Much of our health and wellbeing relies on the ability of the gut to digest what we eat and absorb all of its goodness.
Many people suffer with digestive issues such as bloating and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), food intolerances or discomfort after eating. Your body needs a constant source of fuel in the form of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals, and understanding how the gut works, testing its efficiency and then righting any imbalances can often be the key to feeling well and energized.
Take these tests—most of which you can do at home—to get an instant snapshot of the state of your digestion, and follow these practices to improve every aspect of your gut health.
Your stomach: the food processor
The stomach, which sits in the upper left area of your tummy, is your food processor. It can hold around 1.5 quarts of food and drink, and it takes about seven seconds for that food to get from your mouth to your stomach and about four hours for a moderate meal to be processed.
Your stomach does this by secreting hydrochloric acid (HCL) and peptic enzymes to digest proteins, break up fiber and soften any connective tissue in foods, killing off any bugs or parasites in the process, before delivering it to the
Many stomach issues, such as heartburn and indigestion, arise from eating too quickly and can be resolved by simply slowing down at mealtimes and taking care to chew each morsel 20 times before swallowing, allowing your saliva to start breaking down the food long before it hits your stomach.
If, however, you're still having the same issues after eating, then it might be time to test your HCL levels. Once you have the answer, then it's always a good idea to consult your doctor for further advice and to rule out more serious issues.
We each have around 3,000 different varieties of enzymes in our body, which are involved in vast numbers of metabolic processes and functions, including helping you to digest food, repair and renew, as well as keep your immune system strong. As we age, our levels of digestive enzymes decrease, so a 70-year-old has half the amount of a 20-year-old.
Enzymes are found naturally in raw or fermented foods, but they're destroyed by cooking. Much of what we eat is cooked or processed, so the majority of our food nowadays is almost entirely lacking in enzymes.
Low enzyme levels make you age faster and put on weight, and they're also linked to chronic diseases, such as obesity, heart disease and certain forms of cancer.
Here are the enzyme aids that help digestion:
Natural enzymes. Found in raw organic foods, especially fruits and vegetables, but also unpasteurized milk, egg yolks, sauerkraut and kimchi. Natural enzymes are good for the immune system, joints and arteries.
Digestive enzymes. Found mainly in your gut, digestive enzymes help minimize indigestion, acid reflux, bloating and gas.1 There are three main classes of digestive enzymes in the body:
• Amylases, which break down carbohydrates
• Lipases, which break down fats
• Proteases, which break down proteins.
All three types of digestive enzymes are produced in the pancreas and found naturally in raw fruits and vegetables, sprouted seeds, raw nuts, whole grains and legumes. Most supplements will contain these three plus a combination of additional supporting enzymes. (See WDDTY May 2017 for more details).
The lemon juice test
Acid reflux and heartburn are more often a result of too little stomach acid (HCL) than too much.2
If this is something you suffer from, the next time you have stomach pain, try swallowing a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice.
If the pain goes away, you may have too little stomach acid.
If the pain worsens, then you may have too much stomach acid and possibly an ulcer, so be sure to consult your doctor.
If, and only if, your symptoms go away with the lemon juice test, follow up with the betaine HCL test, below.
Betaine HCL is a supplement you can buy in health food stores. If you are already taking any medications, check with your doctor that they are compatible with betaine HCL.
Betaine HCL test
Take 1 capsule of betaine HCL before the last mouthful of your main meal (one that contains protein and fat, not mostly carbohydrate, such as salad, soup or fruit).
Any burning sensation or indigestion means you have plenty of HCL already or, again, that you may have a stomach ulcer and should consult your doctor. One way or another, if it burns, stop the test at this point.
If you don't have any burning sensation, take two capsules of betaine HCL the next day, followed by three capsules the following day. If you still have no burning sensation, then you need more HCL and should keep adding a capsule to each meal until you get heartburn or some sign of irritation.
When you reach this point, take one capsule less at your next meal.
If you are going to have a meal made up of mainly carbohydrate (no dairy or animal protein), then take half the dose.
Any time you experience any irritation, reduce your dose by one capsule each meal until it no longer occurs. Your body will then have rebalanced its stomach acid levels.
Action plan for a healthy stomach
• Chew each mouthful of food at least 20 times before swallowing. Chewing produces saliva (which contains amylase) and starts the digestive process efficiently, enabling the food to be broken down thoroughly. Swallowing large lumps of food too quickly causes problems for the gut, as undigested food ferments, creating toxins and gases that irritate the stomach lining; it also prevents absorption of nutrients and creates digestive problems.
