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Improve Your Digestion


The health and performance benefits of food is enormous if you can tap into its potential. Unfortunately, poor digestive health could mean you're missing out on valuable nutrients.

Indenture / flickr

How Digestive Health Works

Your digestive tract is like a vault in which nutrients are housed, but if you experience irritable bowels, gas, bloating, acid reflux, constipation, or any other distress after eating, there are steps you can take to reap the full rewards of the foods you eat and improve your health.

Improve Your Digestion

Eat whole, raw, and unprocessed foods.

Whole fruits and vegetables, unlike their processed or cooked counterparts, contain natural enzymes. Pineapple (bromelin) and papaya (papain) are two great sources of natural digestive enzymes. These natural enzymes act as catalysts in the digestive process and are very effective in the digestion of protein. They may also aid in the management of inflammation as well as improved circulation which is vital to the delivery of nutrients and removal of waste.

Consider digestive enzyme supplementation.

Digestive enzymes are proteins secreted by the salivary glands, stomach, pancreas and small intestine. Their function is to breakdown large macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) into smaller, easily digested, forms of these nutrients (glucose, amino acids and fatty acids). These nutrients can then be utilized by the body for energy, growth and health. This process also frees vital micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that are critical for energy metabolism, growth and health.

Unfortunately, poor food selections, disease, stress, and aging impair these natural processes. The result is poor digestion and absorption of the food you eat. This poor digestion leads to low energy levels, less than optimal growth, and decreases in immune function. Furthermore, the buildup of undigested or poorly digested food stuffs can lead to fermented carbohydrates, rancid fats, and putrefied proteins residing in your digestive tract. These waste products can be toxic and have the potential to be absorbed into the blood stream leading to a host of health problems including decreased immune function.

The addition of supplemental digestive enzymes can aid in the digestion, absorption, and acquisition of the vital nutrients housed in the food you eat. Look for plant based digestive enzymes. These fungal derived enzymes have been shown in the literature to withstand the harsh conditions of the digestive tract. A quality digestive enzyme supplement should provide a mixture of proteolytic (enzymes that breakdown proteins), lipolytic (enzymes that breakdown fat) and carbolytic enzymes (enzymes that breakdown carbohydrates).

Start by taking one to three digestive enzyme capsules immediately before each meal. Dosage should depend on size of the meal being ingested and can be adjusted based on your individual results. Digestive enzymes, especially proteolytic enzymes, when taken on an empty stomach, can be absorbed into the bloodstream, helping to manage inflammation and increase circulation, leading to enhanced nutrient delivery and removal of waste. This may prove beneficial for recovery from strenuous activity as well as injury.

Look for Probiotics.

Our digestive tract is host to a plethora of living microorganisms some "friendly" and some "harmful." "Friendly" microorganisms aid in digestion, immune function, absorption of minerals, treat inflammation, and prevent the build-up of "harmful" microorganisms, while "harmful" microorganisms can lead to disease, infection and a suppressed immune function.

The widespread use of antibiotics is effective in killing "harmful" as well as "friendly" microorganisms. This poses a problem and can lead to decreases in immune function and translocation of harmful bacteria from the digestive tract into other organs such as the liver and lymph nodes.

The use of a probiotic supplement can be an effective way to promote the growth of "friendly" microorganisms within the digestive tract. A quality probiotic supplement should include a wide array of friendly stands of bacteria. Some examples include: L. plantarum, L. acidolphilus, B. longum, L. sporogenes, L. casei and L. salivarius.

Start by taking one or two probiotic capsules before bed. Another option: Foods such as yogurt (with live active cultures) and fermented foods such as fermented vegetables (pickles, cabbage), miso and soy sauce are also good natural sources of "friendly" bacteria.

Investigate food allergies and intolerances.

Some individuals have adverse reactions to certain foods which can place undo stress on the digestive tract and impair the acquisition of nutrients. The classic signs of traditional food allergies such as pain, inflammation, edema, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are often immediate and therefore relatively easy to recognize and avoid. However, these classic and immediate allergies only represent a small portion of the problem.

Many of us possess food intolerances, which are adverse reactions to certain foods with delayed onset of symptoms that often are not overt. This means that intolerant foods can launch a covert attack on our body and never be blamed for the havoc they have wreaked. To diagnose these so called food intolerances, seek the help of a nutrition professional and ask for an IgG blood test. This particular test will help shed light on food intolerances that may cause delayed onset symptoms such as lack of energy and illness.

