Gut health is a growing health craze for good reason. Digestive issues are a widespread problem affecting roughly one out or every three adults that contributes to millions of doctor visits in the United States every year. In an effort to improve their digestive health, Americans have become obsessed with probiotics or “friendly” bacteria. In addition to spending over $2 billion each year on probiotic supplements, there is also a growing rise in sales fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, and sauerkraut. It is becoming popular to add probiotics to many other foods and beverages, as well including chocolate, nutrition bars, smoothies, and juice.
Marketing would have us believe that probiotics are the answer to all gut issues and there is no question that they are important considerations. But, do they always represent the best natural solution for common digestive complaints? Not really.
Improving Gut Health Beyond Probiotics
The simple truth is that the benefits that many people are looking for in improving their digestive complaints with probiotics, are better achieved with the use of other natural digestive aids, especially enzymes. Probiotics are living organisms that can have beneficial effects on digestive health, but they are not very effective in dealing with many common digestive complaints like the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as well as indigestion, gas, bloating, and food intolerances. The reason is simple: probiotics do not digest food.
The real issue and the underlining cause of most gut discomforts, is not digesting food properly. Most people compound the problem by choosing to simply block symptoms with an over-the-counter acid-blocking drug while others will jump on the probiotic bandwagon only to be disappointed. And many others will simply suffer though the embarrassing and uncomfortable effects of improper digestion, because they feel they have tried everything and nothing has worked. The reality is that they have not tried everything, they have just not tried the right product.
Lack of Stomach Acid and Pepsin
Although much is said about hyperacidity conditions, a more common cause of indigestion is a lack of gastric acid secretion. Lack of stomach acid affects more than 15% of the general population and over 40% of people over 40! It is a major cause of indigestion in this age group.
The stomach’s optimal pH range for digestion is 1.5-2.5. The use of antacids and acid-blocker drugs will typically raise the pH above 3.5. Although raising the pH can reduce symptoms, it blocks the effects of both hydrochloric acid and pepsin, a key enzyme involved in protein digestion.
Hydrochloric acid secretion aids in protein digestion, activates pepsin, and it encourages the flow of bile and pancreatic enzymes. Hydrochloric acid also facilitates the absorption of many nutrients, including folate, vitamin B12, ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, iron and some forms of calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
The bottom line is that without HCL and pepsin proper protein digestion and nutrient absorption will not occur. In addition, a lack of HCL and/or pepsin can adversely affect the gut’s microbial flora including the promotion of an overgrowth of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori that is associated with ulcer formation.
There are many symptoms and signs that suggest impaired gastric acid secretion, and a number of specific health conditions have been found to be associated with insufficient gastric acid output, especially conditions linked to a “leaky gut” like psoriasis, autoimmune disorders, and thyroid disease..
Common Signs and Symptoms of Low Gastric Acidity
- Bloating, belching, burning, and flatulence immediately after meals
- A sense of `fullness’ after eating
- Indigestion, diarrhea or constipation
- Weak, peeling and cracked fingernails
- Chronic intestinal parasites or abnormal flora
- Undigested food in stool
- Chronic candida infections
As far as how much HCL to take, the most effective dosing strategy is a challenge method:
- Begin by taking one capsule with meals. If this does not aggravate symptoms, at every meal after that of the same size take one more tablet or capsule. (One at the next meal, two at the meal after that, then three at the next meal.)
- Continue to increase the dose until reaching 7 capsules or when you feel warmth in your stomach whichever occurs first. A feeling of warmth in the stomach means that you have taken too many capsules for that meal, and you need to take one less tablet for that meal size. It is a good idea to try the larger dose again at another meal to make sure that it was the HCl that caused the warmth and not something else.
- After you have found that the largest dose that you can take at your large meals without feeling any warmth, maintain that dose at all of meals of similar size. You will need to take less at smaller meals.
- When taking a number of capsules, it is best to take them throughout the meal.
- As your stomach begins to regain the ability to produce the amount of HCl needed to properly digest your food, you will notice the warm feeling again and will have to cut down the dose level.
Digestive Enzymes to the Rescue
While probiotics are marketed as a cure-all for digestive complaints, the relief that people are seeking to find is best obtained through supplementation with digestive enzymes. Unlike probiotics, enzymes can make an immediate difference in digesting a meal. That is because enzymes actually help digest food, probiotics do not. Many people who have occasional digestive difficulties such as indigestion, bloating, or gas will often feel a relief from taking a digestive enzyme supplement in minutes. This fast action is because the enzymes are directly working to breakdown a meal. Many digestive symptoms are simply the result of improper breakdown of food by enzymes.
While our own body produces digestive enzymes, it may not be enough especially in older adults. Aging leads to actual structural changes in the pancreas as well as reduced output of digestive enzymes, often leading to impaired digestion and symptoms ranging from minor gas, pain, nausea, and bloating to severe malabsorption and malnutrition.
Digestive enzymes can be derived from animal, plant, or microbial sources. Of these three sources, enzymes derived from bacteria and fungi are emerging as the most effective source because they are very stable, resist damage caused by the stomach acid, and can function within a wide range of pH levels. For example, while the pancreatic enzyme trypsin and chymotrypsin are only effective in a pH environment of 8-10, some digestive enzyme supplements contain blends of microbial-derived enzymes that can be effective throughout the entire pH range. Since the pH of the human gastrointestinal tract varies from very acid to alkaline, it is important to choose products that utilize technology such as the Thera Blend process from Enzymedica to carefully select variants (isoenzymes) within each digestive enzyme category (e.g., proteases, amylases, and lipases) to allow the mixture of these isoenzymes to be effective throughout the entire gastrointestinal tract.
These more advanced enzyme preparations have ushered in a whole new era for digestive enzymes. For best results, digestive enzymes are recommended to be taken before meals or early in the meal.
Just a reminder, in most cases it is not food that is causing digestive symptoms, it is the improper digestion of that food. So, the first goal in trying to improve gut symptoms is to focus on improving digestion. As far was which to use first, Betaine HCL or digestive enzymes. Here is a good rule of thumb. If the bloating, gas, indigestion occurs within the first 30-45 minutes of eating go with Betaine HCL. If it occurs more than 45 minutes after eating, go with digestive enzymes first. As far as a specific product that I recommend, as Chief Science Officer of Enzymedica, I have reviewed independent lab tests that prove Enzymedica Thera-Blend enzymes formulas, like Digest Gold, are three times stronger and work more than six times faster than other leading enzyme supplements making it the leading choice for a digestive enzyme.