Today’s guest post comes from my dear friend, Dr. Jillian Teta. Dr. Jillian is a brilliant naturopathic physician who specializes in all things gut-related. Her first book, Natural Solutions for Digestive Health, hit the shelves on May 6, 2014 and sold 4,927 copies in THREE days. In five days, it had almost completely sold out of its first printing. HINT: get your copy on Amazon by clicking the link above before those are gone too :-). Dr. Jillian’s Fix Your Digestion Facebook page contains a wealth of information and has nearly 8000 followers. Bottom line – she knows her stuff, but explains gut health in such a way that everyone can (and needs to) understand. I personally love how she conquers subject matter that no one really wants to talk about (constipation, anyone?), adds a bit of humor and then offers real, natural solutions.
How Aging Affects Your Ability to Digest, Part One
By: Dr. Jillian Sarno Teta
It’s no secret that as we get older, gastrointestinal problems like gas, bloating, IBS, constipation and reflux become ever more common. Typically we are told by our doctors to take the requisite symptoms relievers like antacids, acid-blocking drugs, laxatives and Bean-o. While these may help temporarily reduce symptoms, they do little to explain why these symptoms have popped up in the first place, nor do they address the causes of distress.
The truth is, very often there is a reason why symptoms pop up, and concrete steps that you can take to help yourself feel better in a meaningful and long-term way. Armed with a bit of knowledge about the workings of your system and where common symptoms arise from, you are well equipped to start a most interesting investigation – the investigation into yourself!
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that as we get older, our ability to break down our food efficiently slows down. It’s not always the case, but let’s consider what it takes to digest. Our body uses digestive enzymes, acid and bile to biochemically break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats into teensy-weensy bits of amino acids, starches and fatty acids, respectively. It is these tiny molecules that get absorbed through the lining of the gastrointestinal tract and into our bodies.
Acid, specifically, is very energetically expensive. The pH of our bodies is around 7, yet the pH of a top-performing stomach is much lower than that, at around 2. This acidic environment ensures adequate breakdown of food and prevents infection with pathogens. Yet it requires enormous effort for the body to produce this precious commodity. As we age, cellular energy wanes. This has consequences all over the body, and for the cells in the stomach that make acid, they slow down. They don’t make quite as much. Ditto for production of enzymes found in the stomach and pancreas, and it’s a similar story for bile production. Often, we just don’t have enough of these digestive factors to break down our food thoroughly.
What happens when large, partially unbroken food particles are on the scene? For one thing, they cause gas and bloating and indigestion. The small intestine likes everything broken into tiny particles – it’s how things are absorbed. Big particles spell big trouble. Another consequence, particularly if this goes on for months, is that the immune system will start to pay attention and react. The immune system will begin to treat these unbroken particles as invaders rather than friends. An inflammatory response from the immune system can lead to increased intestinal permeability (aka: leaky gut) and trigger sensitivities to foods that you never had before. The inflammatory molecules can also negatively impact the colony of beneficial bacteria that live in your large intestine, which in turn can alter gut motility (how frequently you “go”).
Another major consequence of reduced digestive capacity is the appearance of acid reflux, heartburn and GERD. Contrary to popular belief, heartburn is not a case of too much acid – particularly in the older crowd, and you now know why – but of acid in the wrong place. Between the bottom of the esophagus and the stomach is a trap door known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is always supposed to be closed, except for when you swallow something. This prevents acid and other stomach contents from regurgitating back up into the esophagus. The ability of the LES to stay closed is influenced by many things, including hormones and medication and certain foods. Interestingly, it is greatly impacted by stomach acid. When you have enough stomach acid, the LES stays tightly closed. As we age and stomach acid production goes down and there isn’t as much on board, the LES can creep open, and the stomach acid that is present can wash into the esophagus and create symptoms. Low stomach acid is called hypochlorhydria and is a major contributing factor to reflux and heartburn in adults. Sadly, at this juncture, acid-blocking drugs are given, which worsen the underlying problem and create new ones, as they blunt the absorption of nutrients such as vitamin B12, folate, calcium and iron; and increase risk for infectious disease and bone fracture.
At this juncture, a good question to ask is – “well, what does one do about this?”
First things first: always chew your food well. Mechanically breaking down what you eat via chewing will put less biochemical pressure on your system lower down in the stomach and intestines. Chew your food until it is very soft and pasty. Second, consider taking a digestive enzyme with meals. This will assist your body in breaking down breakfast, lunch and dinner and will supplement the body’s own production of enzymes. You can also consider supplementing stomach acid in the form of Betaine HCl, but NOT if you have an ulcer and/or gastritis. Betaine HCl would be taken with enzymes, with meals. Some products contain acid and enzymes both. Supplementing with acid also helps kick-start your stomach to make it’s own acid, which is a very good thing indeed.
There is almost always a cause for digestive distress, but it doesn’t have to be cause for suffering! Understanding what is going on in your unique body is the first step towards uncovering the reasons for gastrointestinal disturbance and kicking symptoms to the curb. In my next post, we will cover changes that occur to the so-called “second brain” – the enteric nervous system – as we get older, and what that means for digestive health.
Jillian Sarno Teta ND is a medically trained naturopathic doctor and the author of the brand new book, “Natural Solutions for Digestive Health”. Jillian is the creator of the Fix Your Digestion gut restoration program, which is an online, do-it-yourself program to reduce digestive distress. A widely recognized expert in the field of gastrointestinal health, Jillian blogs for The Huffington Post and her work has been featured in the Gluten Intolerance Group National Letter, Pain Pathways, Dr. Oz Online and more. She loves social media and you can find her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/fixyourdigestion and Instagram and Twitter at @jillianteta. You can find links to her book, blog, store and more via http://www.gutrestoration.com