Q: I was recently told that keeping my "microbiome" healthy is the key to good digestion and overall heaåçlth. What the heck is a microbiome and what are your suggestions for better digestion?
-Sam M., Dallas, Texas
A: We don't like to think about it, but we're all covered in microbes-in fact, they outnumber human cells 10:1. And while it may be hard to believe, many of these tiny critters are actually our friends. The correct balance of microbes keeps potential pathogens in check and regulates our immune system. Microbes also perform essential functions such as digesting food and synthesizing vitamins.
The trillions of organisms that live on and in us are collectively called the microbiome. Studies have linked the microbiome to human mood and behavior, gut disorders, eczema, asthma, chronic sinusitis, and obesity. As we age, digestive health can become compromised because we produce fewer enzymes and less stomach acid, and our constant exposure to pollutants and drugs (over-the-counter, recreational, and prescription) tends to alter our internal microbiome. But by observing proper eating habits and taking a few helpful supplements, we can maintain optimum digestive health, no matter our age.
To ensure proper digestion, it's important to eat slowly in a relaxed environment. Also, it's not a good idea to drink your daily water during meals. It's best to have the undiluted potency of your digestive enzymes, stomach acid, and bile mixed into your food, which allows nutrients to pass into the bloodstream. If you chew thoroughly and commit to eating calmly, you will find it's not a disaster to occasionally miss a meal. In fact, if you're in pain, upset, not hungry, chilled, overheated, or experiencing an acute illness, it may be best to miss a meal.
Typically, a visit to a conventionally trained doctor for any kind of bowel or digestive complaint will net you a prescription for an antacid, or maybe a suggestion to take a fiber supplement. Most likely, you won't be asked about your diet because conventionally trained doctors have no idea how to guide you with dietary choices. At best, they'll suggest that you eat more vegetables, which is certainly a good idea-at least five servings of vegetables daily, in all the rainbow colors.
If your meal feels heavy in your stomach for several hours after eating, your body may not be producing enough enzymes and/or you may have low stomach acid. While the stomach is supposed to secrete acid to break down food before it gets deeper into your body, many people experience discomfort after consuming certain foods, particularly coffee, spicy or fried foods, and/or heavy sweets.
A good multi-enzyme supplement can help and should include protease (to digest protein); amylase (to digest complex carbs); lipase (to digest fats); cellulose (to digest fiber); and sucrose, maltase, and lactase (to digest lactose in dairy). Work with a naturopathic physician or nutritionally oriented health care provider to determine whether or not you would additionally benefit from betaine HCL (to support healthy stomach acidity), pepsin, pancreatin, or bile extracts.
If drinking milk or eating more food helps to settle your stomach, you will likely benefit from demulcent agents that soothe the stomach lining. My favorites include DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice), slippery elm, limonene (from lemon peel), and aloe vera juice (not gel).
Tract of Life
A healthy gastrointestinal (GI) tract forms a selectively-permeable membrane that allows for absorption of nutrients while blocking potentially harmful substances from moving into the bloodstream. This mucous membrane needs to be slick, moist, and uninterrupted. Supplements that are proven to restore mucosal integrity in the gut include quercetin, N-acetylcysteine, vitamins C and E, and zinc. My top healing agent for the gut, however, is L-glutamine, an amino acid used as fuel by the cells that line the GI tract. Almost any "GI Repair" supplement will feature glutamine, and 1,500 mg daily is a good dose.
The GI tract also keeps bad bugs from getting into the blood. Travel, poor diet, and other stressors can alter the internal microbiome and further compromise defenses. For any mucous membrane infection (including sinusitis, infective diarrhea, or urinary tract infections), berberine is highly effective and won't kill off the good bugs. Berberine is a component of many yellow plants such as goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Oregon grape root, and huang qi (also known as astragalus). Other helpful supplements include garlic, which is a gentle antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral, and wormwood (artemisia), an effective antiparasitic that's used to prevent and treat malaria and intestinal parasites.
If you've taken multiple rounds of antibiotics during your lifetime, there's no question that you have altered your gut microbiome. Frequent antibiotic use almost inevitably leads to overgrowth of fungal organisms in the body, producing a condition known as "candidiasis" (because the major fungal species involved is Candida albicans). There are a number of natural agents to help control candidiasis, including thyme oil, oregano oil, and caprylic acid.
Out with the Bad
Exposure to chemicals, especially plastics and fertilizers, is unavoidable, and we need to eliminate these toxins from the body to maintain a healthy gut.
The first phase of this process is "bagging up the garbage." My favorites to support this phase are artichokes, beets, and turmeric. Try a few artichoke hearts (packed with water, not oil); steamed or pickled beets; or ¼-½ tsp. of turmeric daily.
The second phase of elimination focuses on having a complete bowel movement. If uncomfortable, you may need more water, fiber, and/or exercise. Gentle natural laxatives include ground flax seeds, psyllium husk, rehydrated prunes, and triphala. If you need something a little stronger, try senna.
In with the Good
Finally, you need good bugs-probiotics-in your digestive tract. Most probiotic supplements also contain "prebiotics," which act as food for the probiotics. Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) are popular, but I prefer lactoferrin because research suggests that it doesn't promote the growth of bad bugs.
If you always remember to stop eating before you feel full, get most of your calories early in the day, and have at least one good bowel movement per day, you probably don't have much to worry about when it comes to GI health. But if, like most of us, you experience periodic digestive discomfort, gas, irritability after eating, sluggish elimination, or the urge to eat junk food, it's a good idea to commit to improving your digestion. As the saying goes: "A man digs his grave with his teeth." Let's not fall into that trap.
Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc, has a private practice in Juneau, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two books on health, including Managing Menopause Naturally. Visit her online at dremilykane.com.