Natural ways to ease common digestive problems
Did you know that every time you eat, magic happens? With each bite, a cascade of digestive functions are triggered that break down and process the food you just consumed. The ultimate goal? To ensure that each and every cell in the body gets all the nutrients it needs to operate optimally, while eliminating waste and harmful compounds that can undermine good health.
Usually this food processing factory works extremely well. Over a lifetime, your gastrointestinal tract deals with more than 25 tons of food without a hitch, nourishes your body from head to toe, and plays a vital role in a strong immune system. But for too many people, the complex task of digestion doesn’t always run smoothly. Here are some of the most common digestive ailments, along with a host of natural ways to get much-needed relief.
Typically defined as having fewer than three bowel movements a week, constipation is the most common digestive issue, affecting approximately four million people in the U.S. And when they are able to pass stool, it is often hard, dry, and painful. Those who are constipated may feel pressure, as if not all the stool has passed. Constipation affects women more often than men, especially during or after pregnancy. It’s also common in those who eat a low-fiber diet.
What to do: Eating more fruits, vegetables, and nuts provides dietary fiber that can help soften stool and improve the time it takes for food to travel through your system. Drink plenty of water as well.
What to avoid: Fast food and highly processed foods containing little fiber.
Smart supplementation: If you have difficulty meeting the recommended 25 to 38 grams of fiber each day, studies suggest adding a soluble fiber supplement that contains methylcellulose. Just make sure to drink plenty of water to ensure that dietary and supplemental fiber work effectively. Also, take a magnesium citrate or magnesium oxide supplement (200-400 mg). This has numerous health benefits, while helping to keep you regular.
Indigestion, technically called dyspepsia, strikes everyone occasionally. Symptoms include burning in the sternum (heartburn) or prolonged fullness or bloating after eating, caused by the incomplete digestion of food. However, if indigestion occurs frequently, check with your doctor as it may point to a more serious gastrointestinal problem.
What to do: For occasional stomach upset after eating, try taking plant-based digestive enzymes with each meal. These help you digest proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
What to avoid: Foods you know disagree with you, as well as alcohol and coffee.
Smart supplementation: Get quick relief with traditional carminative herbs like caraway, cardamom, coriander, fennel, and peppermint. Long used throughout the world to enhance digestion, carminative herbs can ease gas, bloating, and that uncomfortable sense of fullness that can follow a heavy meal.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disorder (GERD)
Scientists estimate that more than 15 million Americans suffer from GERD. The problem begins when food and acid that should stay down in the stomach comes splashing back up into the esophagus. This causes a burning pain in your chest or upper abdomen, irritation in your throat, difficulty swallowing, nausea, and even bad breath. Although GERD is common, it can be serious. Over time, regurgitation of acidic stomach contents can erode delicate esophageal tissue causing inflammation and scarring. In extreme cases, it can ultimately make you more vulnerable to esophageal cancer.
What to do: Before you reach for an antacid, a proton pump inhibitor, or an H2-receptor antagonist, consider a more natural approach. A preliminary trial found that a special type of licorice called deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) is just as effective as the acid-blocking drug cimetidine (Tagamet) for GERD symptoms. Look for a DGL capsule standardized to at least 3.5% glabridin and 10% total flavonoids.
What to avoid: Trigger foods that can increase stomach acid like alcohol and caffeine. Avoid long-term use of proton pump inhibitors which are very toxic and addictive.
Smart supplementation: Consider d-limonene, a clinically tested anti-inflammatory compound found in citrus peel that may provide long-term relief, while suppressing infections that aggravate reflux. Researchers suspect that it has a protective effect on the stomach lining and mucosa while also supporting healthy peristalsis—the intestinal contractions that move food through the digestive tract. Clinical trials found that up to 89 percent of study participants reported complete relief within 14 days. Working in conjunction with d-limonene, sea buckthorn soothes symptoms and supports a healthy mucosal lining throughout the gastrointestinal tract. Look for a supplement that contains both sea buckthorn pulp and the seed oil extracted by supercritical CO2 technology.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
IBD is an umbrella term for two similar but different conditions: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both can result in abdominal pain and diarrhea. Some people may also experience anemia, rectal bleeding, weight loss, or other symptoms. Another similarity? Both can arise from an overactive immune system that leads the body to attack the gastrointestinal tract. Crohn’s involves ulcers that may burrow deep into the lining of the small intestine, leading to infection, a thickening of the intestinal wall, and blockages that may require surgery. Ulcerative colitis, on the other hand, afflicts only the colon and rectum, where it also causes ulcers. Both types of IBD increase the risk of colon cancer.
