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It never ceases to amaze us in our naturopathic medical practices how many individuals come in for an office visit complaining of symptoms that they don't realize are related to digestive health. In fact, a large number of the patients we see are constipated, yet they often don't realize that their lack of regularity may be impacting several other aspects of their overall health.
The relationship between digestive function and health is so intertwined that researchers studying conditions as diverse as arthritis, autism, ADHD, skin conditions, depression, and decreased cognitive function have found an undeniable association between these conditions and gastrointestinal health.
The digestive tract constitutes a significant component of our immune system. It's one of the main routes of exposure from the outside world because it is in constant contact with the foods we eat and microbes, toxins, and pesticides from our environment. The gastrointestinal system acts as both a physical barrier against harmful agents from a structural standpoint, and an immunological barrier as the site of production for immunoglobulins and other immune proteins, which defend against potential infections.
Given the all-important role our digestive tract plays, it's important to understand what it takes to keep this system functioning at the top of its game.
Products That Can Help
There are many products that can aid in maintaining digestive health. Among them are the following:
Thorne Research Medibulk-This product provides supplemental soluble fiber as a combination of psyllium powder, prune powder, and apple pectin. Soluble fiber has mucilaginous properties and provides bulk for bowel movements, which can ultimately enhance intestinal health by removing toxins. Supplementing with these sources of fiber may have cardiovascular benefits as they can lower cholesterol levels.
Doctor's Best: Best Digestive Enzymes and Betaine HCl Pepsin & Gentian Bitters-These products complement one another nicely. Best Digestive Enzymes contain vegetarian fungal-derived enzymes that are active at a wide pH range and are therefore not inactivated by stomach acid. They support the proper digestion of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Betaine HCl Pepsin & Gentian Bitters is a supplemental source of hydrochloric acid (HCl), as stomach-acid secretion often decreases as a result of aging and other factors. The product also contains pepsin, an enzyme produced by the body to break down proteins in the stomach, which works as a complement to stomach acid. Gentian bitters function to stimulate the secretion of digestive enzymes.
FIBER AND DIGESTIVE HEALTH
FIBER IS A MAJOR COMPONENT of whole plant foods such as nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Since fiber cannot be digested, it passes through the digestive system intact.
There are two types of fiber in general-soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance due to its polysaccharides. It consists of the gums and pectins and is found in fruits, vegetables, and beans.
Insoluble fiber, or cellulose, does not dissolve in water. Whole grains, as well as vegetables, are the most common source of insoluble fiber. Because soluble fiber turns into a gel-like substance and slows the digestive process, it allows for nutrients to be absorbed more slowly. It also plays a role in regulating blood sugar levels by slowing the absorption of glucose from the diet.
Soluble fiber can benefit cholesterol levels by absorbing the cholesterol and lipids present in the digestive tract, causing them to be excreted. Insoluble fiber acts as a cleanser. Since it can't be dissolved, it functions to regulate digestive function by keeping the intestines clean of toxins and waste products as well as providing the bulking you need to prevent constipation. Fiber also regulates appetite by increasing satiety. Both types of fiber are necessary for optimal digestive health.
Fiber as a Prebiotic
Several types of soluble fiber such as inulin and oligosaccharides have health benefits resulting from their prebiotic effects. As prebiotics, they support the growth and health of several species of beneficial bacteria in the intestines.
Although humans don't digest dietary fiber, several bacterial strains thrive by fermenting prebiotics. Healthy bacteria, including the important Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, preferentially metabolize inulin and oligosaccharides. An added benefit of this metabolism is the production of several short-chain fatty acids, which are beneficial for colon health and which can actually increase the absorption of minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
The end result, contributing to the health of the beneficial bacterial species, is repopulation of the gastrointestinal tract, pushing out any potentially pathogenic bacterial and yeast species, as well as an overall reduction in gut inflammation due to the immune-system support.
Fiber further contributes to healing from gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, and diarrhea. It also aids in healing Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, as well as effects of infectious diseases of the gastrointestinal tract.
Ganeden Biotech's Digestive Advantage and Sustenex-These products contain GanedenBC30, a novel lactic acid–producing probiotic that has the advantage of high-survivability with exposure to process conditions, heat, and stomach acids. These products have been clinically shown to promote digestive and immune health. Supplemental probiotic bacteria help support the body's own friendly bacteria, which produce numerous beneficial by-products and play critical roles in the functioning of the body's digestive process and immune response to pathogenic bacteria and viruses.
Cell Nutritionals' Constant Health-This is a comprehensive digestive- and immune-support formula with a base of brown rice protein powder that is designed to be taken as a shake. It contains several types of fiber, including red raspberry seeds, apple fiber and cellulose, antiinflammatory herbs such as turmeric and boswellia, antioxidants such as grape seed extract and N-acetyl cysteine, a host of essential vitamins and minerals, along with other nutrients to promote intestinal health, immune wellness, and optimal detoxification.
Purity Products' TriGest ZC-This formula features PepZin GI zinc L-carnosine, a zinc complex that has been studied for years in Japan for its ability to heal ulcers and inhibit mucosal inflammation caused by H. pylori. By decreasing gastric inflammation, it allows the tissue of the stomach wall to heal. In addition, this product contains broad-spectrum digestive enzymes to support digestive function and the probiotic bacteria GanedenBC30. This probiotic is a unique strain of Bacillus coagulans, a beneficial bacterium that transiently populates the intestinal tract and restores a healthy bacterial balance.
Proper dietary habits can lead to optimal functioning of the digestive tract. However, improper dietary habits, toxins, and microbes from our environment can lead to crucial digestive deficits that can ultimately be a contributing factor to a variety of diseases. Consuming adequate dietary fiber is an important step in establishing a healthy digestive system. Fiber also confers protection against colon cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Beyond fiber, there are several factors that aid in maintaining digestive health. These include promoting a healthy bacterial balance in the intestines by supplementing with beneficial probiotic organisms, supporting the structural integrity of gut tissue by consuming nutrients that provide fuel for cellular health, and maintaining optimal digestive enzyme and stomach acid production to help with proper digestion of foods. By addressing these fundamentals, one can ensure that digestive function remains optimal. Good digestive health is a harbinger of good overall health. As someone once said, "The road to health is paved with good intestines."
Irfan Qureshi, ND, is vice president for technical and regulatory affairs for AIBMR Life Sciences (Puyallup, WA). John R. Endres, ND, is chief scientific officer. The company offers full-service natural products and nutraceutical consulting services.