• Take digestive enzymes, including HCL, with each meal if you need them and supplement with B6 (50 mg) and zinc (30 mg). Digestive enzymes help with production of HCL and digestion, vitamin B6 boosts stomach acid and zinc helps intolerance symptoms.
• For ulcers: Take deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL)3 in a chewable form, not as a capsule, because saliva makes it work more effectively.
Your small intestine: food blender and assimilator
The small intestine, as wide as your thumb and approximately 18 feet long, is made up of three separate sections: the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum. Your small intestine digests more of your food than the stomach; this is where the food that has already been broken down in your stomach is processed further, mixing with bile from the liver and juices from the pancreas.
Around 95 percent of the food you put in your mouth is digested here, with useful nutrients separated out from unusable waste products. Food stays in the small intestine for 1-4 hours before moving on to the large intestine for further processing.
Some 70-90 percent of intestinal parasites live here too.
Maintaining a healthy small intestine is all about controlling your bacteria levels, and mucus build-up on the intestinal walls can cause havoc and deplete your energy. If you have bloating, gas, and loose bowel movements, and regularly fall asleep soon after eating, you may well have a small intestine issue such as Candida, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). Bad breath is often a sign that you may have a problem.
Candida is one of the most common, and trickiest, funguses to eliminate in the body, but it rarely takes hold unless it is working hand-in-hand with an overgrowth of bacteria.4 Candida spreads rapidly and develops root-like tendrils that can penetrate tissues and glands. It feeds on sugar, and as sugar consumption has increased in recent decades, so has the growth of Candida.
The destruction of 'friendly' bacteria in the gut following repeated courses of antibiotics, the contraceptive pill, chlorinated tap water and a sugary diet all help 'bad' bacteria' to flourish and Candida to multiply exponentially, so if you
have Candida, you have a bacterial problem too.
Unchecked, Candida can result in obvious symptoms such as athlete's foot, vaginal yeast infection or ringworm, but there are other less obvious symptoms too, including exhaustion and gut and urinary tract infections.
Read probiotic labels with care. Some trials have shown that probiotics positively affect a wide range of health issues, such as anxiety and depression,5 Candida, allergies, IBS and Crohn's.
Other studies state that 99 percent of the microbes that live in your gut are unable to consume oxygen, but that all the fermented foods and the bottles of probiotics we buy in stores only contain bacteria that need oxygen to survive, meaning that probiotics are incompatible with the majority of your gut guests, and can positively affect only around 1 percent of your microbes.6
SIBO bacteria test
Gut bacteria excrete high levels of hydrogen and methane, which are then exhaled by your lungs and can therefore be measured. Available online (www.biohealthlab.com/patients), a simple breath test can tell you whether you have an overgrowth of bacteria.
This simple test is an effective way to check for Candida.
1) Put out a fresh glass of water before going to bed.
2) First thing in the morning, briefly rinse your mouth, swallow, then gather some saliva and spit into the glass of water (be sure to spit out saliva, not mucus).
3) Keep an eye on the water for 30 minutes, paying particular attention in the first few minutes.
4) If you have Candida overgrowth, you will notice:
• Strings (legs) hanging down from the saliva
• Cloudy specks suspended in the water
• Heavy-looking saliva at the bottom of the glass.
Leaky gut is a condition in which wear and tear on the lining of the intestine (as a consequence of repeated bouts of Candida, parasites, overuse of antibiotics, gluten intolerance or the overgrowth of certain bacteria) make it overly permeable.
Incompletely digested foods can then penetrate the gut wall, and these foods, which wouldn't normally cause a problem, trigger an allergic reaction. Toxins that would otherwise be contained in the bowel leak into the bloodstream and the lymphatic system causing inflammation and exhaustion.
A combination of leaky gut, 'bad' bacteria build-up and low stomach acid may be behind many symptoms of IBS.
Leaky gut test
A doctor or naturopath can arrange for you to have a urine test to measure the ability of two sugar molecules, mannitol and lactulose, to pass through the lining of your small intestine. This will give you a clear picture of the permeability of your gut. If lactulose, which is the larger molecule, ends up in your urine, your gut is officially leaky.
True Health Labs offers this test: visit www.truehealthlabs.com.
Reduce your allergy load
Over 20 percent of us are affected by mild food reactions or intolerances,7 and milk, wheat or gluten, sugar, seafood, alcohol, coffee, nuts, soy and eggs often play a part in triggering gut problems.
