Digestive woes such as gas, bloating, constipation, and heartburn are so common that if you don’t experience them on a regular basis, you’re in the minority. An estimated 61 to 72% of all Americans report experiencing digestive upset in the last week. Most of them not only didn’t seek medical treatment, they didn’t do anything about it at all. If you’ve been living with the belief that your meals causing you to suffer is unavoidable, here’s some news: it’s completely avoidable, and it’s not even difficult to fix.
There are many serious digestive diseases that can plague us, including Crohn’s, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and GERD. If you experience notable digestive discomfort, or even moderate discomfort that persists for more than a day, you may have more than indigestion, and you should head to a practitioner before your condition worsens. However, if your symptoms are mild and directly related to the food you eat, there’s a much simpler answer. Digestive aids are a category of supplement that contain ingredients to help you break down your food better, thus eliminating annoying occurrences like gas and bloating while also helping your body utilize more of the nutrients in the food you eat.
There are two basic categories of digestive aids. First, there are digestive enzymes, which give your body a boost of what your stomach acids already provide. Next, there are food based digestion enhancers. Those are ingredients or ingredient combinations that facilitate digestion, but aren’t made of anything your body should already be producing on its own. Both types are useful, and are sometimes sold together in pill or liquid complexes. Digestive aids should only be used when you actually need them. If you take supplements to improve your digestion and you don’t need them, you could end up with digestive upset.
Here’s everything you should look for in a digestive aid. Note that these are all of the common ingredient options, and no single pill or liquid will contain them all.
The food we eat can be divided into three categories of macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates.Our digestive systems have several different enzymes that work to digest each of these macronutrients. The below digestive enzymes are produced to mimic our bodies’ naturally occurring enzymes.
This is the enzyme that breaks down protein. Your body produces it naturally. Protease also works to combat yeast and bacteria, keeping them out of your intestines. If you notice digestive discomfort after you eat protein, you may not be producing a sufficient amount of protease.
Lipase breaks down fat. It’s made by the pancreas, an organ located near our stomach. If you experience digestion issues when you eat fatty foods, it could be because your body isn’t making enough lipase to digest those foods.
Last on the macro list is the enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates, turning them from complex starches into simple sugars so your body can use them. Amylase is in your saliva, meaning that carbohydrates begin the digestion process while you’re chewing. If bread, rice, potatoes, or other starches cause you trouble, you may be lacking in amylase.
Pancreatic enzymes are made from the above three enzymes: protease, lipase, and amylase. While there are plant based forms of pancreatin available, it’s typically made from the pancreas of cows or pigs. Pancreatin is used to treat both heartburn and gas/bloating.
There are numerous additional enzymes needed for specific foods we eat. For a few examples, lactase is the enzyme that helps us digest dairy, cellulase breaks down fiber, maltase converts maltose to glucose, and sucrase transforms sucrose to glucose. These are usually available for specific purposes, such as lactase pills to assist with digesting dairy, and are only sometimes included in pill blends.
Food Based Digestive Ingredients
The following ingredients are not found already in our digestive systems. Rather, they are individual foods that have properties to enhance digestion. All of them could be eaten alone, as their origin food. In digestive aids, these ingredients are concentrated, so that you get the benefits of eating very large quantities of the food.
Naturally occurring in the stem, fruit, and juice of pineapple, bromelain both aids the digestion and has anti-inflammatory properties. It should be avoided if you take blood thinners, as it can thin blood.
Fun fact: papain, which comes from papaya fruit, helps break down protein so well that it’s an ingredient in meat tenderizer. Like bromelain, it also has anti-inflammatory properties.
The golden goddess of spices, which has no shortage of medicinal uses, functions as a digestive aid that can treat heartburn. One of its active components, curcumin, has been studied for its ability to reduce gastric cancers.
With the power to alleviate nausea, improve digestion, and lower blood sugar, this rhizome is a powerhouse. Ginger has been used for millennia in Eastern medicine.
It’s the seeds of this licorice-tasting plant that have the strongest impact on digestion. They can treat bloating and cramps, and are often served in bowls at restaurants to chew on as you leave.
The extract of artichoke contains a vital compound known as cynarin. You may be familiar with that word from the digestif liqueur made from it, called Cynar. Artichoke extract speeds up gut movement, while also helping with the digestion of fats.
Neither a food based ingredient nor an enzyme, betaine hydrochloride is meant to mimic the acid your stomach makes. It should only be used in situations where other, milder digestive aids haven’t brought the relief needed. It may cause heartburn or other upset if used in situations where your body produces enough stomach acid on its own.
There is no shortage of ingredients contained in digestive aids. Now that you understand the differences between digestive enzymes and food based digestifs, how can you go about choosing which complex is right for you? Here are some ideas to guide you in the right direction.
Mild: If you’re experiencing occasional digestive upset but it isn’t frequent, or if it only occurs after a particularly large meal, it’s best to start with a digestive aid that contains few ingredients and at a low dosage. One example of a light aid is Zenwise ReplEnzymes, which contain an enzyme blend as well as bromelain and papain. This category of pills will usually have words like “daily” in the name, such as Source Naturals Daily Essential Enzymes, implying that they are gentle enough for regular usage.
Strong: For some people, gas, bloating, or heartburn are regular occurrences but aren’t severe enough to warrant medical treatment. If you notice indigestion after many of your meals, it can be helpful to take a stronger digestive aid to get your system back on track. Often, people notice that they only need these for short periods of time. Stronger digestive blends include the Digestive Enzyme Complex by The Confidence Co and Life Extension Enhanced Super Digestive Enzymes.
Liquid: One drop or dash at a time can be an effective way of ensuring you get exactly the dose of assistance you need. Digestive bitters have been used for hundreds of years and are made of an assortment of ingredients, some of which (like fennel and ginger) have been listed here, along with roots, peels, and lesser known herbs.
The most simple and common liquid digestif is Angostura Aromatic Bitters, which are a staple bar ingredient. Bitter liquid blends are also available as tinctures, such as Ami Wellness’ Daily Digestion Relief and Daily Digestion Rescue. If selecting tinctures or bitters for digestion, opt for health-focused choices, not cocktail ones. That can easily be discerned by the labeling; chocolate bitters are for beverages, “calm tummy” bitters are for meal time help.
With all this information to digest, you have everything you need to be on a path to better meals, with full comfort after them.