In my last article – on natural remedies for the symptoms and root causes of seasonal allergies – one of the remedies I talked about was boosting your digestion.
Today, I want to dive deeper into this very important topic, because one of the keys to achieving and maintaining optimal health is boosting your digestion.
So let’s talk about the what, the why, and the how:
- what do I mean exactly by “boosting your digestion”
- why this issue is so important, and
- how to do it!
What Does It Mean?
When your digestion works as it should, then food particles are more fully broken down (ie. better digested), and nutrients are better absorbed, which is the main point of digestion, and – when it’s working properly – makes your whole system work better.
What about when it’s not working so well?
When the digestion is impaired, that usually means that the amount of “digestive juices” – stomach acid, digestive enzymes, and bile – is not ideal. So when I say, “boost your digestion”, I’m talking about increasing those digestive juices to improve digestive functioning.
Lots of factors can conspire to reduce your digestive juices and impair your digestive functioning, including:
- inflammatory foods
- inadequate sleep
- hormonal imbalances
Now, let’s review each type of “digestive juice”, and what each one does in your body.
Cells in the lining of your stomach produce stomach acid, aka gastric acid, which is a clear watery fluid made of hydrochloric acid, potassium chloride, and sodium chloride. This strongly acidic fluid has 3 main functions:
- It breaks down food into smaller particles by dissolving the chemical bonds within food molecules, which helps your body absorb nutrients as food moves through your digestive tract
- It acts as a crucial part of your immune system’s defense, killing off pathogens in your food that could make you sick
- It stimulates the pancreas to produce bicarbonate, which regulates the pH of the chyme (partially digested food + fluids) leaving the stomach, so it’s the proper pH for the small intestine
The stomach performs these functions best when it is extremely acidic, with an optimal pH (acidity level) when empty of 1-3 (on the acid/alkaline scale of 0 to 14).
When the stomach is less acidic than that ideal – a condition called hypochlorhydria – this leads to several problems.
- It does not break down food as well as it should
- It cannot kill off pathogens as effectively – leaving us more vulnerable to infections, including h.pylori, SIBO and general gut dysbiosis
- The emptying of the stomach can be slowed, allowing foods to ferment in the stomach
- The functioning of the esophageal sphincter – the opening between the esophagus and the stomach – is impaired
- And the stomach is not able to regulate the chyme pH properly, leading to a vicious cycle of unhealthy stomach and small intestine pH levels
And, perhaps surprisingly, insufficient stomach acid is actually the main cause of acid reflux, not excess stomach acid. This is because the fermentation due to slow stomach emptying, and the impaired esophageal sphincter functioning, increase the incidence of stomach acid escaping up into the esophagus and causing the burning sensation associated with acid reflux/heartburn/GERD. 1,2,3,4
Therefore, getting and keeping stomach acid levels in the ideal range of 1-3 pH is essential for proper digestion and immune system functioning.
Causes of Hypochlorhydria
The main culprits in disrupting this crucial acid level are stress, a diet high in carbohydrates (sugars and starches), and medications, especially antacids (ex. Tums) and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which decrease stomach acid (and, btw, they also undermine the gastric barrier to entry by pathogens and reduce microbial diversity in the gut 5).
This causes the low esophageal sphincter tone mentioned above, and, it also causes rebound overproduction of acid to counteract the effects of these medications. So you end up with a vicious cycle of exacerbating the very problem that you are trying to address, and meanwhile actively damaging the stomach’s ability to properly do its job, especially when these medications are used repeatedly over time.
Self-Test for Hypochlorhydria
If you’re curious about whether you might have hypochlorhydria, this quick self-test can give you a pretty good indication of whether you’ve got insufficient stomach acid.
Produced in the salivary glands, stomach, pancreas, and small intestine, digestive enzymes are a type of protein molecule, and what they do is create chemical reactions that speed up certain metabolic processes in your body. Like stomach acid, digestive enzymes assist in breaking down foods and boosting the absorption of nutrients. But digestive enzymes are different from stomach acid, in that they are made specifically for certain types of molecules. The primary digestive enzymes are made specifically for each type of macronutrient – that’s carbohydrates, fats, and proteins – and then there are secondary enzymes to further break down certain specific types of sugars.
So, the three primary digestive enzymes are:
- Amylase: breaks down starches and carbohydrates into maltose
- Lipase: breaks down lipids, which are fats and oils, into glycerol and fatty acid
- Protease: breaks down proteins into amino acids
And the three secondary digestive enzymes are:
- Maltase: breaks down maltose (from starches) into glucose
- Lactase: breaks down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products, into the simple sugars glucose and galactose
- Sucrase: breaks down sucrose (table sugar) into fructose and glucose
Digestive enzymes are released when you
- anticipate eating;
- smell, taste and eat food;
- and throughout the process of digestion, as food moves from your mouth to your stomach to your intestines.