Food allergy test
Reactions to foods will usually show up as a change in your pulse rate, and you'll be recording your bpm (beats per minute) in this test.
1) First thing in the morning, before you eat or drink, take your pulse, holding and counting for a full minute. Make sure you are relaxed when you take it. Write down your bpm.
2) Chew the food that you want to test for at least 30 seconds, but don't swallow it.
3) With the food still in your mouth, take your pulse again for a further minute, and record your bpm.
4) Spit out the food and rinse your mouth with water.
5) A rise of 6 bpm or more indicates a stress reaction in your body, so avoid that food for at least a month before doing the test again.
6) After a month, gradually reintroduce small amounts of the food to see if you're able to tolerate it in lesser quantities. Don't test a second food until your pulse has returned to its early morning baseline.
7) If you see a reaction with your home test, consider food allergy testing with a qualified nutritionist.
Top tip: If you are testing eggs, make sure that you test your reaction to the yolk and white separately, as the whites more often trigger a reaction than the yolk.
Most parasites are caught from undercooked meats, unwashed vegetables and fruits, and contaminated water and foods. Some indicators of a parasite problem include:
• Constipation, diarrhea, gas, a bloated stomach or other symptoms of IBS
• Your digestion not being the same since a bout of food poisoning
• Trouble falling asleep or waking frequently during the night
• Eczema, skin irritations or unexplained skin rashes
• Continually biting your nails to the quick
• Grinding your teeth in your sleep
• Pain or aching in your muscles or joints
• Often tired, exhausted, depressed or generally apathetic
• Not feeling satisfied or full after eating
• Iron-deficiency anemia
Checking for parasites
A live blood analysis test or stool test via a naturopath, nutritionist or doctor will reveal whether you have parasites in your system.
Action plan for a healthy small intestine
Cut out inflammatory drugs. Wherever possible, avoid alcohol, aspirin, acetaminophen and any other non-prescription medications, as these can cause inflammation and damage the gut.
Go gluten-free. Cut out gluten entirely for a week and keep a food diary to check if your symptoms improve. Wheat, rye, barley and other grains contain gluten and gliadins, which are hard to digest and can allow undigested foods and toxins to slip through the intestinal wall, causing inflammation and a raised immune response.
Add L-glutamine and butyric acid (1,200 mg daily). Both can help heal the gut, but dosage is important, so check with a nutritionist to ensure that supplements are tailored to you.
Take probiotics daily. Check the packaging of any probiotics and make sure you're buying the right strains for your specific problem, and check that these strains will survive the journey through your stomach acid. Look for a count of 50 billion or more in each dose and as many different strains as possible—although a few strategically targeted strains can also work well.
Take prebiotics. Keep the probiotics fed with prebiotics daily (eat prebiotic foods like sauerkraut or kimchi, or buy them in small sachets), and their numbers will multiply along with your good bacteria.8
Visit an herbalist. The herb mullein dissolves mucus efficiently, as does Greek mastic gum, but you'll need to visit an herbalist for correct dosing.
Take comfrey. This heals the gut membrane, improving digestion. Make a tea from half an ounce of fresh chopped comfrey leaves steeped in boiling water and then strained. Add a little fresh ginger, cinnamon or mint for optimal efficacy.
Drink slippery elm tea. This calms inflammation of the small intestine and helps relieve IBS.
Drink plenty of water. Water keeps your gut lubricated and smooth.
Boost vitamins A and D. Eat liver, an excellent source of these vitamins, to protect the mucus membrane of the gut.
Eat more antibacterial foods. Garlic, honey and sauerkraut prevent the growth of Candida, fungus and yeast infections, which can improve gut health.9 Allicin, a compound in garlic, is a powerful antibacterial and an effective remedy for Candida and other fungal infections. Garlic is best eaten raw on an empty stomach.
Make sure honey is raw and organic. It contains live enzymes that release hydrogen peroxide, which kills germs and viruses.
Take oregano oil (preferably the pure Oregano vulgaris from the mountains of Turkey and Lebanon), which has been shown to stop Candida in its tracks. Take 3-4 drops in water twice daily.10
Take aloe vera, turmeric and apple cider vinegar—all effective antimicrobials.
Sip ginger tea, made with a few slices of the fresh root steeped in hot water, an effective remedy for viruses and bacteria.
Get hold of grapefruit seed extract to wipe out Candida. Take 3-6 drops in water after each meal.
Wash your hands frequently, particularly after using the bathroom, and always after petting animals or gardening.
