The American Nutrition Association estimates that everyday, 70 million American suffer from some sort of digestive distress. That’s almost one in five people.
That might be a conservative estimate, though, because a pharmaceutical company, AbbVie Pharmaceuticals, commissioned a survey in 2013 and found that 74% of respondents had some sort of digestive problem on a regular basis. That would mean that AbbVie Pharmaceuticals could sell their drugs to 74% of the population, though, so I’m a bit skeptical. Let’s just say half of us are dealing with this on the regular. But either way you go, it’s a huge problem.
Digestive drugs, from OTCs to prescriptions are some of the nation’s top-sellers. Pepto Bismol alone sold $39 million worth of product in 2013. But that’s NOTHING compared to antacid sales, which is a $2 billion a year industry. That’s a Caribbean nation’s worth of GDP just in antacids.
Then there are proton-pump inhibitors, which are designed to stop the production of a digestive enzyme that creates stomach acid. These are generally prescriptions. You might be familiar with Nexium or Aciphex. In 2013, Nexium sold $5.6 Billion worth of pills.
We are certainly spending a lot of money to remedy a very widespread problem. Tens of billions of dollars. Let me ask you, if we as a nation allocated $10 billion at a problem, wouldn’t we expect to fix it? Clearly we’re not fixing anything. If fact, we’re probably making it worse!
Case in point: Pepto Bismol is actually a low-grade antibiotic. This kills our gut bacteria, which makes our digestive problems worse in the long term. Sure, you feel better that day, but if you take pepto bismol to fix the problem today, it gets slightly worse tomorrow, at which point you take more pepto bismol, etc., etc., etc.
Or take the proton-pump inhibitors. If you are over 50 and take them for a year or longer, you increase your risk of breaking a hip by 44%. That’s because stomach acid is needed to absorb calcium. Stop absorbing calcium, your bones get weak and brittle.
Antacids are basically addictive. Once you take them for a while, your body ramps up acid production to make up for acid being constantly suppressed. If you stop taking them, your stomach acid production goes through the roof. If it gets bad enough, it turns into a condition called milk-alkali syndrome. This is where you have so much calcium and absorbable alkali in your bloodstream that you threaten your kidneys.
So that’s why medications don’t work. We spend billions for immediate relief that makes everything worse in the long run.
The two primary causes of digestive distress
The first and most obvious is what you eat.
Just a quick overview.
For many people, grains cause gas.
For anyone who does NOT have Northern European ancestry, dairy causes gas, bloating, indigestion, constipation. (This is an interesting bit of adaptation by Northern European cultures who, unlike most other peoples of the Ancient world, had to adapt to long winters and did so by making cheese—which stored well over the winter).
Spicy foods irritate the digestive system, often leading to diarrhea and nausea.
One of the main causes of acid reflux is soda. It is highly acidic, as are tomatoes and citrus fruits. That’s why acid reflux after pizza is so common (that and the cheese, processed meats and grains from the crust).
Depending on your situation, one of the two types of fats can irritate your digestive tract. For unsaturated fats, it slows the whole digestive process, which can contribute to constipation, cramps, etc. For saturated fats, it speeds up the process, leading to diarrhea. It’s the same problem for fried foods. They speed up the digestive process, not only leading to diarrhea but inhibiting nutrient absorption.
Processed foods in general are just a digestive nightmare. They generally lack fiber. They contain additives, colorings, preservatives, etc. which most of us actually have low-grade allergies to and irritate the bowels. Many processed foods also contain lactose, which the vast majority of the global population is intolerant to.
Artificial sweeteners (especially sorbitol) cause gas, bloating and indigestion.
Alcohol is toxic to the stomach lining and will erode it away over time, worsening any acid reflux problems.
Also, the way we eat can be problematic. We live in a rushed world. We eat too fast. We don’t chew our food enough. We eat on the run. We eat too quickly, while not chewing enough… on the run. It’s like dropping a bomb on your digestive system, making it work overtime on the garbage food you eat when you’re in a hurry.
Second main cause—a weakened microbiome.
Digestion in your body is dependent on enzymes created not by you, but by the bacteria living inside you. Creepy right?
This mostly applies to complex sugars, starches and carbohydrates. They are partially responsible for the conversion of these foods to glucose—the endpoint energy source for most people.
With a poorly-functioning microbiome, foods don’t get broken down, you have large molecules of complex sugar with nowhere to go in your digestive tract, stopping up the system and causing discomfort, constipation, bloating, gas, cramps, etc.
The problems with our microbiome are generally caused by the overuse of antibiotics (remember Pepto Bismol from earlier?) and the fact that most of us have been overprescribed antibiotics our entire lives.
It kills pathogenic bacteria, and it kills good bacteria as well. And it takes several years for the microbiome to recover from even one round of antibiotics.
Natural solutions to digestive distress
Address what and how you eat:
- Stay away from processed foods, sugar and saturated fats. This includes fast food, fried food, food in a box or a bag.
- If you’re not of Northern European ancestry, limit your lactose (by the way, yogurt and hard cheeses don’t have lactose).
- And this is probably the hardest one for people. Get rid of the grains. First of all, carbs turn to sugars. Sugars overwhelm the microbiome, cause you to gain weight, cause inflammation and just generally throw a wrench in your metabolism. Secondly, modern-day grains have been genetically modified to be absurdly high in gluten.
- We’ve all heard of the “gluten-free” fad where people who are not gluten-sensitive are jumping on the bandwagon. But let me ask you, if you’re among the 50% of Americans with digestive issues, are you so sure you’re not gluten intolerant? The symptoms of gluten sensitivity are belching, diarrhea, fat in stool, heartburn, indigestion, nausea, vomiting, flatulence.
What should you eat?
Whole foods. Fruits and vegetables and meat that you buy as a whole entity, take home and cook.
Preferably those fruits and vegetables are organic (because pesticides and toxins irritate the bowels) and the meats are antibiotic-free (to avoid more antibiotic exposure to the microbiome) and grassfed (to avoid pesticide and grain that makes its way to your system) or wild-caught/free-range for the same reasons.
Like most people, you’ll need to rebuild your microbiome. This isn’t just for a well-functioning digestive system, it’s for a well-functioning immune system, hormone balance, mental health and more. You can take a probiotic supplement, but to get the wide range of diversity in bacterial strains, you’ll want to eat fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, etc.
Here’s a little list of natural approaches to short-term digestive distress to get you started:
- Ginger (in tea or added to food, or even raw): prevents and reduces nausea, vomiting, flatulence, indigestion, bloating and diarrhea.
- Peppermint (in tea or added to food, or raw): helps with gas, bloating, intestinal cramps as well as nausea and vomiting. Can be used to treat IBS and the symptoms of Celiac disease.
- Fennel seeds (as tea, as an oil, added to food or raw) helps heartburn, indigestion and low stomach acidity.
- Apple cider vinegar (by itself or diluted in water): helps with indigestion, gas, bloating, stomach aches and heartburn.
- Turmeric (as tea, added to food): highly anti-inflammatory. An effective remedy for dyspepsia, peptic ulcers, IBS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Don’t be a slave to your stomach OR the pharmaceutical industry. As you can see, there’s always another way.