Sure, eating can be one of life’s great pleasures, but digesting and eliminating even the most nutritious and well-balanced meals may sometimes lead to discomfort, or pain. “By the time we reach middle-age, key digestive organs, such as the stomach, esophagus and intestines, are processing foods much slower than when we were young adults,” says gastroenterologist Dale Prokupek, M.D., of Beverly Hills, CA. “If you develop digestive problems, however, you need to take a look at what and how you eat. Careful dietary management can increase enjoyment of your meals, strengthen your gastrointestinal tract, and help you absorb maximum nutrients from your food.”
According to Prokupek, “Effective digestion is based on three elements: The ability to secrete the appropriate enzymes which break down food into its component parts, a gastrointestinal tract which propels food forward in a timely fashion, and intestines which absorb nutrients effectively.” No matter what your age, eating the right foods in the right combinations and taking supplements that help energize and heal the digestive system can help your gastrointestinal tract function at peak efficiency.
As the Director of Education, Section of Nutrition, Division of Gastroenterology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Los Angeles, CA., Dr. Prokupek sees many patients with weakened digestion stemming from a variety of damaging eating and lifestyle habits. He says, “More people need to realize that the goal of the gastrointestinal system is to extract nutrients and fluid from our foods to nourish the body. You literally are what you eat, and the nutrients you absorb from food strongly influence your health.” Many patients he sees “chronically skip meals or eat high fat diets or various foods that undermine g.i. tract efficiency. For instance, chronic consumption of caffeine, sugar, fat or alcohol can weaken the digestive organs. While a deficiency in dietary fiber contributes to sluggish digestion and weakened bowels, too much alcohol can lead to a deficiency in pancreatic secretions, which means decreased ability to digest fats.”
Prokupek warns against chronic consumption of caffeine via diet sodas, coffee, tea or chocolate because, “Caffeine constricts the blood vessels throughout the body, including in the g.i. tract. The g.i. tract is filled with blood vessels, which are programmed to absorb nutrients. But when you constrict them via drinking caffeine or smoking cigarettes,” he explains, “it decreases the absorption of nutrients.” Caffeine-induced stress on digestion also increases blood pressure, “and we can extrapolate that constriction of blood vessels in the g.i. tract and elsewhere could cause ischemia, or lack of blood supply, thereby decreasing nutrient absorption or maybe even increasing the rate of heart attack.”
Caffeine, sugary foods and alcohol are dangerous because they destroy friendly and functional bacteria such as Lactobacillus bifidus (also known as bifidobacteria, which exists in the lower intestine) and Lactobacillus acidophilus (which is actually a family of 200 different beneficial bacteria that reside primarily in the lower intestine, but in smaller amounts than bifidobacteria).
According to the second edition of James F. Balch , M.D. and Phyllis A. Balch, C.N.C.’s “Prescription for Natural Healing,” (Avery Publishing Group, 1997), “A healthy colon should have flora consisting of about 85 per cent lactobacilli and 15 percent coliform bacteria.” Unfortunately, Prokupek observes, “due to a variety of dietary and lifestyle factors, the reverse figures are more common.” Conditions such as high caffeine consumption, improper eating habits and antibiotic use can destroy various strains of beneficial bacteria in the g.i. tract. Low numbers of beneficial intestinal bacteria can lead to chronic gas and bloating, constipation, and overgrowth of candida bacteria, causing yeast infections. Supplementing your diet with L. bifidus, also known as bifidobacteria, can upgrade your digestion by maintaining high levels of healthy intestinal flora. Studies have shown that bifidobacteria is useful in treating a variety of liver disorders, such as cirrhosis of the liver and chronic hepatitis. By improving digestion, it eases demands on the liver.
The most dominant organism in the intestinal flora, L. bifidus creates a healthy space for producing the B-complex vitamins and vitamin K. L. acidophilus helps digest proteins, a process in which lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide, enzymes, B vitamins, and antibiotic substances that inhibit pathogenic organisms are created. Besides improving digestion, acidophilus has antifungal actions, helps reduce blood cholesterol levels, and enhances the absorption of nutrients. Because acidophilus can die at high temperatures, it must be refrigerated. Dr. Prokupek advises taking acidophilus and/or bifidobacteria on an empty stomach in the morning and one hour before each meal. If you are taking antibiotics, never take the antibiotics and acidophilus simultaneously.
It’s worth noting that acidophilus and bifidus supplements combined with FOS, an abbreviation for fructooligosaccharide, are especially effective in feeding the many beneficial bacteria in the g.i. tract. What’s more, taking these supplements can increase calcium absorption from food.
FOS is a naturally occurring carbohydrate that plays a supporting role in many of the body’s critical functions. It is found in fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, onions and bananas. FOS is such an advantageous substance because rather than being digested by stomach acids and enzymes, it goes directly to the lower intestine to feed the good bacteria, which grow rapidly in response. When good bacteria multiply, this reduces intestinal pH levels and makes the environment uninhabitable for bad bacteria, such as candida. In short, the bad bacteria die off and health improves in various ways: digestion and elimination are more efficient, regularity is improved, and immunity to fungal and other infections is increased.
Another way to ensure optimum digestion is by taking digestive enzyme supplements. According to Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., a board-certified internist and cardiologist and author of the recently published “Optimum Health,” (Bantam Books, 1997), “Laboratory tests have shown that various enzymes can convert large, undigestible sugars into smaller sugars, resulting in better absorption and digestion.” Specifically, the oligosaccharides, or complex sugars, found in beans or cruciferous vegetables, are sometimes resistant to breaking down. When these complex sugars pass into the large intestine, they are worked over by the normal, but bad bacteria, E. coli, and variously converted into the gases carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and methane. This often leads to cramping, discomfort, and flatulence and explains why many people have trouble digesting beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and other vegetables. Enzyme formulae containing a complex of ingredients such as betaine HCI, bromelain (an enzyme found in pineapples), papain (from papaya) and pesin pancreatin are recommended for successful break down of food and optimum nutrient absorption.
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