Poor digestion manifests in many ways but the classic signs and symptoms include bloating and spasms in the abdominal area, flatulence, constipation and/or loose stools. Other related symptoms may include bad breath, acid reflux, heartburn and skin imbalances like acne and itching. Symptoms of pain such as headaches & joint pain may also occur. Mood may also be adversely affected by poor digestion.
For the majority of individuals a significant weakening of digestion occurs as we age. This has a knock on affect on the foods that we can comfortably consume without adverse health effects.
A deeper and holistic understanding of this situation can help to restore balance within the digestive system.
Possible Reasons For Poor Digestion
Dehydration is usually one of the main causes of poor digestion. Poor hydration impairs the movement of food within the digestive tract. When there isn't enough water in the system to adequately move digesting food along certain foods like grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruit become abrasive and can inflame the lining of the digestive system. These foods also act like sponges and absorb water which can cause further dehydration. This is why I always recommend consuming hydrating foods when digestion is weak.
Dehydration also significantly reduces the acid producing ability of the stomach. Water is required for proper stomach functioning including acid production. Dehydration results in weak stomach acid being produced. One of the functions of stomach acid is to kill harmful micro-organisms found within the diet. Poor stomach acid will not adequately kill these micro-organisms which means that these harmful micro-organisms will exit the stomach and enter the digestive system where they can cause further damage.
Poor Liver Functioning
When the liver becomes overloaded from dehydration and dietary toxicity it produces bile which is of an incorrect consistency. As bile is reabsorbed it becomes concentrated with toxins and becomes thick in consistency. The levels of cholesterol and calcium in this type of imbalanced bile if left unchecked will form gall stones.
Up to 90% of your bile is reabsorbed back to your liver.
Abnormal bile from the liver is unable to neutralise acidic food exiting the stomach. This means that acid food moving down into the small intestines has the potential to cause inflammation. Enzymes requiring an alkaline pH will be unable to carry out their digestive functions when the digesting food still has an acidic pH. This has the potential to disrupt digestion further resulting in nutrients not being correctly released from digesting foods.
The higher levels of un-neutralised acidity from the stomach irritates and inflames the intestines which in turn starts producing more mucous to protect any inflamed areas. Over time this thickened mucous becomes a breeding ground for harmful micro-organisms. The excess intestinal mucous also coats the intestinal villi which further hinders digestion and absorption resulting in substances like fats, heavy metals and toxins concentrating within the intestines and blood. It is this toxicity which congests the liver and is released into the bile causing it to become thick and concentrated. Over time normal liver functioning becomes impaired. Abnormal liver functioning means that digestion weakens further.
As the acidic food from the stomach irritates the lining of the small intestine a message is fed back to the stomach to turn down acid production resulting in a net weakening of digestion.
Poor Gut Flora
A poor diet, incorrect pH for enzymes within the digestive tract and dehydration promote inflammation and mucous production. Gut friendly bacteria, which support digestion and produce beneficial nutrients decrease due this imbalanced environment. This promotes the growth of unfriendly micro-organisms which further weakens digestion.
A diet high in challenging hard to digest foods like refined fats/oils, sugars, processed foods, additives, preservatives and chemicals will all be difficult to process. Low levels of essential nutrients within the diet compund this situation further, which leads to the body drawing vital nutrients from itself (joints, muscles, bones etc) in order to process these foods.
Consuming antacids, anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic medications only provides symptomatic relief whilst the underlying imbalances are left unresolved.
Naturopathic Ways To Improve Weak Digestion
Viewed from the Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic perspective, the digestive system is like a furnace. Putting "wet wood" in a furnace only dampens the fire and makes it work less efficiently. For people with poor digestion, raw and cold foods act like damp wood. The digestive furnace has to work very hard to burn them which demands a lot of energy. When digestion is weak avoid cold foods and drinks and raw fruits and vegetables. Stick to warm or room temperature foods and cook fibrous foods like fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes until they are soft.
- Improve overall levels of hydration within the body by regularly consuming foods cooked in water like stews, soups and broths. Make sure that any grains, nuts or seeds are always soaked and if possible sprouted before consuming.
- Hydrate by drinking room temperature water 15 minutes before each meal. This helps to prepare the stomach for digestion and helps to correct poor levels of stomach acid. Ensure that adequate levels of water are consumed throughout the day.
- Drink linseed tea which contains lignans and soluble fibre which can help to soothe and hydrate the digestive system. Linseed are high in soluble fibre and lignans. Soluble fibre helps to absorb impurities and assists in cleansing the colon. It also helps to improve bowel movements and improve overall bowel functioning.
- Avoid foods which are hard to digest or have the potential to burden liver functioning. Remember that poor liver functioning results in weak digestion. Avoid processed foods, fats, meat, dairy, gluten, foods with a low water content such as: dried fruits, nuts, seeds and grains.
- Avoid toxic foods which will require the liver to carry out extra detoxification. These foods include: processed foods, processed fats like margarine, hydrogenated oils and refined polyunsaturated oils, artificial sweeteners, additives, preservatives, caffeine, alcohol and so on.
- Help the liver by consuming foods which support detoxification. Include green juices made from dark green leafy vegetables and liver cleansing turmeric, ginger, beet root, coriander and parsley. Be aware that regularly consuming green juices releases toxicity from the liver which filters into the bile. To help the body release toxic bile consider the detoxification techniques of castor oil packs on the liver followed by a coffee enema
- Support the growth of gut friendly bacteria by including naturally fermented foods in the diet like rejuvelac, kefir, pro-biotic yohurt etc
After a period of improving body hydration, diet and detoxification the next step is to rebalance weak stomach acidity. Gradually and gently add spices like black pepper and ginger. When you eat black pepper, your taste buds become stimulated. They send signals to your stomach telling it to increase its production of hydrochloric acid. Ginger improves muscle movement within the digestive system helping to relieve spasms and ensuring digesting food is moves along.
It can be very tricky to correct digestion when it becomes imbalanced in this way. It is easier to focus on symptomatic relief whereas a more holistic approach of will promote a deeper level of healing and move towards balance.
When considering any changes to your diet or thinking about detoxification consult a qualified practitioner for further advice.