by Andrew Lipton
One of the most common presentations in patients is poor digestion, often in those who have been worked up by many physicians, only to be told that nothing was wrong, or given the diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome or spastic colon. The first step to curing the ailment is finding where the problem is located. Indigestion is a broad term that can imply anything from irritation of mouth, belching or burping, heartburn, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation. From a natural point of view, indigestion can be summarized to be caused by three major factors: the inability to digest certain foods, food allergies and food sensitivity.
We are born with the ability to digest many things by our body’s production of enzymes, but sometimes as we age, the enzyme production decreases—or, genetically, we never had the ability at all. Milk is a classic example that most children can digest, however many lose that ability as a teenager, and countless people experience gas and bloating when consuming dairy products. Adding the enzyme lactase, found in Lactaid milk and other products, will virtually eliminate symptoms in most patients.
Every type of food has a type of enzyme that will aid its digestion. Enzymes are commonly found in live food, such as bromelain and papain, the digestive enzymes found naturally in pineapple and papaya, respectively. Very few people complain of digestive issues with fruits and vegetables, as Mother Nature generally puts the correct enzymes into her produce. However, once a food is cooked, most of the enzymes are destroyed.
Some foods cannot be digested by humans, so we use friendly, good bacteria, often called probiotics, to help us digest contents of our food that we cannot digest on our own. Probiotic supplements are readily available, but probiotics are also commonly found in our diet. Any food naturally fermented will likely have a large dose of beneficial bacteria, including yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh, to name a few.
Food allergies are possible with any food, including fruits and vegetables. Allergy to a food can cause an immediate reaction to lips, tongue and throat, and can sometimes be life threatening, as in peanut allergies in children. Allergy to food can also cause digestive inflammation in the stomach, intestines, and colon—all of which would delay the onset of symptoms to minutes, hours or days, depending on speed of digestion. These lower digestive reactions create a diagnostic dilemma for patients, as food consumed 1-3 days ago may be causing symptoms in the colon. Food rotation and elimination diets can be a helpful tool for patients to use on their own to figure out which foods they react to, or food allergy testing can easily be performed through blood testing.
Food sensitivities are the most challenging to diagnose. These foods cause inflammation but do not necessarily cause allergic response or the inability to be digested by enzymes. In fact, many food sensitivities are from foods that have been well digested, and the actual digested products cause the inflammation, sometimes days later. Food sensitivities can also be determined with elimination and rotation diets, or tested with blood tests.
As with any ailment or health challenge, there are emotional and spiritual components that can also be addressed. Digestive issues have many cultural and social manifestations and can change life course due to symptoms or even fear of potential symptoms. Finding and understanding the cause of one’s symptoms is the first step in creating good digestion and wellness.
Andrew Lipton is the owner and primary physician of Narberth Family Medicine, in Narberth. Connect with him at DrAndrewLipton.com. May 2014.