Once your problem foods have been diagnosed, the nutrition professional will likely place you on an elimination diet for a period of several months. The foods will then be reintroduced and rotated into your diet. More often than not, the intolerance is reversed, allowing you to enjoy these foods without any adverse reaction.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients. Recent findings estimate about 2 million people in the United States have celiac disease, or about 1 in 133 people. People with the disease cannot digest or tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten is found mainly in foods, but also in stamp and envelope adhesive, medicines, and vitamins.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. When gluten is consumed, the immune system responds by damaging the small intestine; then the person with the disease becomes malnourished. There are a couple of ways you can become afflicted with this condition.The first way is based on our DNA as celiac disease is genetic. However, sometimes the disease is triggered or becomes active after surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection or emotional stress. If you listen to your body or become more aware of how your body reacts after eating foods, you could be able to sense if you are one of the 0.8 percent of the population affected.


  • Gas
  • Recurring abdominal bloating and pain
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Weight loss/weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained anemia (a low count of red blood cells causing fatigue)
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Osteoporosis
  • Osteopenia
  • Behavioral changes

Without treatment and the avoidance of gluten, people with celiac disease can develop complications such as cancer, osteoporosis, anemia and seizures.

If you are diagnosed with celiac disease or find that after eating foods with gluten that you are experienced some of the aforementioned symptoms, following a gluten-free diet may work well; it does for most people. Removing gluten from the diet tends to stop symptoms, heal existing intestinal damage, and prevent further damage. Improvements begin immediately and symptoms are reduced progressively over time. The small intestine is usually completely healed in three to six months in children and younger adults and within two years for older adults. When the intestine is healed, the villi found within the intestine can then absorb nutrients more efficiently.

A gluten-free diet presents a life challenge: monitoring food selection; however, after a short learning curve, those affected develop a keen eye for identifying gluten. Checking labels for "gluten free" is important, since many corn and rice products are produced in factories that also manufacture wheat products. Hidden sources of gluten include additives such as modified food starch, preservatives, and stabilizers. Wheat and wheat products are often used as thickeners, stabilizers and texture enhancers in foods.

"Plain" meat (meat without sauce), fish, rice, fruits, and vegetables do not contain gluten, so people with celiac disease can eat as much of these foods as they like. Recommending that people with celiac disease avoid oats is controversial because some people have been able to eat oats without having symptoms. Scientists are currently studying whether people with celiac disease can tolerate oats. Until the studies are complete, people with celiac disease should follow their physician's or dietitian's advice about eating oats.

Other foods allowed in a gluten-free diet include amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, cassava, corn, flax, Indian rice grass, legumes, sago, seeds, soy, sorghum, tapioca, wild rice, yucca, millet, nuts, potatoes, quinoa and rice.

Foods to avoid include wheat, spelt, kamut, einkorn, emmer, wheat starch, wheat bran, wheat germ, cracked wheat, hydrolyzed wheat protein, barley, rye, triticale, bromated flour, durum flour, enriched flour, farina, graham flour, phosphate flour, plain flour, self-rising flour, semolina and white flour.

Processed foods that may contain wheat, barley, or rye include bouillon cubes, brown rice syrup, potato chips, candy, cold cuts, hot dogs, salami, sausage, French fries, gravy, imitation fish, matzo, rice mixes, sauces, seasoned tortilla chips, self-basting turkey, soups, soy sauce and some vegetables. Most of these foods can be found gluten-free at specialty grocery stores. When in doubt, check with the food manufacturer.

With any allergy or intolerance, your body will give you signs that it may not like something. Listen to your body when you eat. If you develop bloating, gas, heartburn or other GI issues after eating, think about what foods you ate and take note. When you have that food again, see if the symptoms come back. If they do, try eliminating that food from your diet for three or four weeks and then re-introduce them. Intolerances and allergies are on the forefront of nutrition research; however, so much can be discovered by just taking note to how your body is feeling and responding to what we put in it.

Tags: Food, Supplements, Vitamins, Nutrients, Energy, Health, Disease


  1. Sara Synder, MS, performance nutritionist at Athletes' Performance