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End Digestive Woes

November 23, 2011 (Updated: August 22, 2018)
Lily Moran

Leo (which is not his real name, of course) appeared in my office last year, concerned because the holidays had barely begun and he was already experiencing heartburn. Leo was taking over-the-counter antacids. Since they no longer appeared to be working, he wondered if I could give him a stronger prescription version.

I assured him that there were more powerful drugs available, but they were not the answer. You see, tests showed that Leo’s heartburn was not caused by too much acid, but too little, something very common in people with digestive woes. The pharmaceutical industry has repeated the “indigestion is caused by too much acid” myth so many times that it’s difficult for people to grasp that many times the problem is actually the opposite.

Some Facts About Stomach Acid

Stomach acid is an absolute necessity for proper digestion. Without it, your body cannot extract important amino acids, vitamins, and minerals from food. So, minimizing stomach acid production robs you of essential nutrients. That doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. Furthermore, without stomach acid, you can’t produce the all-important hormones that are involved in bodily functions. Even worse, nasty bacteria can run rampant in the body if there’s insufficient stomach acid to eliminate them.

Here’s an example of how acid-reducing drugs can backfire: a recent study looked at records from more than 800 hospitalized, critically ill patients on breathing machines. These patients are often given acid-reducing drugs to prevent stress ulcers from developing during treatment. But those drugs resulted in a whopping 300 percent increase in patients developing pneumonia. Why? Because there wasn’t enough stomach acid to kill dangerous bacteria.

But that’s not the only problem with antacids. Chronically low levels of stomach acid have been linked to serious ailments, including heart disease, osteoporosis, asthma, allergies, infections, skin problems, depression, parasites, and immune disorders including type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Plus, antacids and acid suppressors have some uncomfortable side effects, such as diarrhea, skin reactions, and headaches.

And, if that’s not frightening enough, there’s more bad news. Maybe you’ve heard of proton pump inhibitors, like Prilosec. These are powerful drugs that protect the stomach from damage caused by other drugs known as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), like ibuprofen and aspirin, by reducing stomach acid. New research shows that proton pump inhibitors not only interfere with stomach acid production; they also kill off a significant number of “probiotics,” the good intestinal bacteria that help keep us healthy. The end result is that the stomach is protected from NSAIDs, but damage now occurs in the small intestine, where it’s harder to treat. This is what I consider the true cost of prescription medication: bodily harm that patients are seldom aware of until later in their treatment.

As I discussed these points with Leo, he kept nodding politely. But, clearly, he was not convinced. So, I asked him if he was willing to take part in an experiment, and he agreed. For the next month, I wanted him to follow my advice — ease off the antacids, make a few changes to his diet and eating habits, and try some natural antacid alternative supplements, including one that surprised Leo (and may surprise you, too). I asked him to call in at the end of the month and tell me how he was doing.

“Okay, I’ll give it a shot,” he said. “But how do you know I’m not going to cheat or go to another doctor and get a prescription?”

“That’s completely up to you, Leo,” I replied. “But I like to think of my patients as partners. We can work on this together and give your body a chance to heal. Or you can keep taking stronger and stronger drugs that don’t cure the condition and maybe even make it worse. That’s your choice. And I think you’ll choose wisely and work with me.”

“You talked me into it. But only for one month,” he said. “If I’m not better, you’ll give me real medicine, right?”

I had to smile at the “real medicine” remark, because having gone through this scenario many times, I was confident of the outcome and it would not involve prescription medication. Our bodies are designed to heal and, as long as we support them while they do that, the results can be amazing.

Digestion Begins in the Mouth

We tend to think of digestion as something that happens in the stomach. But, the truth is, digestion starts when you put a bite of food into your mouth. Saliva contains digestive enzymes that start breaking down food so our bodies can access nutrients. In order for that to happen, we need to chew our food thoroughly. One rule of thumb says that each bite should be chewed 32 times so stomach acids can work their magic. For most people, that’s a real challenge. “But it’ll take all day just to eat a sandwich” is the usual response.

So I suggest a compromise. Choose one daily meal as an experiment and chew each bite 20 to 30 times, just to see how you feel afterward. Nearly every patient I’ve recommended this technique to is impressed with the results. Choose a meal when you’re not rushed and can take the time to chew properly. I think you’ll see that it makes a big difference.

Hold the Beverages

Drinking while eating dilutes digestive acids, so they don’t work as well. A sip or two of room-temperature, clean, filtered water is fine, but guzzling ice cold drinks throughout a meal is asking for trouble.

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Get in the habit of eating first, then having beverages later. I think you’ll find that your digestion is much improved from this simple change.

