Digestion is a complex process which relies on many factors and steps to properly transport and use the food you eat to fuel your body. When something goes wrong in this process, it can manifest in a multitude of ways, most commonly gas, bloating, abdominal pain, food sensitivities, acid reflux/heartburn, constipation or diarrhea. If allowed to continue, digestive problems can lead to more serious problems such as fatigue, IBS/IBD, SIBO, depression, diabetes, weight loss resistance, and autoimmune disease.

There is good news and bad news when it comes to maintaining or restoring healthy digestion. The bad news is that our ability to properly digest our food can easily be disrupted by chronic stress, poor diet, environmental toxins, pharmaceuticals (acid blockers or PPIs are particularly problematic), age (stomach acid starts to drop off in our 30’s and 40’s), and chronic illness, and often it is hard to determine which came first, the illness or the gut dysfunction. But the good news is that there are many ways in which to boost our digestive capacity, or “digestive fire,” to help relieve symptoms and restore nutrient absorption.

Digestive fire is a term used to describe the ability of our body to produce sufficient enzymes, stomach acid, and bile to break down our food into tiny particles which can be absorbed through our intestinal tract. If you are experiencing the symptoms below there is a good chance that your digestive fire is impaired:

  • Skin conditions such as acne, eczema, rosacea, etc.
  • Food and environmental sensitivities or allergies
  • Heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD
  • Gas and burping
  • Undigested food in stools
  • Stomach upset or pain after meals
  • SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth)
  • Infections (yeast, bacteria, parasites)
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nutrient deficiencies (especially vitamins A, B, D, E, K and coenzyme Q10)
  • Anemia

You may have heard the saying “digestion begins in the mouth,” but it actually starts in the brain. From the moment you think about, smell, see, taste or touch food, your brain begins prepping your body for the meal you’re about to eat. Saliva production increases, your stomach begins producing enzymes and acid, and your liver and gall bladder get ready to release bile.

Once you actually take a bite of food your salivary amylase and lipase begin breaking down starches and fats. Chewing your food properly breaks the food down into more easily digested particles, alleviating the digestive burden on the stomach. Not chewing well enough is one of the most common causes of gas and bloating and eventually can lead to leaky gut.

Next in line is the esophagus which is partitioned by the upper and lower esophageal sphincters (UES and LES). After you swallow, your food passes through the UES and travels down and through the LES then into your stomach. The LES has an important job because it prevents food and stomach acid from moving back up the esophagus and causing heartburn or gastro esophageal reflux disease (GERD). Sufficient stomach acid is required to keep the LES from allowing this reflux and while it may seem counterintuitive, we are more likely to experience heartburn/GERD because we don’t have enough stomach acid, not because we have too much.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of stomach acid or HCl (hydrochloric acid). HCl is produced by the parietal cells in our stomachs and ideally should have a highly acidic pH similar to battery acid, or about a 1-2 on the pH scale. HCl breaks down proteins, stimulates enzyme production, maintains bacterial balance in the intestines and kills pathogenic organisms such as parasites, yeasts and bacteria that may have hitched a ride on your food.

These same parietal cells which produce HCL also make intrinsic factor and digestive enzymes, both of which are dependent on sufficient stomach acid for production. Digestive enzymes are specialized to digest specific nutrients. There are enzymes designed for every kind of starch, fat, protein and fiber and they act to further break down these particles and prepare vitamins and minerals for absorption. Intrinsic factor is crucial because we cannot absorb vitamin B12 without it first binding to intrinsic factor. This is why people who take acid blocking drugs often have vitamin B deficiencies.

Other big players in the digestive process are the pancreas, liver and gall bladder, contributing pancreatic enzymes and bile to break down the remaining proteins, carbohydrates and fats. If all goes as planned our food has now transformed into tiny particles of micronutrients that give us life and vitality. But if any step in this process is compromised, the symptoms above rear their ugly heads and our health begins to suffer.

As one of my teachers, Tom Malterre, always says, “If you aren’t digesting your food properly, someone else will do it for you,” meaning that bacteria in our gut will eat up any undigested food hanging out in our intestinal tract. This can be a problem because beneficial bacteria tend to thrive on properly broken down food while potentially harmful organisms will thrive on undigested food. SIBO is a prime example of this. Harmful bacteria can also produce chemicals that degrade our intestinal integrity causing leaky gut syndrome.

