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All 11 major systems of your body must function well for you to experience good health—and of these, your digestive system is significant. It is through this intricate system that nutrients from the foods you eat are transferred into your blood and to every cell throughout your body.
Think of each step in the digestive process as continually breaking down food to be used at the blood and cellular levels. Once vital nutrients are extracted, any remaining waste is eliminated.
As we age, our ability to break down foods and absorb nutrients begins to slow. Most people have come to accept the resulting effects of this: heartburn, bloating, constipation and irritation of the digestive tract. They seek to ease this discomfort with a variety of over-the-counter medications—the “pink stuff” that coats your stomach, fizzy tablets dropped into water, or handfuls of chewable, rainbow-colored antacid tablets. They see these short-term remedies as the only option for relief.
This emerging problem begs the question: Are digestive issues just a natural part of getting old—leaving us to only treat the effects—or is there something that can be done to reverse them?
The sheer size of the market for digestion products reveals that the problem of poor digestive health has reached staggering levels. Consider three of the most well-known digestion issues: heartburn, constipation and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
The industry for products to treat heartburn symptoms is the second largest over-the-counter medicine category in the United States. According to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, $2.6 billion worth of heartburn-related products are sold annually. Only the painkiller industry sells more at over $4 billion annually.
Constipation, which is infrequent or difficulty with waste elimination, has also become a major issue in the U.S. The American College of Gastroenterology reported that at least 15 percent of the population—nearly 50 million people—experiences chronic constipation. Pain, hemorrhoids and vomiting can result from extended periods of non-elimination.
People often confuse GERD with heartburn. Though they are related, GERD is a more severe form of reflux. While heartburn is a frequent symptom, other symptoms of GERD include:
According to the National Institute of Health, GERD affects about 20 percent of Americans.
To help understand and prevent digestive problems, it is good to have basic knowledge of how a normally functioning gastrointestinal tract works.
Think of the digestive tract as a hollow tube running through the middle of your body. It is where the initial steps of digestion begin.
The process starts in the mouth. Food is mixed with saliva and systematically broken down by chewing it into smaller pieces. The semi-liquefied food is then swallowed and brought into the stomach. There it is further broken down by powerful stomach acids and enzymes.
From there, food proceeds to the small intestine where probiotics (or “friendly” bacteria lining the intestines) continue breaking down food so that it is small enough to be carried to every cell in the body.
When functioning properly, the digestive system can handle almost all that passes through it.
Take for instance the digestive health of teenagers. They can eat just about anything, including rich, fatty foods, without facing the immediate consequences of heartburn, constipation and upset stomachs. Their young digestive systems are strong, with enough acids, enzymes and more to wash down several slices of pizza with a quart of soda and yet experience no problems.
Such a meal would be unthinkable as we get older. This is in part because as we age, so do our digestive “pipes.” They eventually lose their “juice”—the powerful stomach acids, healthy probiotic bacteria, and digestive enzymes—that all enhance the body’s ability to break down foods.
When this happens, negative digestive symptoms come into the equation—heartburn, upset stomach, constipation, etc. These are all signs of a malfunction in the body’s process of digestion.
To further see the impact of a failure in the digestive process, consider what occurs in the stomach. Imagine squishing a meal of roasted chicken, vegetables, brown rice, and salad inside a large Ziploc bag and placing it outside on a slab of concrete on a hot sunny day. (This is analogous to food sitting for several hours in the near 100-degree environment of the stomach.)
In as little as 30 minutes, and certainly within hours, the plastic bag of food would start to bloat and swell as gases released by bacteria build up inside the bag. Since there was no liquid inside of the plastic container, the food would take longer to break down and would eventually rot.
This is a picture of what happens in the stomach when it lacks sufficient helpful digestive acids and enzymes to break down food.
What can be added to your routine to help promote normal digestive function as you age? Consider these four options.
First: Drink enough water. Many digestive problems are the result of a lack of water, as the liquid helps dissolve fats and soluble fiber.
A good rule of thumb to ensure you are drinking enough is to divide your body weight (in pounds) by two. The result is the amount of water (in ounces) you should drink each day. Meanwhile, avoid drinking sugary, carbonated drinks, which can dehydrate the body.
In addition to drinking enough, it is important to drink water at appropriate times to aid digestion. Taking a glass of water soon after waking up jumpstarts the digestive system, which helps prevent constipation. Also, drinking a glass of water 30 minutes before a meal stimulates the stomach lining and prepares it for food.
Avoid drinking excessive liquids during or up to two hours after a meal, however, as it dilutes stomach acids, causing them to become less efficient at breaking down foods.
Second: Eat unprocessed foods, including vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and anything that goes through minimal “processing” before it reaches your table.
Medical and nutrition experts are increasingly making the connection between the consumption of processed foods—which contain additives, preservatives and chemical ingredients—and poor health.
Make sure you chew your food thoroughly. Even healthy foods can cause digestive issues if not chewed properly.
Third: Incorporate a daily supplement of digestive enzymes. Our bodies naturally decline in producing enzymes as we age. Taking an enzyme supplement may help.
There are also cases in which you may benefit from taking a specific enzyme such as if you have pancreatic insufficiency, are lactose intolerant, or have a high-fiber diet. Research to find the appropriate, high-quality supplement that fits your needs.
Fourth: Include a daily probiotic supplement. “Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your health, especially your digestive system,” WebMD stated. “We usually think of bacteria as something that causes diseases. But your body is full of bacteria, both good and bad. Probiotics are often called ‘good’ or ‘helpful’ bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy.”
In correct quantities, probiotics can help prevent irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and infectious or antibiotic-related diarrhea.
Maintaining healthy digestive enzyme and probiotic levels is better than masking symptoms of poor digestion with typical over-the-counter remedies. When it comes to enzyme and probiotic supplements, however, do your own research and seek professional advice before deciding what or how much to take.
Forget the notion that uncomfortable digestion-related symptoms are just part of getting older. While the digestive system slows down as we age, taking a few simple steps to improve your digestive health will ensure you do not have to rely on popping pills, sipping fizzy drinks, or chewing up antacid tablets to make it through the day.