Healthy digestion is at the core of wellness—the nutrients in your food fuel your body and help build strong defenses against illness. But what is the key to healthy digestion? Believe it or not-despite all those TV ads you see about heartburn pills that "fight stomach acid"—it's stomach acid that you really need for healthy digestion.

What makes having acid in your stomach a good thing? Many of your body's digestive enzymes won't work properly unless they're in an acidic environment--and if your enzymes aren't working well, your digestion isn't working well either.

Enzyme Basics

Enzymes are natural chemicals manufactured by the body and present in many foods to make some kind of chemical reaction happen faster. Digestive enzymes work by breaking down the chemical bonds in your food and releasing the nutrients so you can absorb them. Without the enzymes, proper digestion doesn't happen. Three major types…

  • Proteolytic enzymes digest proteins. The major proteolytic enzyme is pepsin, which breaks down the complex bonds in protein like a rock crusher
  • Lipolytic enzymes digest fats. Lipase is a major enzyme in this category.
  • Amylolytic enzymes digest carbohydrates. Amylase, a major enzyme in this category, is primarily found in saliva, where it starts digesting as soon as you start chewing.

In your stomach, pepsin is the primary digestive enzyme—the others play a much bigger role later, when the food moves on to your small intestine. You make pepsin in your stomach lining, but it starts out in a preliminary form called pepsinogen.

The acid connection: Only when pepsinogen encounters sufficient stomach acid does it get converted to pepsin so it can do its job. Not enough acid in your stomach can prevent you from digesting protein, or anything else, well.

Not Enough Stomach Acid

Another naturally occurring and vital substance in the stomach is hydrochloric acid. By the time most people hit age 40, they no longer make as much hydrochloric acid as they used to. By then, most people aren't making enough to trigger proper pepsin production, and digestion and nutrient absorption begin to suffer. Low stomach acid can lead to trouble with gas and heartburn from incomplete breakdown of protein and other nutrients in the stomach.

The B connection: Animal protein is most people's major dietary source of B vitamins. When you don't digest it well, the B's aren't released to be absorbed -50 you can start to run low on these vitamins. Serious consequences include anemia, poor healing, low resistance to illness and memory problems that can even resemble dementia.

Stomach acid production continues to drop gradually with stress and as you get older, to the point where many elderly people produce far less than they need for good nutrition.

What can you do to restore a good level of stomach acidity? My recommendations fall into two areas-better eating habits and acid-producing supplements.

Eating And Enzymes

How and what you eat has a lot to do with how well you digest it. Some simple changes in the way you eat that can have a big positive effect…

  • Chew more. Digestion begins with your mouth. Chewing coats your food with saliva, which contains carbohydrate-digesting amylase. Chewing also breaks your food down into small pieces for better digestion.

What to do: Chew your food thoroughly. Consciously spend a little time on each mouthful.

Bonus: You'll enjoy your food more, feel more satisfied, and you'll probably eat less. If you need to lose weight, this is a painless way to do it—while improving your digestion at the same time.

  • Drink less. Cut back on the liquids you drink while consuming a meal. When you chase your bites with sips, you dilute the acid in your stomach, and the enzymes themselves, which keeps them from working as well

What to do: Limit the amount you drink during a meal. Skip sodas and drinks with caffeine. Sodas cause gassiness, and caffeine slows down your digestion of carbohydrates. Stick to plain water, a half hour after you finish eating.

  • Combine your foods carefully. Different foods need different amounts of time to be fully digested. Simple carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and sugary foods, are digested quickly. Complex carbohydrates—such as whole grains, beans and nuts—as well as proteins and fats, take longer. When you combine simple carbs with these complex foods, your stomach can empty too slowly, promoting fermentation and growth of yeast) from improper carbohydrate digestion.

What to do: Eat small amounts of simple carbs along with more complex foods.

Example: Have only a small portion of French fries along with a steak and salad. Skip prepared desserts completely. For a sweet treat, have fresh fruit-but fruit is sugary, so wait at least an hour after finishing your meal or eat it a half hour before.

Enzyme Supplements

Even with dietary changes, if you're older than age 40, you're probably not making enough stomach acid for good digestion, and are likely to experience such symptoms as increased irregularity and intestinal gas. I often prescribe the following effective, safe supplements to help restore healthy stomach acid levels…

  • Betaine HCL. This generic supplement (available at health food stores) works well to turn on the acid switch in your stomach. A 500milligram dose just before each meal is often prescribed.
  • DuoZyme. This combination supplement (available only through a health care practitioner) contains betaine HCL, pepsin and other enzymes that help increase stomach acid, combined with additional enzymes that help later in the digestive process.
  • Gastri-Gest. Another combination supplement (available only through a health care practitioner), but made with plant-derived enzymes, Gastri-Gest helps increase stomach acid and also helps in the later phase of digestion.

Digestive enzymes can be helpful to nearly anyone older than age 40, particularly those who experience acid stomach, mild nausea, gas, irregularity and other digestive upsets. Often betaine HCL is prescribed for a few weeks. If symptoms still persist, DuoZyme or Gastri-Gest may follow. Both can help, but some people respond better to one or the other. Vegetarians and vegans will prefer Gastri-Gest, which doesn't contain animal products.

You'll probably need to take the supplements for a few weeks before you notice improvement. Digestive enzymes are generally very safe. But to avoid possible interactions, don't take them if you're taking an antibiotic or medication for an ulcer or other digestive problem, such as Crohn's disease. As with all medication, inform your doctor or other prescriber and follow his/ her directions.

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