If there’s anything more uncomfortable to discuss than digestive and gut-health issues, it’s the astounding numbers of Americans these issues affect. According to the National Institutes of Health, about one in five Americans suffers from digestive diseases, including GERD- style heartburn (65 million prescriptions per year), constipation (63 million cases), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (15 million cases) and Crohn’s Disease (1.8 million prescriptions).
And these are just the straight-up diseases. Everyone knows someone who has complained of digestion woes and whose life has been radically improved by eating a gluten-free diet. And that’s not even considering those who are diagnosed with celiac disease, for whom consuming gluten can lead to a range of uncomfortable complications. If you think you may have a gluten issue, the latest recommendation from the American Medical Association, as of August 2017, is to get screened for celiac disease since doctors cannot distinguish the disease from the lesser sensitivity because symptoms are similar. Also, once you start a gluten-free diet, testing for celiac disease is no longer accurate.
Heartburn is another digestive- health issue that can be ameliorated by eliminating certain triggers. Gravity is a primary cause—so don’t lie down after a meal! Other common triggers include fried foods, spicy foods, chocolate, carbonated beverages, alcohol and coffee.
But simply doing away with offending foods and actions may not alleviate all symptoms of common gastrointestinal issues. In those cases, supplements can stimulate healing from within.
Heartburn, for example, often occurs alongside functional dyspepsia, which includes other symptoms such as bloating and nausea. A German herbal preparation, Iberogast, has been the subject of a dozen human clinical trials on functional dyspepsia and IBS. The formulation includes extracts of peppermint, licorice root, lemon balm, caraway, bitter candy tuft and Matricaria flower (German chamomile). In one study on 120 patients with functional dyspepsia, 43 percent of people who took the botanical blend enjoyed complete relief of symptoms, compared to 3 percent of those who took a placebo.
IBS affects as many as 15 percent of people worldwide. Symptoms include abdominal discomfort, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and gas. One of the better symptom-relieving supplements is peppermint oil. Its primary active ingredient is menthol, which makes up 35 to 50 percent of peppermint oil. A meta-analysis of 121 studies for IBS found peppermint oil was more effective than antispasmodic drugs, antidepressant drugs and fiber. Look for higher levels of menthol in your peppermint supplement.
The power of probiotics
Probiotics are known to support healthy digestion. That’s because the intestines contain trillions of bacterial cells, not all of which are friendly, and inserting a few billion of the good guys promotes a healthier environment. It also benefits immune health, because the intestines house about 70 percent of the body’s innate immune function.
By stabilizing the gut, probiotics can ameliorate IBS symptoms, such as bloating, cramping, gas, diarrhea and constipation. In a 10-week 2016 study of 50 patients, a probiotic mixture of seven probiotic strains relieved overall IBS symptoms and improved stool consistency.
The trick with probiotic supplements is that species and strains matter. If you’re looking to maintain general good gut health, you might opt for a multistrain formulation that also includes a prebiotic such as inulin or fructooligosaccharide (FOS) to feed the probiotics. But if you want help with a specific digestive-health issue, not just any acidophilus will do. As new research emerges, supplement makers are matching specific probiotic strains with specific health end points, but we’re not quite there yet. In the meantime, research your probiotic supplement wisely and well.