Everything You Need to Know About HOW To Improve Your Digestion
- Published on: 22 June, 2016
- Last update: 25 September, 2020
This post is Part 2 of my digestion series, so if you missed Part 1 (which explains WHY proper digestion is so important), click here! It talks about why you can still have a myriad of symptoms (including bloating, PMS, hair thinning, weight gain, fatigue, anxiety & depression) even if you’re eating a clean, nutrient-dense diet. Remember, it’s not just what you eat – it’s what you digest. Your health depends on the nutrients you actually absorb!
If you’ll recall from Part 1, I listed 4 components that have to be in tip-top shape before you can properly extract everything you need from your food: 1) adequate stomach acid, 2) digestive enzymes, 3) proper bile flow, and 4) beneficial gut bacteria.
Today’s post will go over solutions and tips to make sure that each and every one of these aspects is taken care of!
Tips for Increasing Stomach Acid:
As I mentioned in Part 1, low stomach acid is where digestive dysfunction truly begins. Even if you’re not producing enough digestive enzymes or have some other aspect of digestive trouble, you should look at whether or not you need to increase your stomach acid first! This is because enzymes rely on stomach acid to turn them on. Without stomach acid, enzymes remain dormant and inactive no matter what. Stomach acid (HCL)’s job is to break down proteins into the essential amino acids that keep your brain’s neurotransmitters (and thus your mood) balanced. And as I already mentioned, HCL stimulates your pancreas and small intestines to produce the digestive enzymes and bile necessary to further breakdown the carbohydrates, proteins and fats you eat. That is why I always list stomach acid first in these posts before enzymes/bile. Finally, HCL’s last job is to prevent disease by killing pathogenic bacteria, parasites, and yeast normally present in food. The low stomach acid epidemic in the West is part of the reason why parasites and candida are becoming a trending topic again – many of us have lost our stomach’s first defense against them.
Possible symptoms of low stomach acid: bloating, candida, chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue, nausea after eating or taking supplements, burping/flatulence after meals, food allergies, hair loss in women, heartburn, weak/cracked fingernails, acne, iron deficiency, mineral deficiencies, undigested food in stool, diarrhea or constipation. You may have one or several of these symptoms, and they may rotate during different periods of your life.
At-home test for low stomach acid:
- Mix 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in 4-6 ounces of cold water first thing in the morning before eating or drinking anything.
- Drink the baking soda solution. Try not to chug or gulp any air down.
- Time how long it takes you to burp.
In theory, if your stomach is producing adequate amounts of stomach acid you’ll likely burp within two to three minutes. Any burping after 3 minutes indicates a low acid level. If you still don’t burp after 5 minutes, it’s likely that you have very low levels.
Now, this test is pretty good for a DIY, but it’s not an exact science. If you want something more accurate try the Heidelberg Stomach Acid Test ($350 medical test, usually not covered by insurance) or the Betaine HCL Challenge. The full instructions are here, but the basic premise is that you take 1 Betaine HCL (BH) capsule with your largest meal of the day. If you feel a burning or warming sensation in your stomach or upper abdomen from just the 1 capsule, your stomach acid is likely sufficient. If you don’t feel anything, you repeat the test the next day with 2 pills, and continue increasing if you still feel nothing (up to 14 pills)! When I first started working on my stomach acid I took TEN pills before feeling any burning whatsoever. After supplementing with HCL over time and taking various other steps (outlined below) to up my body’s levels, I’ve been able to cut down significantly.
Tips for increasing low stomach acid:
- TAKE ZINC. Point blank period. Your body cannot produce stomach acid without zinc – thus if you’re reading this because you have stomach acid, it’s a major signal that you’re deficient. This is your long-term fix; I still take zinc up to this day and always will to maintain proper digestion. It also activates digestive enzymes such as aminopeptidase and carboxypeptidase, which is why it comes first on this list. The supplemental HCL is quite helpful to do the job your body needs help with (breaking down food), but is only needed temporarily until zinc levels normalize.
- Ingest apple cider vinegar before or with meals – The most wonderful thing you can do to begin balancing the pH in your stomach is to use apple cider vinegar right before your meals. I take a swig of one tablespoon diluted with a few ounces of water before or with my first bite of food. If I have time, I make a tasty drink with lemon juice, water, and stevia for sweetness. I have actually grown to love the tart apple flavor! Apple cider vinegar is a great remedy because the low pH matches what the stomach would be if you had adequate HCL levels. This acidic environment gives your body a chance to break down your protein, absorb your minerals, and build up the nutrient stores you need to naturally make HCL in the first place.
