The Digestive System: Part IV – Nutritional Support

In the first three parts we have learned about the digestive system and its importance to our overall health.  We have also seen some key lifestyle changes that will produce significant benefits in achieving and maintain digestive health. 

In this final part of our series we’ll discover some nutritional support that can be beneficial for digestive health.

Fiber

Yes, I know we discussed the importance of fiber in Part 3, and how we can obtain fiber in our diet.  But, the truth is many of don’t like veggies and other foods that are high in fiber, so we still won’t eat sufficient dietary fiber.

The good news is that fiber is readily available in supplement form.  Fiber supplements usually take the form of a powder (flavored or unflavored) that you can mix with water or juice and drink.  That is certainly easy enough.

Some important things to consider about fiber supplements though, not all are created equal.  Some popular, national brand fiber supplements use artificial flavors, artificial colors, harmful artificial sweeteners, and high levels of sugars to flavor and sweeten their products.  We have seen how these additives can actually be damaging to your digestive system.

Many of these supplements provide fiber from just one source, usually from soluble fiber.  If you recall from Part 3, a healthy diet obtains fiber from many sources, including soluble and insoluble.  So, it is important to find a fiber supplement that includes several different sources of fiber, contains no harmful additives and is flavored and sweetened naturally.

Here are some types of fiber to look for in your fiber supplement:

Psyllium

Psyllium is a soluble form of fiber derived from the husks of the seeds of a plant, Plantago ovata, which is native to Western and Southern Asia, and can also be found growing wild in the southwestern United States.

Psyllium has a number of characteristics which provide benefits for digestive health.  Psyllium absorbs water and becomes a very viscous mass which reduces constipation and diarrhea.  In addition, because it resists digestion in the intestines, psyllium fiber also helps to regulate blood sugar spikes after meals, regulates high cholesterol, and regulates triglycerides.

Pectin

Pectin is a soluble type of polysaccharide fiber found in the cells of certain fruits such as apples, pears and the pith of citrus fruits.  Often used as a thickener in foods such as jellies and jams, pectin also provides digestive benefits associated with fiber.

Gums

Gums are soluble fibers that are also used as thickeners, bulking agents, emulsifiers, and stabilizers in foods.  These include guar gum, xanthan gum, acacia (Gum Arabic), tara gum, carrageenan, and others.

Gums, like other fiber sources help prevent constipation and promote regularity.

Chia seeds

Chia seeds are an insoluble fiber, and contain a very high percentage of fiber, almost 40%.  In addition, chia seeds are a great source of a wide variety of nutrients and antioxidants.

Glutamine

Glutamine, or l-glutamine, is an amino acid – a building block for protein – which is found naturally in the body and readily available from various protein-containing foods.  Glutamine is also available in supplement from either powders or capsules.   Glutamine is the most abundant free form amino acid (an amino acid which isn’t combined with another compound) in the body, and is major source of energy used for the production and differentiation of cells in the walls (epithelium) in the intestines.

Glutamine is extremely important for the function and health of the digestive system, primarily the intestine.  Glutamine promotes the proliferation of the intestinal cells which absorb nutrients, inhibits inflammatory pathways, and protects cells in the digestive system against cell death and cellular stress.  Glutamine is considered the most important nutrient for healing of ‘leaky gut syndrome’.

Probiotics and Prebiotics

Simply put, probiotics are the beneficial bacteria which live in your intestines and serve to digest and convert food into usable nutrients.  Prebiotics are a type of fiber that cannot be digested and which serve as food for probiotics.

There are several hundreds of different strains of beneficial probiotics that live in your stomach and intestinal tract.  The large intestine, or colon, has the greatest density of microbes of any habitat on earth.  In fact, approximately 60% of the mass of feces is comprised of bacteria, so it is important to support an environment which supports bacteria growth, and also to replenish beneficial bacteria through diet or supplementation.

While there are up to 1,000 different species of probiotics found in the digestive tract, approximately 99% come from only 30-40 different species.  The overall composition of gut bacteria changes with age, diet and overall health.

Some of the earliest bacteria found in our system are from the genus Bifidobacterium.  There are over 50 different species of Bifidobacterium in the gut.  Bifidobacteria are often take in the form of supplements to treat various digestive issues including diarrhea, constipation, and IBD.

Another predominant bacterium in the gut belong to the genus Lactobacillus.  These bacteria play a role in converting sugars to lactic acid, and are often use in supplements to prevent and treat diarrhea, IBS, IBD, colic in babies, constipation, colon inflammation, stomach pain, etc.

Probiotics are readily available on the form of supplements.  It is important to supplement with probiotics which contain multiple strains.  Good commercially available probiotics will contain strains of Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus and Streptococcus.

Prebiotics include compounds such as inulin and FOS (fructooligosaccharides).  These are readily available as supplements.

Deglycyrrhizinated Licorice (DGL)

Deglycyrrhizinated Licorice is as it sounds – licorice that has had the glycyrrhizin removed.  Glycyrrhizin is an active constituent of licorice root which has been found to have some health benefits such as alleviation of bronchitis, gastritis and jaundice.  But, too much can result in some side effects such as congestive heart failure, decrease in libido, headaches, high blood pressure, and others.  The removal of the glycyrrhizin makes licorice safer, while still retaining health benefits.

Studies have shown benefit for supplementation with DGL by increasing mucus which can protect the stomach and esophagus in cases of acid reflux, and support for stomach health related to ulcers and acting against H. pylori, a bacterium which can penetrate the lining of the stomach and cause infections often resulting in ulcers.

Neem Leaf

Neem is an evergreen tree native to India whose leaves, and other parts, that have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine as natural remedies for a number of maladies.  The leaves have been used to treat stomach upset, indigestion, gastric ulcers, and intestinal worms.

Mastic Gum

Mastic gum is a resin derived from a tree native to the Mediterranean.  Mastic gum has been used a digestive aid for centuries, and provides other benefits such as liver and oral health.  People can chew the resin such as one would chew gum, but the gum is also extracted, dried and processed to prepare a powder that is often used in supplements.

Studies have shown a number of benefits for mastic gum in supporting digestive health.  Mastic gum has been shown to have effect in killing H. pylori bacteria, which are connected to stomach infections and ulcers.  Mastic gum may also relieve abdominal discomfort and inflammation, and symptoms of Crohn’s Disease a form of irritable bowel disease (IBD).

In Summary

We’ve learned about the basics of the digestive system, and seen the importance of the digestive system relative to our overall health.  The good news is that it is very easy to improve and maintain our digestive health through some simple lifestyle changes – better diet, drink more water, etc. – and through the use of dietary supplements.

 

 

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