Ideally we want to make sure we’re properly digesting our food and maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria in our guts. Digestion may be a complex process, but boosting your digestive capacity can be quite simple if you know what to do. Eating slowly and chewing your food well is the #1 place to start, but incorporating the tips below can help fuel your digestive fire and eliminate uncomfortable gastrointestinal problems.

Lifestyle tips for increasing digestive fire:

  • Manage your stress.
  • Eat slowly in a relaxed environment without multitasking.
  • Chew your food until it is almost liquid before swallowing (shoot for 35 chews).
  • Eat real, whole, organic foods, especially high-antioxidant vegetables.
  • Stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of purified water.
  • Eliminate food sensitivities and gluten and avoid a high sugar / high starch diet.
  • Combine foods strategically – Eat veggies and greens with animal proteins (fish, meat, eggs). Eat veggies and greens with vegetable proteins (legumes, tofu/tempeh, quinoa). Don’t eat animal and vegetable proteins together. Eat fruit on its own, not with meals or other foods.
  • Decrease intake of or eliminate coffee, tea, alcohol, sugar, tobacco, fried foods and minimize hot sauce/spices since these can all deplete your stomach acid and thin the lining of the gut.
  • Avoid drinking cold liquids before or during meals.
  • Avoid chewing Gum – The enzymes and acids activated by chewing gum can cause bloating and overproduction of stomach acid.
  • Take a 10 minute walk after dinner. This aids digestion and reduces stress.
  • Stop eating at least 2, ideally 3-4 hours before bedtime. Try to give your body at least a 12 hour break from eating.

Foods and herbs to increase digestive fire:

  • Organic raw apple cider vinegar – take one Tbsp before meals to increase digestion and nutrient absorption
  • Eat more bitter tasting foods such as chicory, dandelion, arugula, radicchio, endive, artichoke, lemon and black radish – bitter foods stimulate digestive function & strengthen the digestive organs (liver, stomach, gallbladder, pancreas, etc.).
  • Thyme – stimulates the production of gastric juices
  • Cumin – reduces inflammation, prevents gas, relieves diarrhea and promotes secretion of gastric juices.
  • Ginger – relieves nausea, heartburn, gas, soothes and relaxes the intestinal tract
  • Cayenne pepper – provides a cleansing effect on the bowels
  • Trikatu – an Ayurvedic blend of ginger, black pepper, and long pepper. Supports digestion & overall gastric function, stimulates digestive enzymes, promotes rapid absorption of nutrients.
  • Garlic – prevent bacterial infections such as h. pylori
  • Sea salt – stimulates stomach acid production
  • Dandelion tea or dandelion greens – increase production of stomach acid

Supplements for digestive support:

  • Digestive enzymes – should only be used short-term or taken only with harder to digest foods. If taken long-term the body may begin to rely on them and produce less of its own enzymes.
  • *Betaine HCl – determine the correct dose by taking Dr. Natasha Turner’s HCl Challenge
  • Gentian Root – stimulates appetite and stomach acid production. Also helpful for fatigue, heartburn, vomiting, stomach ache, and diarrhea. Avoid if you have ulcers or high blood pressure.
  • Ox bile / Bile salts – especially helpful for those who have had their gall bladder removed.
  • Pepsin
  • Pancreatin
  • Swedish Bitters tincture – take a small amount in a little water before you eat. These are readily available at most health food stores.

*Certain “high risk” people should not take Betaine HCL without medical supervision. You are considered high risk if you’re taking any anti-inflammatory medicines such as corticosteroids, aspirin, Indocin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or other NSAIDs. These drugs may damage the GI lining and taking HCl may increase the risks of bleeding or ulcer.

Resources:

Aglaée Jacob, M.S., R.D., Digestive Health with Real Food (Paleo Media Group, LLC, 2013)

Tom Malterre, M.S., CN, The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook (Hachette, 2014)

Jilllian Sarno Teta, N.D. & Jeannette Bessinger, CHHC, Natural Solutions for Digestive Health (Sterling, 2014)

Alejandro Junger, M.D., Clean Gut (HarperOne, 2013)

Danielle Charles-Davis, Bitters: the Revival of a Forgotten Flavor – Weston A. Price Foundation

Dr. Joseph Merocola, Problems with Digestion? Processed Foods May Be to Blame…

Thorne Research – Healthy Digestion is Key to Good Health