- Eat Manuka honey – Manuka honey is a specific type of honey out of New Zealand, and this honey has antimicrobial properties. People can develop SIBO symptoms — that’s small intestinal bacterial overgrowth — when they have low stomach acid due to the growth of pathogens that I mentioned earlier. Low stomach acid over time = no defense against these bugs = the problem gets worse and the cycle continues. Manuka honey can help naturally treat conditions like SIBO. Just take a teaspoon a day or a teaspoon twice a day. You can use it to sweeten lemonade (or the apple cider vinegar/lemon drink I just mentioned!) It can actually help in healing stomach ulcer symptoms, and it’s also great for low stomach acid.
- Relax while you eat – Make sure that when you eat, you are relaxed and at peace. Avoid eating when upset as stress and emotional upset can stop the production of HCL.
- Add fermented vegetables to your meals – Eat unpasteurized, unheated sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables like kimchi. Fermented vegetables help to raise stomach acid if it’s too low, (and can even lower stomach acid if it is too high in the case of ulcers!) Eating 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sauerkraut with meals is very helpful to the digestive system.
- Sip hot tea with your meal instead of cold drinks – Never drink ice water with meals as it inhibits production of stomach acid and slows down digestion. If you would like a drink with your meal, try adding warm ginger tea, which increases the production of HCL. You can also drink dandelion root tea to increase production of HCL.
- Use a high quality HCL supplement that also contains digestive enzymes – Another way to boost HCL is to take a hydrochloric acid supplement right after your meals. The goal is to restore the body’s ability to produce its own HCL, but until this occurs, taking an HCL supplement will help you get so many more nutrients out of your food (and as I said, can replace other supplements that you’re taking because you’re nutrient deficient in the first place). My favorite brand is Biotics Research Hydrozyme. My chiropractor sells them at his office but I get them on Amazon for less. The bottle says take 1 with meals, but you’ll want to work with a practitioner to find your ideal dosage. Note that they are not vegan, as it’s almost impossible to find vegetarian pepsin or digestive enzymes. For strict vegans I would recommend plain Premier HCL (no pepsin) along with Nutra Digestive Enzymes separately. This combo is not quite as strong or effective as the Hydrozyme, so keep that in mind.
Tips for Increasing Digestive Enzymes:
As I mentioned in Part 1, digestive enzymes are primarily produced in the pancreas and small intestine (although they’re also made in the salivary glands, which is why it’s so important to chew your food!) Several diseases can impede your body’s ability to release enzymes, including pancreatic problems, celiac disease, Crohn’s, and diabetes. Even in the absence of illness, low grade inflammation, aging, chronic stress, and of course low stomach acid, can mess with our enzymatic function.
Possible digestive enzyme deficiency symptoms: indigestion or general digestive/bowel trouble, skin rashes, acne, eczema, brain fog, headaches, mood swings, joint pain, trouble digesting fat.
How to naturally increase digestive enzymes:
- CHEW YOUR FOOD! – The further it gets broken down in your mouth, the less work has to be done by your gut. Your saliva is jam-packed with enzymes so don’t waste it. Liquefy your food until it’s completely saturated. This is probably the easiest thing you can do for your health starting right this second.
- Use “bitters“, a traditional digestive aid – Natural bitter herbs have been used for millennia to stimulate and improve digestion. Use these 15-20 minutes before a meal. This has also been the traditional function of the pre-dinner salad, which used to contain a variety of greens, many of which were bitter (today’s salads, filled with sweet baby greens or iceberg lettuce, are not nearly as healthy, and do not perform this function; so add some bitter greens like dandelion to your salad for a more therapeutic effect). These greens were eaten before the main meal to stimulate digestion.
- Eat ginger and drink ginger tea – Ginger increases the activity of lipase and other digestive enzymes. Gingerols are the source of ginger’s hot and spicy flavor. They stimulate bile flow. They are also responsible for ginger’s anti-inflammatory, anti-nausea and antioxidant properties. Ginger contains a protein-digesting enzyme called zingibain which is one of the most powerful protein digesting enzymes known, every bit the rival of the great papaya enzyme, papain. One of the essential oils in ginger, zingiberene, works in conjunction with gingerols to protect the lining of the stomach. The aromatic oils in ginger are useful for aiding digestion and reducing gas. Ideally, every human on earth should be drinking ginger tea daily, and especially with meals!
- Utilize spices in your meals – New research suggests that certain dietary spices can significantly increase the production of pancreatic digestive enzymes! These common spices include curcumin (better known as turmeric), capsaicin, piperine (better known as black pepper), ginger, fenugreek, mustard, cumin, and asafoetida (better known as Hing).