The one beverage that can be very helpful to drink with meals is a tonic made with two teaspoons of organic apple cider vinegar mixed in a glass of room-temperature water. Vinegar and water also help manage blood sugar levels when taken with carbohydrate-rich meals, so this tonic is especially helpful for anyone with diabetes or pre-diabetes.

Eat Less, More Often

Remember last Thanksgiving? The dining table was loaded with sumptuous favorites that, only an hour or so later, you wished you had not eaten. Big meals that force too much food into the stomach challenge our digestive systems. We end up feeling like we ate a boulder and, unfortunately, another piece of pumpkin pie with whipped cream does not make the discomfort go away.

The truth is, overeating doesn’t just tax your digestion. It also overwhelms your entire body with sharp increases in blood sugar, requiring the pancreas to produce more insulin, which creates a whole set of other problems. A much better approach is to divide your daily food intake into four or five smaller meals throughout the day. This prevents you from becoming famished (a sure-fire way to overeat!) and lets your digestive system function normally.

Don’t Sleep On It

Eating too close to bedtime is a big no-no for anyone with digestive problems. Actually, even if you don’t have trouble digesting, eating before going to bed is a bad idea. Lying down makes it easy for stomach secretions to travel up into the esophagus, where they can damage tissue.

Avoid Food Triggers

Most people with digestive problems know which foods set them off. Rich, fatty fare and chocolate are two of the worst offenders. Other common triggers are spicy dishes, citrus fruits and juices, and caffeine. So, at the risk of stating the obvious, if you have a digestive disorder, don’t eat those foods. If you got a painful shock every time you opened a particular door, would you keep opening it? Probably not. Sometimes life is not fair and we have to give up things we enjoy to avoid painful consequences. So, instead of dwelling on what you can’t have, think of all the delicious food you can have, and forget about the rest.

Power Up Digestion with Probiotics

Digestive disorders respond fairly quickly to the appropriate supplements. I suggest beginning with probiotics, the “good” intestinal bacteria. The supply of probiotics often needs to be replenished, especially in individuals who have taken antibiotics frequently. Probiotics are widely acknowledged as a remedy for digestive problems; products made with them are advertised by celebrities on television these days! Personally, I recommend a probiotic supplement containing at least 10 billion live organisms. Follow the dosage instructions on the product that you choose.

Meet Melatonin: Digestive Superstar

Yes, melatonin, the same supplement that’s widely known for its reputation as a jet-lag and insomnia remedy is the “surprise” supplement I recommended to my patient, Leo. A number of studies have shown that melatonin is a powerful ally when it comes to improving digestive disorders.

The gastrointestinal tract produces 400 to 500 times as much melatonin as the pineal gland. Clearly, this remarkable hormone plays a role in healthy digestion. Research has shown that melatonin protects against indigestion, gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, and lesions in the esophagus (the tube that connects the mouth and stomach). It also helps treat irritable bowel syndrome. I recommend a daily dose of 1 mg for women and 3 mg for men. Melatonin is best taken at night, and you will find that you sleep better with this supplement, too.

Supportive Supplements

Digestive enzymes are another excellent way to ease gastrointestinal symptoms. There are three types of digestive enzymes: lipases for fat digestion, amylases for carbohydrates, and proteolytics for protein.

These enzymes can be helpful in treating conditions ranging from lactose intolerance to pancreatic insufficiency. Some enzymes are derived from animal products. Others are extracted from fruits such as pineapple (bromelain) and papaya (papain). A third category comes from microbes. All are safe and effective. There are also digestive aids that combine enzymes with a diluted form of hydrochloric acid (betaine hydrochloride), which can be very helpful for individuals with low stomach acid production. You can find these products sold individually, as well as in combination. I recommend choosing one that targets your specific digestive issue and following the dosage instructions.

In addition to enzymes, there are a number of other supplements to consider. The amino acid glutamine is one of my favorites, along with extracts of aloe vera, licorice root, mastic gum, slippery elm, okra leaf, and fenugreek. All are sold in health food stores as individual supplements, as well as in products specially designed for improving digestion.

Between melatonin and an herbal digestive preparation, Leo was able to wean himself completely off of antacids and still managed to enjoy last year’s festivities — without “cheating” on me with another doctor. “I still can’t handle pepperoni pizza,” he confided during our most recent visit. “But it’s a small price to pay for not having to worry about the consequences of every single meal. My only regret is that I didn’t give up antacids a long time ago.”

If digestive disturbances are a problem for you, there’s a wide range of treatments to try. If one doesn’t do the trick, move on to another. And please do pay attention to healthy eating guidelines. Your digestive system is critical to your overall health. Keeping it in top working order can prevent a long list of troublesome ailments, and that’s a great goal for the years ahead!

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