The stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and large intestine are all involved in the digestive process. Add to that the fact that emotions, stress levels, and the balance within the endocrine and nervous systems also affect digestive functioning, and you come to appreciate just how delicate and complex this system is. A wide range of supplements exist to support the digestive system. Many are unnecessarily and come with a hefty price tag. A healthy system does not need additional support. However, research shows that for the elderly or for those who have compromised digestive systems due to illness, food excesses, chemical or heavy metal poisoning, or for those who have high stress levels, supplementation can be very beneficial, both in reducing the symptoms and in aiding nutrient absorption. Below, I have listed my favourite digestive supplements that are backed by research and that are less likely to have adverse side-effects, as they are vegan and all natural.
Aloe Vera Juice
Aloe Vera has been hailed for centuries for its remarkable health-enhancing properties. Although known for its benefits when applied externally to the skin, Aloe Juice is now widely used to help treat a variety of conditions of the digestive tract. Without getting too technical, even in healthy individuals (but particularly in those with digestive issues) the bowel can gradually accumulate a lining of unabsorbed food residues. These deposits of gunk become impacted and can prevent essential nutrients in our diet from being absorbed. This whole situation gives rise to nutrient defciencies and the resulting health complications that accompany this. Meanwhile, the affected colon can cause abdominal pain, diarrhoea and/or constipation. Daily consumption of Aloe Vera Juice has been shown to gently and gradually break down, loosen and assist in the natural dispersal of these residues. Mix 5ml of pure Aloe Vera juice with some water and consume before or after your main meals… I promise it’s not gross, you can barely taste it. Purchase Aloe Vera Juice in bulk (as it has a long expiry date) from any health food store.
Digestive enzymes, which usually contain ingredients such as amylase (to digest carbohydrates), lactase (to digest lactose), protease (to digest protein), and lipase (to digest fats) enhance the digestive process, easing not only the symptoms of IBS but also chronic indigestion. They can be found in health food stores and some pharmacies, and can be purchased without a prescription. Look for ones that have the highest content of each enzyme, and preferably one that also contains pancreatic enzymes … just ask your naturopath or pharmacist. Digestive enzymes may also be particularly benefcial for older people with digestive issues, as enzyme production declines with age. For gas-producing foods such as beans, lentils, and many vegetables, there is Beano, a brand-name digestive enzyme. Beano contains the sugar-digesting enzyme that the body requires (and which some people lack) to digest the complex sugar raffinose. Remember to ask for a vegan enzyme as many are packaged in fish capsules.
Hydrochloric Acid (HCl)
The cells of the stomach produce HCl and secrete it in response to ingested protein, fat, or when stressed. When we eat more frequently than required (especially when we over-consume fats and proteins), acid production begins to decrease. This decrease in production may lead to poor digestion, with symptoms such as gas, bloating, and discomfort resulting. An HCl supplement may improve digestion of meals rich in protein and/or fat. It is unlikely to do much for foods such as rice and vegetables (which comprise many vegan meals), as these are largely carbohydrate and thus require less HCl for digestion. Look for Betaine Hydrochloride, as it is the most effective and take one tablet before, during, or after meals to help proteins break down into peptides and amino acids and fats into triglycerides. Note: Please consult your health care professional before taking HCl, as its intake when there is already normal or excessive stomach acid production may increase the risk of gastric irritation or ulcer development.
L-glutamine is one of the most abundant amino acids that your body manufactures, and is stored in your muscles, helping the body remove excess toxic ammonia. Besides this, it also plays a crucial role in maintaining digestive health. L-Glutamine acts to protect the mucosa, the lining of the intestines and stomach. Some studies suggest that people with gastrointestinal problems lack glutamine in their intestines, which can contribute to weight and muscle mass loss. More research is needed on the effects of L-Glutamine in facilitating digestive health, but initial fndings are very promising indeed. Look for pure L-Glutamine at your local health or bulk food store. It’s much cheaper if you purchase it in bulk and the expiry date is generally two years so you can afford to stock up.
Psyllium husks are the outer husks of the seeds of the Plantageo Ovata plant that is native to India and Pakistan. It is gluten free and possesses many healing benefts, particularly for digestion and bowel-related disorders. Psyllium seed husks are a brilliant source of soluble dietary fbre. Nowadays many people fail to consume the recommended daily intake of 18 grams of fbre. This is worrying given the health risks of eating too little fibre range from constipation all the way through to cancer and cardiovascular disease. Psyllium is a source of both soluble and insoluble fibre. Soluble fibre helps to soften stools by forming a gel-like material when added to water that helps to move things along. Insoluble fibre moves through your digestive system largely intact so it helps to bulk up stools. Both kinds are important. Talk to your health care professional for information about adding fibre to your diet.