- Eat pineapple or papaya as a pre-dinner snack or dessert – Digestive enzyme support can be obtained from fresh pineapple or papaya, which contain the enzyme bromelain.
- If all else fails, supplement – Once again, a supplement is the last resort. Replace some of your overcrowded supplement cabinet with a digestive enzyme. Instead of taking a daily multivitamin, take an enzyme with your daily meals so that you can truly absorb the vitamins you’re already eating! I like the enzymes found in the HCL supplement Hydrozyme I mentioned, but on days that I need extra support I look to Pure Encapsulations Digestive Enzymes Ultra.
Tips for Improving Gallbladder Function & Bile Release:
The third aspect of digestion I discussed in Part 1 was proper bile release from the gallbladder. This is absolutely imperative if you want to break down fats and absorb their fatty acids! Fats are primarily digested by bile salts and the pancreatic enzyme lipase, and you’re going to need them fully broken down for proper brain function and beautiful skin.
Possible symptoms of poor bile flow and inadequate fat digestion: dry skin, gallbladder/liver pain, pain radiating into the shoulder, joint pain, foul smelling stool, gallstones, nausea after eating, hormone imbalances, PMS, acne.
When it comes to fat malabsorption, the first step includes supporting healthy bile production and secretion. When we experience fat malabsorption, it means that the bile in the gallbladder is thick and sticky. The gallbladder tries to squeeze it out, but it can’t. In a vicious cycle, toxins and old hormones are re-absorbed because the bile isn’t leaving the body.
How to support the gallbladder and bile flow:
- Gradually increase the amount of good fats you eat, especially if you’ve been on a low fat diet – Dietary intake of healthy fat signals contraction of the gallbladder resulting in optimal bile flow and secretion (thus the prevention of gallstones and full absorption of fat molecules). Don’t eat too much fat right away, and immediately cut out the bad fats such as vegetable/canola oil, fried food, factory farmed meats, and margarine. Slowly increase your intake of coconut oil, grass-fed ghee, raw cold pressed olive oil, avocado, whole nuts and seeds, and pasture-raised organic eggs/meat if you eat them. The best vegan fats are walnuts and coconut meat!
- Cut out grains for a while if your digestion is highly compromised – Many people with autoimmune disease greatly benefit from going grain-free for a period of time. This certainly doesn’t mean carb-free, though! You can still eat delicious root vegetables like potato, sweet potato, plantain, jicama, and more. Unfortunately, “healthy whole grains” like fiber cereals, whole wheat breads and pastas are not so healthy for those who are already ill as they contain numerous anti-nutrients such as phytic acid that only stress the body.
Eat and juice beets – Beets contain betaine in the tops and stems, which is a substance that helps to protect the liver and stimulate the flow of bile. Juicing both the purple beet root and the green stem would be a great way to help aid in the digestion of fats. You can also consume them raw or fermented. Beet Kvass is also a wonderful aid to the liver and gallbladder, and is a double whammy for tips on this list since it’s a fermented food.
- Apple cider vinegar, again! – Apple cider vinegar contains malic acid which can help to soften any gallstones as well as thin out the bile over time. Take a tablespoon in some water prior to meals regularly as I mentioned in the first section.
- Last but not least, supplement – If fat digestion is a big problem for you (you find yourself complaining about dry skin and hair, constipation, or feel nauseated on a regular basis), and if Beet Kvass isn’t an option to drink with every meal (i.e. you’re always on the go), your last resort should be looking into a supplement. Beta-TCP by Biotics Research acts like a therapeutic strength version of Beet Kvass in a convenient tablet form. Taking two or three Beta-TCP with each meal will provide a similar effect to Beet Kvass and can be a game-changer for skin health if fat malabsorption is your problem. Again, please try to work with a practitioner/chiropractor/naturopath so that they can pinpoint exactly which supplement(s) you may need from the sections in this post. Also note that Beta-TCP, like Hydrozyme, is not 100% vegan because of the enzymes.
If you have already had your gallbladder removed and are looking to optimize digestion as well as avoid the pain and discomfort often associated with difficulty in fat digestion, consider working with a practitioner regarding supplementation of bile salts.
Our gut flora helps us properly digest our food, protects us from pathogens (harmful microorganisms), helps us detoxify harmful compounds, produces vitamins and other nutrients, keeps our guts healthy, and balances our immune systems.
The two things you can do to increase beneficial probiotics in your gut are:
- Eat fermented foods with every meal! – Beet Kvass, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi.
- Take a probiotic supplement. We now have our very own probiotic in the shop, called Not Your Average Probiotic! It’s packed not only with 20 billion CFUs, but also contains prebiotic fiber AND enzymes for digestive support.