by G. Cruikshank, 1835. Image credit Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom

The digestion section of a health food store can be overwhelming. Do you want digestive enzymes? What about probiotics, or herbal bitters? Hopefully, this guide will help. If you want more help, come in and talk to one of us. Either way, everything here is pretty benign and can help with everyday problems as well as those that are deeper. And even if you don’t pick the “right” one, it’ll probably do some good.

But first, a quick glance at how digestive tract works, start to finish.

In the mouth, we chew chunks of food into smaller pieces. Our saliva also contains an enzyme which begins the digestion of starches. We chew, we swallow, and food travels to the stomach.

In the stomach, churning continues to grind food into a paste. In addition, strong acid and enzymes break down protein (and kill pathogens). Only after this is complete does the stomach begin to discharge its contents. So, as you can imagine, meals with a lot of protein slow things down a bit.  Nutrients don’t absorb through the stomach – except alcohol.

If our digestion falters anywhere along the tract, our stomach might not clear as quickly as it should.  When this happens, stomach juices can back up into the esophagus, giving us reflux or “GERD.” Please note: this does not mean that our digestion is too strong. Often it’s too weak. That’s why it’s backing up.

In the first part of the small intestine, small packets of food are released from the stomach, slowly, one at a time. Bile from the gallbladder enters, and is mixed with the food. The bile neutralizes the stomach acid, and begins to digest the fats.  Only after each packet of food is processed – the acid neutralized, the fats emulsified – is it moved downstream, and another packet is released from the stomach. So you can imagine, fatty meals also slow down digestion.

Further down the small intestine, tiny glands release digestive enzymes to finish digesting – to break the larger molecules into smaller molecules, and prepare them for absorption. Here, our friendly probiotic bacteria also help – both by participating in digestion, and by preventing the growth of pathogenic (or “bad”) bacteria and yeasts.

Finally, in the large intestine is where we absorb water. Here, as the water leaves, the stool firms up. The large intestine is largely a holding facility. Not a whole lot happens here.

So, now that you’re pin-pointing your problem area…, what to take?

Digestive enzymes break big food molecules into smaller food molecules, so they can be absorbed by the body. There are specialized digestive enzymes that target proteins, fats, starches, lactose, and even gluten. However, most digestive enzymes are broad-spectrum.  Look at digestive enzymes if any of the following apply to you:

  • You’d rather take a pill “as needed” with meals vs. on a daily schedule.
  • You need extra help around big and/or heavy meals, or meals that contain a combination of different kinds of foods.
  • Your issues revolve around upper GI/stomach/digestion symptoms such as belching, reflux, and food feeling heavy and stagnant in the stomach.

 Probiotics are healthy bacteria that live inside us. Not in the stomach, but farther down the gut, where they aid in digestion, elimination, and detoxification. Look at probiotics especially if:

  • your digestion got worse after you used antibiotics
  • you have a special problem with dairy
  • your issues revolve around lower GI symptoms such as gas, bloating, and constipation/diarrhea.

 Digestive Bitters are herbal concoctions that, first of all, taste bitter. The taste stimulates a reflex which promotes the production and release of digestive juices.  In addition, good herbal bitters will use herbs that aren’t just bitter, but stimulate the liver to produce bile, and the gallbladder to release it. Look at digestive bitters if any of the following apply to you:

  • You like old-fashioned remedies. You’d rather have your own body do the work vs. a pill
  • You have an especially tough time digesting fats
  • You wouldn’t mind seeing your cholesterol and/or triglycerides drop a few points
  • Your liver is impaired – but not completely destroyed

 Aromatic Seeds include celery seed, cumin, caraway, coriander, ajowan, dill seed, and fennel. They reduce intestinal griping, and are especially helpful for people who tend to get gassy. The traditional Gripe Water for infant colic is made from some of these spices.  Try chewing ¼ to ½ tsp after meals.

Trikatu is a traditional Ayurvedic formula used to decongest the sinuses, usually sold in tablets. A very simple combination of ginger, black pepper, and long pepper, use it when cold, damp foods (milk, ice cream, etc.) leave you mucousy and congested.

DGL, or deglycerrhizinated licorice is a licorice extract processed to remove the component which raises blood pressure. DGL coats and soothes the stomach. It’s a quick and easy way to address reflux – without impairing digestion. If you’re dealing with reflux more than once a week, read more at https://debrasnaturalgourmet.com/flaming-diablo-death-stomach/

Adam Stark