Produced continuously by the liver and stored and concentrated in the gallbladder, bile is a green to yellowish-brown fluid that aids in the digestion of lipids (fats). The release of bile, aka gall, from storage in the gallbladder is stimulated when you consume fats. It flows from the gallbladder, through the common bile duct, and into the duodenum (upper portion of the small intestine), where fats are broken down.
Bile has 2 primary functions:
- To assist in the digestion and absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins in the small intestine
- To assist in the elimination of various waste products (ex. excess cholesterol, used bilirubin) and toxins via the stool
When the amount of bile being produced is inadequate, multiple problems can occur.
First, fats are not properly digested and are instead excreted in the stool (since the large intestine is not equipped to digest fats). This causes the stool to lack its characteristic brown color and instead become white or gray, and greasy. This improper digestion of fats can lead to deficiencies in essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins.
Second, the stimulation of the gallbladder to release bile keeps the gallbladder active and helps to avoid the formation of gallstones. When bile sits and concentrates in the gallbladder too long – because it is not being stimulated to be released often enough or in enough quantity – usually due to low fat diets, this allows gallstones to form, which can then block the bile ducts and the flow of bile, and can cause excruciating pain known as a “gallbladder attack”. However, when the gallbladder is “exercised” regularly as it should be by the ingestion of adequate levels of healthy dietary fats, gallstones are much less likely to form, and are more easily flushed out by the gallbladder, with its natural excretion of bile.
Third, your body’s ability to detoxify is impaired. As bile is recycled and reused by the body multiple times before excretion via the stool, toxins that are bound to bile can come unbound and re-enter your circulation, where they can do additional damage. Ample bile production helps to circumvent this problem, as your body will more readily discard used, toxin-laden bile when it’s making plenty of fresh new bile.
[For a deeper dive into how our bodies detoxify naturally and how to improve this natural process with foods, beverages and activities, check out Dr. Emily’s 10 Day Detox.]
As you can imagine from all of the above, when you don’t have sufficient levels of stomach acid, digestive enzymes, and/or bile, this can lead to and/or exacerbate a whole host of health problems, including:
- Heartburn/acid reflux/GERD
- Undigested food in stool
- Fat in stool
- Poor appetite
- Excess appetite
- Unhealthy food cravings
- Difficulty digesting proteins
- Leaky gut (intestinal hyperpermeability)
- Seasonal allergies
- Food sensitivities
- Protein deficiency
- Fatty acid deficiencies
- Decreased bone mass
- Decreased muscle mass
- Cholesterol (lipid) issues
- Hormonal imbalances
- Impaired stress resilience
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Mineral deficiencies
- Hair loss
- Mitochondrial dysfunction
- Weight gain
- Difficulty losing weight
- Unhealthy weight loss
- Blood sugar regulation problems
- Compromised immune system
- Auto-immune disorders
- Increased incidence of infections
- Poor wound healing
- Impaired detoxification
Given that very long list, you can see that impaired digestion really compromises your whole system and overall health.
So, what do we do about it?
How to Boost Your Digestion, Naturally
My top 10 recommendations are:
- Avoid inflammatory foods
- See my guide What to Eat for Optimal Health for more details on this
- Do clean intermittent fasting regularly
- This gives your digestion time to rest and repair
- Have lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
- In water or straight, take these shortly before or with meals
- Eat more bitter foods
- Check out my list of the Top 20 Bitter Foods
- Have more bitter beverages
- See The Beauty of Bitters for ideas
- Use digestive bitters with meals
- For insufficient stomach acid, Betaine is usually the ideal booster
- Take digestive enzymes with meals for a general digestive boost – visit my online pharmacy at Wellevate.me/DrEmilyFranklin to see my protocol “Getting Started With Digestive Enzymes” (when you create an account through my Wellevate pharmacy, you automatically get a discount on all of Wellevate’s 1000s of products)
- Add beetroot powder to your daily regimen
- This is great for boosting bile production and improving detoxification, and, because of its nitric-oxide-boosting powers, many people find it also boosts energy!
- Add apéritifs and/or digestifs to your menu
- Look for ones that are very low to no carb, to avoid inflammatory sugars
For a printable version of these tips, check out my infographic, Top 10 Tips for Boosting Digestion.
Next up, a deeper dive into the healing powers of the bitter flavor, with tips on introducing this powerhouse into your life, in The Beauty of Bitters. See you there! 😊