What to do: Try eating smaller meals. It may be useful to keep a food diary to help identify the foods that cause problems. Since stress can make symptoms worse, take part in yoga or regular exercise.
What to avoid: Smoking increases the risk of Crohn’s disease. Dairy and fatty foods may worsen symptoms since those with IBD often have trouble digesting dairy and fats.
Smart supplementation: Preliminary research shows that curcumin, which is derived from the curry spice turmeric, acts as an antioxidant while also suppressing the inflammation associated with IBD. In addition, several clinical trials show improvement in symptoms among those taking curcumin compared to those taking a placebo. But since curcumin is notoriously difficult for the body to absorb, look for a supplement that pairs curcumin with turmeric essential oil, a combination clinically shown to increase absorption ten-fold and boost blood retention seven-fold compared to ordinary curcumin supplements.
Boswellia is another supplement with powerful anti-inflammatory properties thanks to acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA), a key boswellic acid that modulates 5-LOX (an enzyme that triggers inflammatory leukotrienes). Research in the journal PLOS ONE reports that this Ayurvedic herb not only reduces intestinal inflammation, its antioxidant activity enhances the integrity and function of the intestinal barrier in people with IBD. But like curcumin, boswellia is not well-absorbed by the body. To ensure absorption, check labels for a form of boswellia, sold under the brand name BosPure, that is standardized to provide at least 70 percent boswellic acids, including 10 percent AKBA.
Several studies suggest that supplemental probiotics may also have a positive effect on IBD. This is particularly true for probiotic supplements that include Lactobacillus lantarum, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and Bifidobacterum bifidum. In a recent analysis of 23 randomized trials, a multi-species probiotic helped bring about and maintain remission in patients with pouchitis, a condition that affects some people with ulcerative colitis.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is characterized by abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and/or diarrhea, and the immediate urge to have a bowel movement right after eating. This painful and perplexing condition has no known cause and is often diagnosed only after other intestinal disorders have been ruled out. Luckily, about 50 percent of cases improve with dietary changes. Studies also show that stress and emotional response to life events play key roles in the frequency and severity of symptoms.
What to do: Attempt to identify the stressors that trigger your IBS symptoms. Practice stress management techniques like yoga, meditation, and exercise to reduce stress levels.
What to avoid: Common dietary triggers like refined grains, coffee, alcohol, carbonated drinks, chocolate, dairy, and processed foods.
Smart supplementation: Clinical trials show that enteric-coated peppermint oil helps relieve abdominal pain in 75 percent of IBS sufferers thanks to peppermint’s ability to relax the smooth muscles in the colon. Taking a probiotic supplement may help as well by rebalancing normal bowel bacteria while carminative herbs can reduce gas and bloating.
Keep Your Tummy on Track Naturally
Everyone suffers occasional digestive upset. Whether it’s a bout of bloating, temporary constipation, or post-meal heartburn or nausea, when these minor yet uncomfortable problems occur, all you can think about is fast relief. Ayurvedic herbs to the rescue! Herbs like turmeric, galangal, andrographis, boerhavia, Indian laburnum bark, gotu kola, cyperus, licorice, East Indian sarsaparilla, long pepper, chebulic myrobalan, Indian tinospora, ginger, and curry tree leaf have a centuries-old reputation for supporting digestive health and easing everyday gastrointestinal problems. It’s little wonder since these herbs have been shown to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and carminative benefits. While helpful when used individually, their real digestive power comes when you combine them. Check supplement labels for a botanical blend that includes most—and preferably all—of these herbs. An added bonus? These herbs are safe and gentle so you can take them daily to provide 24/7 digestive bliss.