Zinc and B12
I often get asked which supplements, if any, people should take when transitioning or if already following a vegan diet. While it is possible to get a fully balanced, nutritionally complete diet from plant-based sources alone, this can be tricky and requires a little more planning than if following a omnivorous diet. The only two nutrients that many vegans struggle to consume in adequate amounts are Zinc and B12. Vitamin B12 is crucial for the production of red blood cells – it helps to maintain healthy nerves and a healthy brain. Vegans are particularly at risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency because it is only found naturally in animal products such as dairy and eggs. There are fortified vegan foods such as some milk-alternative beverages, and some vegetarian sausages and burgers. However, most of these options fall under what I call the “vegan junk food” umbrella and I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone eating them to gain the B12 benefits. Vitamin B12 absorption becomes less efficient as we age, so older vegetarians may also need supplements. I definitely recommend vegan expecting mothers or those who are breastfeeding take a B12 supplement, as a lack of this vitamin in breast milk can interfere with normal brain development of the baby. Nutritional yeast is a wonderful vegan source of vitamin B12 … and it tastes delicious too!
Zinc is not found in large amounts in plant foods, and phytates (natural toxins that plants produce to protect themselves from predictors) can reduce zinc absorption. Some researchers suggest that this increases the zinc needs of vegetarians and vegans by up to 50%. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include poor growth and delayed sexual maturation, poor wound healing, hair loss, impaired immune function, and dermatitis … not desirable at all! Protein increases zinc absorption, so foods high in protein and zinc, such as legumes and nuts, are great vegan options. Fermenting of soy foods (tempeh and miso) also enhances zinc absorption. If you do decide to take a zinc supplement, I recommend taking Zinc Picolinate, which is generally only available at health food stores. This form of zinc is the most readily absorbed by the body.
Calcium and Magnesium
Calcium and Magnesium are nutrients that play critical roles in regulating muscle function. Together, they provide the mechanism for muscle contraction and relaxation. With regards to gastrointestinal function, calcium has a constipating effect, whereas magnesium acts as a laxative. Therefore, taking calcium supplements can be beneficial for people with diarrhea, and magnesium supplements can work miracles for those suffering IBS-related constipation. It’s important to note that calcium can block iron absorption in the body and contribute to anaemia, so vegans who take iron supplements (which is generally not necessary as there are many plant-based foods that are even higher in iron than animal products) may want to take a calcium supplement at a different time of day. Both calcium and magnesium should be taken with food.
Ibeurogast by Florids
Ibeurogast is a clinically proven plant-based dietary supplement used to treat functional dyspepsia in the forms of indigestion, stomach pain, bloating and gas. I take 10 drops diluted into some water along with my digestive enzymes before my main meals, and wowzers do I notice a difference if I don’t! You can find Ibeurogast much cheaper at almost every pharmacy, and I would recommend this over purchasing it from a health food store, as they charge a mark up for the EXACT same product. This supplement is made from a concoction of healing plant-based ingredients: Iberis amara, Angelica, Chamomile, Caraway Fruit, St. Mary’s Thistle, Lemon Balm Leaves, Peppermint Leaves, Celandin, and Liquorice Root. The majority of the herbal extracts used in the supplement focus on relieving painful stomach cramps and preventing fatulence. The benefts of each ingredient include:
- Iberis amara: increases the tone of the smooth muscles of the GI tract resulting in increased peristaltic movement to help digested food along its way.
- Angelica Chamomile: an anti-infammatory agent that promotes digestion, gastric juice production and provides relief from stomach muscle cramping.
- Caraway fruit: relieves cramps and acts as a microbiocide to counter fatulence from consumption of gas-producing foods such as beans and cabbage.
- St. Mary’s Thistle: promotes good liver health.
- Lemon Balm leaves: calming, sedative-like effect and anti-fatulent.
- Peppermint leaves: relieves cramps, stimulates bile production and is antifatulent.
- Celandin: relieves cramps in GI tract.
