If you're like most Americans, you probably regard digestive problems such as heartburn and bloating, as inevitable as death or taxes. But common as they are, subjects like gas and diarrhea don't make the talk shows the way cheating spouses or loss of libido do. Let's face it: Tummy troubles are simply not sexy. And our silence means these potential health hazards often go undiagnosed and untreated.
Many of the approximately 90 million digestive problems experienced by Americans every year can be directly linked to poorly digested foods, says Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., director of the gastroenterology division at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. Chief among the complaints, Cheskin says, are heartburn, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, gallstones and cancers of the gastrointestinal tract. It's serious stuff to be sure. Some 200,000 people will die this year of problems stemming from their digestive tracts, most notably colon cancer. These disorders will spur 60 million doctor office visits and cost $120 billion in medical expenses and other repercussions like job disability leaves.
It can be difficult to gauge the prevalence of digestive problems because certain ones that are considered commonplace by alternative practitioners, such as toxic bowel syndrome (TBS), aren't recognized by conventional physicians. Characterized by constipation, joint pains and fatigue, TBS can eventually impair the immune system's function. The condition is caused by chronically under-digested food that eventually creates a buildup in the colon, says Lucinda Messer, N.D., a naturopathic doctor practicing in Kirkland, Washington.
Poor digestion also can be responsible for a host of more subtle, yet deeply troubling problems, ranging from fatigue, skin rashes and headaches to poor concentration and irritability--symptoms most people wouldn't link to digestive issues. Because of the lack of awareness about both digestive disorders and treatment options (let alone the embarrassment factor) many of these problems are supply tolerated. "There is definitely an epidemic of mild, functional disturbances of the digestive system," confirms Michael Murray, N.D., co-author of Textbook of Natural Medicine.Your digestive system is the keystone to your health and vitality. And most of its everyday disruptions are preventable. While conventional doctors often provide basic dietary guidelines and treat digestive disturbances with drugs and surgery, alternative practitioners tend to focus on digestion as if your life depended on it. Their theories sometimes differ, but most agree that the ability to fight illnesses, delay aging and experience positive moods and general well-being are inextricably tied to the process of breaking down foods and assimilating nutrients.Some experts are frustrated that digestion isn't taken more seriously by health practitioners. "Digestion is the Rodney Dangerfield of the healing arts. It doesn't get any respect--it never has," says Howard Loomis, D.C., an authority in enzymatic therapy, an approach to improving digestion that relies on using enzymes. "Everyone assumes that digestion just normally happens, but it doesn't."
When your digestive system is compromised, even the healthiest diet can't be put to effective use by the body. At first, you may notice only mild symptoms like heartburn, but chronically depriving your body of nutrients over a period of time can cause more serious problems. An inability to absorb calcium, for instance, can eventually lead to osteoporosis. If the body isn't breaking down sugars properly, a yeast buildup up in the intestinal tract can lead to candida, which causes irritability and bloating. And common discomforts--constipation, diarrhea and gas--are often a sign that the body can't thoroughly process one of the basic substances contained in all foods: proteins, carbohydrates, fats and sugars.All About EnzymesEnzymes, those essential but often overlooked components of digestion, help process protein, carbs and sugar so the body can reap the benefits of a healthy diet. Despite enzymes' vital role, most Americans don't get enough of them in their diets. But if you learn how to adjust your eating habits, it's possible to maximize the power of enzymes. And it's an easy way to make dramatic changes to your digestive health--changes that will pay off in both the short and long term.We're all familiar with the word, but most of us are fairly clueless about what enzymes actually are and how they function in the body. No doubt you've seen them at work, though, perhaps after leaving a ripe banana in a warm room for a few hours. The browning of the fruit represents enzymes in action, breaking down food. Enzymes are protein-based substances that function as catalysts for both the digestive system and for many chemical reactions in the body. There are two types: metabolic and digestive. The hundreds of thousands of metabolic enzymes the body produces help you perform basic activities like walking and talking. Digestive enzymes, such as protease, amylase and lipase, break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats, respectively, into usable nutrients. "Enzymes are critical for life," says Anthony J. Cichoke, D.C., author of The Complete Book of Enzyme Therapy. "It's not only what we eat but also what our bodies absorb that keeps us healthy and energetic."
Enzymes come from two sources: the food we eat and those the body naturally produces, primarily in the pancreas (and, to a lesser extent, in the mouth, stomach and small intestine). Raw foods contain enzymes. Fermented foods, such as yogurt, soy sauce and kombucha -- the fermented drink gaining popularity --are also a rich source. Processing food in any way, whether by boiling, baking, microwaving or steaming, kills enzymes. Pasteurization, the process in which dairy products and fruit juices are heated to kill bacteria, also destroys enzymes. When we eat, our pancreas produces 22 different types of digestive enzymes that do most of their work in the small intestine, not the stomach. Without raw food, the body must depend on the enzymes it produces itself. Enzymes from raw foods that do their work in the stomach lessen the pancreas' workload. Your body doesn't produce all the enzymes needed to break down fiber, which explains why many people have trouble digesting beans.Eating a diet of mostly cooked or processed foods devoid of enzymes can lead to the enzyme deficiencies that cause digestive problems. Enzyme therapists are trained to diagnose and treat deficiencies with dietary suggestions and supplements. But it's also possible to learn enough on your own to make lifestyle changes that help prevent digestive discomforts.Robin Westen is ThirdAges medical reporter. Check for her daily updates. She is the author of Ten Day to Detox: How to Look and Feel a Decade Younger.See what others have to say about this story or leave a comment of your own.