6 Ways to Optimize Upper Digestion for Health and Performance
Are you fatigued, with poor stamina, delayed exercise recovery, reflux/heartburn, gas and bloating, stress fractures, acne, and unexplained nutritional deficiencies? Do you take acid-reducing medications? If you struggle with any of the above, then you would benefit from starting at the top and working on your upper digestion. While the spotlight is often on lower digestion in the large intestine, your upper digestion is absolutely essential to health and needs to be addressed before thinking about anything further down in the system!
As active individuals, we need lots of good quality fuel for our bodies to run on. We often have high expectations for performance which depends on, among other things, the nutrition that we consume and our body’s ability to utilize it for fuel. Imagine that your gas light is on in your car and when you get to the gas station there is only crude oil available. As you know, that will not work because your car cannot run on unrefined oil. Similarly, your body cannot run on food that has not been properly broken down in your digestive system. You can give your body all of the right healthy and organic foods, but if your body is not able to effectively process them, you will not get the benefits. This essential function starts in the often-overlooked upper digestive system. The mouth, stomach, liver, pancreas, and duodenum do a lot of heavy lifting! So what can you do to support this process?
1. Chew your food! Digestion starts in the mouth with enzymes in saliva that start to break down starches, some fats, and the food matrix in general. If you do not chew your food well, you lose this important step and will not sufficiently break down, and therefore utilize, your food. Additionally, the act of chewing triggers the release of the good digestive juices in the stomach which we will talk about more.
2. Avoid acid-reducing medications. This is a really important point! The stomach is filled with hydrochloric acid which does a myriad of jobs including sterilization of our food to protect us from pathogens and triggering the release of pancreatic enzymes and bile. Most notably, hydrochloric acid, when combined with pepsin, is able to do the very important job of breaking down protein into amino acids. Pepsin is also produced in the stomach, but only when there is enough hydrochloric acid. Are you seeing the theme here? An acidic stomach is essential!
Most of us know that amino acids are necessary for building the body up so that we can perform work. Well, without adequate hydrochloric acid and pepsin from healthy stomach cells, the protein that we take in will be pretty much useless. Poor protein breakdown can lead to a host of issues including fatigue, delayed recovery, low muscle mass, injury, lower digestive symptoms (gas and bloating), hair loss, and gout to name a few.
From a symptom standpoint, you are not doing yourself any favors by neutralizing or blocking acid production. In fact, you may be causing your heartburn to worsen! This is because the sphincter that allows stomach acid to reflux upward, causing your symptoms, needs a very acidic stomach pH to stay tightly closed. Furthermore, what do you think happens in the stomach cells when there is not enough hydrochloric acid? They send out the signal to make more! As you can imagine, this becomes a vicious cycle and individuals therefore remain on acid blocking/reducing medications long term, leading to nutrient deficiencies and poor overall digestion, not to mention difficulty ever getting off of them.
3. Don’t drink lots of cold fluids with your meals. We just got done talking about the importance of hydrochloric acid and an acidic stomach pH not only for protein breakdown, but for the support of lower digestive processes as well. If you drink a lot of fluids with meals then you are diluting the acid and raising the pH. This should be avoided. What happens if your food is only partially digested? Issues down the line! Food that sits in the digestive tract causes bacterial overgrowth which leads to gas, bloating, and acne, among other symptoms. This extra gas can exert upward pressure and lead to, ironically, heartburn. As you can see, reflux and heartburn are usually caused by LOW stomach acid at the root of the issue!
4. Eat a nutrient -rich diet. Nutrient deficiencies represent another vicious cycle. Lack of sufficient stomach acid causes deficiencies and deficiencies reduce the body’s ability to produce stomach acid. Let’s take a closer look at this.
First of all, the nutrients needed to make stomach acid include zinc, B vitamins, and magnesium among others. Ironically, your stomach cells are responsible for making intrinsic factor which allows you to absorb vitamin B12. Of course, this process only works in an acidic environment. A deficiency of this nutrient will make running and other endurance sports extremely difficult as it causes anemia (think fatigue), issues with nerve cells, and cellular DNA production (energy). It will also predispose you to conditions such as dementia, strokes, and heart attacks (eek!). This is another case in which it does not matter how much vitamin B12-rich food that you eat (or supplement) if your stomach cells are not making intrinsic factor. Other deficiencies caused by insufficient stomach acid are those of calcium, magnesium, and iron. As you can imagine, this can predispose you to stress fractures, an athlete’s nightmare.
5. Reduce stress. High levels of stress are known to lead to decreased stomach acid and therefore lax sphincter tone. This sets the stage for poor digestion and troublesome symptoms such as heartburn, gas, and bloating. It is very likely that your high stress life has caused some issues with your adrenal glands that has spilled over into your digestion, hormones, and more. Take an honest look at your life and see what you can do to reduce stress levels, get enough sleep, and utilize the stress-relieving outlets that work for you. I can also help you to reset your innate stress handling systems through the use of herbal supplements and nutrients. That leads us to the final and most important point:
6. Find the root cause of the problem instead of masking symptoms! You will not experience true wellness if you only treat the symptoms. Eventually the leaky tire will not hold up to another patch. Similarly, your body has incredibly complex systems that need to be working synergistically in order to function well. If you put a band-aid over the symptoms of fatigue, heartburn, or nutrient deficiencies, but do not address the cause, the problem will always be there. This is where functional/integrative (root cause) medicine shines! There are numerous herbs that support upper digestion in order to essentially reboot the processes that your body is slacking in. These can promote the right stomach pH, increase nutrient absorption, and provide the building blocks for optimal digestion.
If you are a long-time acid-reducing medication user, do not despair! First of all, you are not alone as millions of Americans are in the same boat. Secondly, by treating the root cause of the issue, I can help you to gradually (this is the key word, do not suddenly stop your long-term acid-reducing medications!) make a change here. If you are interested in finding and treating the root cause of your health issues, please send me an email or give me a call! You can also schedule a free 15-minute telephone consultation here. I would love to help you in your journey to experience wellness and discover your Peak Potential in both your running and your life.