Essential oils are a current obsession of mine. Peppermint oil, in particular, is a lifesaver when my digestive symptoms start to fare up. Look for food-grade oil that has not been combined with any fillers such as olive oil. It can be taken orally by adding a few drops to warm beverages like tea or coffee, juices or smoothies, or it can be added to raw recipes like bliss balls or slices. It can also be rubbed to the soles of your feet or straight onto your stomach. This stuff is strong so just a little bit is needed (we are talking 1-3 drops max), as often as required. The compounds of peppermint oil reduce spasms of the colon and intestinal tract, and, due to the presence of thymol and eugenol, balance oral and intestinal fora, thereby reducing fermentation of undigested foods. The antispasmodic action of peppermint oil also makes it useful when treating IBS fare ups and menstrual cramps.
Gut flora influences health in many ways – everything from helping to extract energy from food and building the body’s immune system to preventing obesity, protecting against infection, and, as more and more research is showing, influencing mental health. When the gut is functioning normally, good bacteria should make up about 90 percent of the gut microbiota, or the population of microbes living in your intestines. However, everyday modern-life factors such as diet, stress, illness and medications (especially antibiotics) can throw out the ratio of good to bad bacteria, causing gastrointestinal distress, inflammation, eczema, a weakened immune system, and irregular bowel movements. Probiotics contain living organisms, mainly bacteria and one type of yeast. These resemble the good bacteria in the gut that can aid with digestion and breaking down foods to ensure you absorb the nutrients you consume and don’t become nutrient deficient. These supplements can be used to treat certain GI problems, as well as taken to maintain overall digestive health. You generally find probiotics in the fridge of your pharmacy or local health food store. Look for ones that contain the entire Lactobacillus family. For daily maintenance, pick a probiotic with multiple strains of bacteria (especially: Arabinogalactans, Lactobacillus Acidophilus, Bifdobacterium Longum, and Lactobacillus Rhamnosus) because the gut contains 30 to 40 strain types … so it’s definitely a case of the more the merrier. Always keep your probiotics away from moisture and heat. Pass on the probiotic if the label says “viable at time of manufacture,” which means everything in it could be dead by the time it reaches your mouth. Follow the directions on the label as to when and how much to take. If they’re in capsule form I like opening up the capsule and either dissolving the contents in some water or adding it to my foods. This will increase the rate at which the body absorbs the probiotics (always choose liquid over capsules/tablets).
Slippery Elm is a species of elm tree native to North East America, where it is found most commonly in the Appalachian Mountains. It has many medicinal benefits, but nowadays it is mainly used to sooth the bowl and digestive tract. Similar to psyllium husk, it is a supplement that interacts with liquid to create a thick colourless gel. Upon reaching the stomach, the substance coats the stomach, and promotes healthy excretion of mucus in the body. In doing this, it helps to neutralise stomach acids, boost the adrenal glands and draw out impurities. Furthermore, this tree’s potently medicinal bark contains powerful antioxidant phytonutrients that reduce inflammation on a local and systemic level. Slippery elm powder can be added to water, mixed into your juices or smoothies or sprinkled over cereal and plant-based yoghurt. Alternatively, you can also make a tea by boiling teaspoons full of loose bark in a cup of water for ten to fifteen minutes, then cool it before drinking. Leave the powder to sit in the liquid for at least five minutes prior to drinking so it has the chance to congeal.
A Note on "Superfood" Greens
Ah superfood powders … how praised you are. OK, so here’s the thing. I’m not exactly against superfoods, although I’m not a fan of their ridiculous price tags. My issue with superfoods is that they contain a LOT of nutrients packed into a very small serving. In nature, it’s impossible for us to consume this much nutrition in a single sitting … some single servings of these “green powders” are the equivalent to eating 40 broccoli heads! For most people, especially the time poor, this is a real selling point. However, for those with compromised digestive systems, consuming such a concentrated form of nutrition can overwhelm the digestive system and flair up IBS symptoms. The concept of FODMAP loading comes into play here. While ½ cup of broccoli is a FODMAP-friendly serving, 40 broccoli heads certainly is not! Also, it is unlikely the body is actually able to absorb that many nutrients in one sitting … meaning you end up with very expensive pee. There are plenty of low cost, every day “superfoods”, such as coconut, avocado, broccoli, and spinach that are just as beneficial, easily absorbed, and that you won’t have to sell your kidney to afford.
Please be sure to consult your health care professional before commencing any of these recommended supplements, as they will know your history and will be in a better position to judge what will work for you. Feel free to contact me if you have any further questions.