Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Relieve digestive distress—including heartburn, stomach cramps, and constipation—with the help of a few supplement strategies.
Your digestive tract functions as the arbiter of nutrient absorption. However, digestive problems are common, including upset stomach, heartburn, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. Aside from the physical discomfort these issues cause, if you have regular problems with digestion, there’s a good chance you’re not making optimal use of the nutrients in your foods or supplements.
The causes of digestive disorders can vary greatly. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
and heartburn are sometimes caused by chronic overeating or by food sensitivities, usually
because of eating too many processed foods. Antibiotics can have long-term deleterious
effects on the digestive tract. Stomach ulcers are most commonly caused by H. pylori (a
bacterium) or long-term use of the drug ibuprofen.
The Downside of Drugstore Remedies
Heartburn, GERD, and acid indigestion are most commonly treated with antacids or two
other classes of drugs, called proton-pump inhibitors or H2 blockers, which work by
reducing acid production in the stomach. However, these drugs reduce absorption of some nutrients, including vitamin B12, vitamin C, magnesium, and likely many other nutrients. The risk of becoming deficient in vitamin B12 increases sharply after two years of taking acid-blocking drugs, according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
What Not to Eat
Skip fast foods and convenience foods, as well as soft drinks. It’s unusual for people to
develop upset tummies while eating wholesome natural foods.
Supplements to Try
Quite a few supplements have been shown to help with a variety of digestive complaints. Probiotics and enzymes may be the most important, and should provide some benefits for any digestive tract problem.
Probiotics. Your digestive tract is home to 10 times more bacteria than all the cells in the
rest of your body. The predominant species are influenced by your eating habits, with
vegetables and whole foods supporting a healthy, diversified number of species. Perhaps the
greatest damage to this environment comes from antibiotics, which destroy both good and bad bacteria, leading to diarrhea and possible secondary infections. Even worse, some research has shown that antibiotics can damage mitochondria, the energy-producing parts of
cells. One recent study—the latest of many—found that high-dose probiotics halved the risk
of antibiotic-induced diarrhea. Dose: Opt for a formula that contains three or four different
strains of probiotics, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, and follow label directions.
Digestive enzymes. Supplemental enzymes, including pancreatin, papain, bromelain, trypsin, and chymotrypsin, enhance those your own body makes and aid your digestion of food. For example, alpha-galactosidase supplements improve the breakdown of legumes to minimize flatulence. Some enzyme products are highly specialized, such as depeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV), which breaks down gluten. While this enzyme is not likely to protect you from the gluten in bread or pasta, it will likely offer some protection against accidental cross-contamination of your food. Dose: Unless you have a very specific need, select a product containing at least four to six different enzymes and follow label directions.
L- Glutamine. One of the 20 most important dietary amino acids, L-glutamine is frequently used by nutritionally oriented physicians to help heal the digestive tract, particularly the intestine. It specifically improves gut structure and function. Dose: 1 gram three times daily.
Herbs. Several herbs have a long history of helping with digestive disorders. Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva) contains mucilage, which is believed to coat the esophagus and reduce GERD- and heartburn-related pain. Marshmallow forms a protective layer in the digestive tract. DGL licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is anti-inflammatory and may ease heartburn. And ginger (Zingiber officinale), is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Dose: Products vary, so follow label directions.
Is it indigestion … or something more?
Leaky gut syndrome, also called intestinal hyperpermeability, refers to a weakening of the intestinal barrier that allows incompletely digested food to be absorbed into the bloodstream, then triggering an abnormal immune response. Symptoms include bloating, gas, cramps, and aches and pains. The disorder occupies a gray area in medicine, with some doctors insisting that it exists and others arguing that it does not. Despite the broader controversy, it can and does occur in people with celiac and Crohn’s disease. It may be caused by a variety of factors, including excessive alcohol consumption and the use of antibiotics, ibuprofen, and other drugs.
If you suspect that you suffer from leaky gut syndrome, try to first wean yourself off alcohol and medical drugs if necessary. Avoid foods that may be exacerbating symptoms—food sensitivities are common in leaky gut syndrome. And try supplements that promote the healing of the gut, including L-glutamine, probiotics, marshmallow, and slippery elm.