Avoid sushi and pork products. If you're trying to get rid of parasites, cut down on raw fish as it often contains infected larvae if not prepared properly. Undercooked pork has also been flagged as a source of parasites since biblical times, and even freezing doesn't destroy the worms.
Take ayurvedic herbs. Mimosa pudica powder is effective for wiping out parasites if taken for three months. Take half a teaspoon twice a day, twice a week initially, and slowly increase the dosage to one teaspoon a day.
Eat more antiparasitics, like garlic, thyme, chili, turmeric and ginger. Coconut oil is also antifungal.
Large intestine: food compactor and eliminator
The large intestine, about 5 ft long, is a U-shaped, rope-like tube, runs from the bottom right side of your torso to your rectum, where the food—which probably hit your mouth 24 hours earlier—finally leaves your body.
The large intestine's job is to wring all the remaining water and nutrients out of any food that comes its way and turn what's left into compact feces or stools. In your lifetime, it will process approximately 50 tons of food.
When you're a baby, the majority of your bacteria are Bifidobacterium, which coat the gut to prevent the attachment of any pathogens. As adults, most of our gut inhabitants are bacteria (rather than fungi, yeast or viruses), and a balance of Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes usually make up the majority of these bacteria and regulate how much fat you absorb and where you store it.
Gut diversity is reduced after the age of 65, probably because the immune system weakens, but also because of changes in eating habits, overuse of medical prescriptions, and digestive tract issues, including constipation.
When things start going wrong, inflammation is usually the result, and this can lead to a range of symptoms, including stomach pain, cramps, bloating, flatulence and frequent diarrhea or constipation. This could point to any one of many colon-linked diseases, from IBS to Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis or colorectal cancer. It is vital that any changes in your bowel movements or stools are reported to your doctor.
Action plan for a healthy large intestine
Eat less red meat and avoid any cured or smoked meats. These foods are known to increase risk of colorectal cancer.11 Eat more fruit and vegetables for plant antioxidants and fiber.
Up your selenium levels. High levels of selenium are linked to low colon cancer risk,11 so increase your intake of brazil nuts, salmon, onions, oats and brown rice. Olive, flaxseed and avocado oils are also beneficial, as is L-glutamine and raw pumpkin seeds.
Give yourself regular enemas with one teaspoon of coconut oil and 2 quarts of distilled water, or book yourself for a colonic. Colonics flush out any build-up of mucus, plaque and toxins, and provide an instant cleanse for your large intestine.
Take a natural, herbal colon cleansing supplement to help break down the mucus on the colon wall, remove toxins and clear out old waste. Ask a nutritionist or naturopathic doctor for their recommendations.
Minimize stress levels. Stress upsets your digestion and reduces your Bacteroidetes levels.
Eat more vegetables. Bacteroidetes love fruits, beans and pulses, and fiber, so eat lots of them, whereas Firmicutes thrive on fat and sugar, so eat less sugar.
Eat widely. Diversity of food equals diversity of gut bacteria.
Map your gut. Map My Gut is a company (www.mapmygut.com)that will analyze the microbe content of your feces for a small fee.
Drink more water, eat more fiber. Increasing the amount of water you drink and upping your fiber intake (with foods like well-cooked brown rice, oatmeal, prunes, kiwi fruit or flaxseeds) should produce at least one bowel movement a day and will avoid undigested waste sitting around in your gut.9
Get moving. A sedentary lifestyle can slow down your bowels. If long-term constipation is a problem, invest in a clysmatic colonic hydrotherapy machine, a simple way to retrain your bowels to evacuate efficiently.
Take slippery elm capsules, a natural way to ease constipation.
Becoming more aware of your bowel movements will provide you with an at-a-glance indicator of your lifestyle and the state of your gut health.
Bowel health checklist:
• There should be no discomfort or straining, and no smell of gas.
• Stools should come out easily, smoothly and all in one piece.
• Stools should be 4-6 inches long, medium brown in color, and shouldn't be smelly, stick to the toilet bowl or float.
•If your stool floats, this could be due to too much fat or gas in your diet - usually from excess sugar, sodas or beans. It can also be a sign of poor absorption, lactose intolerance or celiac disease—particularly if your stools look greasy and smell bad—and that you need to schedule a check-up with your doctor.
•A very smelly stool can also be a sign of undigested food or waste that has been sitting in your bowel for a long time.
• Going to the toilet 2-3 times a day is optimal, but anything from 2-3 times per day to 2-3 times per week is normal. Any changes to your normal pattern should be reported to your doctor.
Adapted from Reboot Your Health by Sara Davenport (Hay House, 2018)