Ease indigestion the natural way – natural digestive aids: includes related information

Caroline Mure

Ease Indigestion The Natural Way

Health food stores offer a wealth of natural digestive aids. Reach for one next time you suffer from indigestion.

Life in the fast lane often leaves us too busy to cook nutritious meals at home, or pack a low-calorie lunch for work or school. Indigestion, heartburn, constipation and diarrhea are some of the immediate results of high-fat, high-sodium meals grabbed on the run, while more serious diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease can result from years of such a diet.

Even people who normally eat a well-balanced diet suffer from an infrequent bout of indigestion and for those occasions your health food store offers a variety of natural remedies, among them herbs, activated charcoal, digestive enzymes and bacterial aids. For chronic digestive complaints, however, a reconsideration of diet and lifestyle may be in order.

How Healthy is Your Diet?

Is your diet as healthy as it should be? Do you exercise? Do you smoke, drink or work at a high-stress job? Any of these factors can have a profound impact on digestion.

“Digestion is a complex process,” said Dr. Jack Soltanoff, author of Natural Healing. “Heavy smoking, heavy drinking, over-consumption of fats, and sugar addiction are only a few of the habits that not only interfere with but actively inhibit the action of the digestive system.”

Dr. Ross Trattler, author of Better Health Through Natural Healing, adds refined carbohydrates, overeating, insufficient chewing, hurried meals, strong spices, salt, coffee, tea and alcohol to the list. Dr. Trattler recommends the elimination of these substances, following an initial fast which is complemented only by diluted apple juice, water with a twist of lemon or slippery elm tea. Dr. Trattler also addresses the issue of proper food combining, which many doctors believe is essential for good digestion.

“Always keep meals simple and never combine fruit with vegetables, fruit with starches and liquids with solids,” he said. He also recommended avoiding large meals and drinking with meals.

Other doctors also recommend eating fruit on an empty stomach, since combining fruit with other foods slows the absorption of nutrients and the elimination of waste. Sugar should not be eaten with other foods since the combination can ferment in the digestive system and form toxins and gas. Yes, this means no dessert!

Dr. Soltanoff often prescribes tomatoes for his patients with intestinal problems. “Ripe tomatoes are one of the best detoxifiers we have,” he said. “Tomatoes act as a catalyst and neutralize harmful uric acid found in animal proteins.”

Avoid Synthetic Antacids

To complement these dietary measures, you might try one of the many natural remedies available at health food stores in the form of herbs, digestive enzymes, “friendly” bacterial agents or activated charcoal. Try to avoid over-the-counter antacids, which contain ingredients that may be harmful, especially when used regularly over a long period of time.

“Indigestion, heartburn and gastritis are not really diseases in themselves, but are symptoms of abnormal digestion,” said Dr. Trattler. “The usual treatment for these common problems is the prescription of antacid medications aimed at removing unpleasant symptoms without attempting in any way to treat the cause. Sodium bicarbonate preparations are the most frequently used antacids. Used on a regular basis, however, [sodium bicarbonate] disturbs the body’s acid/alkaline balance, creating a condition of alkalosis. Sustained alkalosis combined with heavy milk-drinking can cause irreversible kidney damage.”

Another ingredient commonly found in antacids is aluminum, a toxic metal which has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and is thought by some researchers to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Some doctors forbid their pregnant patients from taking aluminum-containing antacids, according to The United States Pharmacopeia Drug Information for the Consumer. Although neither human nor animal studies have been conducted demonstrating a direct relationship between aluminum and side effects in babies, antacids reportedly have caused side effects in babies whose mothers took antacids over a long period of time, especially in high doses.

In large doses, aluminum-containing antacids may cause bone pain, chronic constipation, loss of appetite, and mood swings.

Some commercial antacids also have a high sodium content, which can cause fluid retention and high blood pressure.

Activated Charcoal

One useful alternative to antacids is activated charcoal. “The charcoal is processed from pure vegetable ingredients and can adsorb many, many times its weight in irritating gases and toxins,” wrote Jeanne Rose in Jeanne Rose’s Modern Herbal. “It also … reduces cramps. For a stomachache, diarrhea or dysentery, take 2 or 3 of these charcoal tablets and drink a cup or two of Papaya leaf tea. Activated charcoal … is simple and cheap and should be kept in everyone’s home. It never enters the blood-stream but works entirely in the digestive tract.”

Digestive Enzymes

Dr. Trattler recommends charcoal as well as papain, the enzyme in papaya which breaks down protein and has long been used as a digestive aid. Today papain is available in supplement form at health food stores. Other therapeutic agents Dr. Trattler suggests are bromelain enzyme, pancreatic digestive enzymes, aloe vera juice, fiber and hydrochloric acid.

Hydrochloric acid deficiency, common among the elderly, causes gas, bloating and chronic malabsorption of most minerals and some vitamins. “Although we frequently associate hyperacidity with heartburn symptoms, hypoacidity is a much more common cause of this condition,” said Dr. Trattler. “Milk consumption is a common cause or aggravating factor in many cases, since it takes so much hydrochloric acid to acidify milk, leaving little or no reserve for other protein in the meal. The result is incomplete breakdown of protein.”

The pancreas, which is responsible for secreting digestive enzymes for food in the small intestine, sometimes fails to deliver. Supplements known as pancreatins or pancreatic digestive enzymes are extracted from the pancreas of cattle or hogs and administered orally to people suffering from pancreatic enzyme insufficiency. In a study conducted by Dr. David Graham of the Baylor College of Medicine, Waco, Texas, and reported by Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D. in Digestive Enzymes, “sixteen commercially available pancreatic enzyme extracts … were able to improve digestion and assimilation of protein and fat in people with pancreatic insuficiency when taken orally.”

Most digestive enzymes are secreted initially in inactive forms, which prevents the body from digesting itself, according to Dr. Bland. Conversion of these enzymes to their active forms requires adequate levels of other converting enzymes, called coenzymes, which are in turn affected by the levels of zinc and manganese in the body. Deficiencies of these trace minerals can result in digestive problems.

The B12-Gastritis Connection

Inadequate enzyme activity also can cause a depletion of vitamin B12, Dr. Bland wrote, and symptoms of a B12 deficiency, including anemia and peripheral pain in the hands and feet.

Vitamin B12 deficiency also may be caused by chronic gastritis, according to Dr. Brian L.G. Morgan, author of Nutrition Prescription. “In some people with chronic gastritis, the loss of the cells in the stomach lining and the intrinsic factor they produce impair B12 absorption and cause a deficiency,” Dr. Morgan wrote. He recommends eating plenty of B12-rich foods, such as seafood, meat and dairy products. However, if you are a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian, you may wish to obtain your B12 in supplement form.

Bacterial Agents

The digestive tract contains “good” bacteria, which assist in digestion, and “bad” bacteria, which are associated with infection. “Good” bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus help maintain a healthy environment in the digestive tract. They can, for example, render dairy products more digestible. Not only does acidophilus enable some lactose-intolerant people to assimilate dairy products without digestive discomfort, but it can stimulate digestion by inhibiting the growth of toxin-producing microorganisms.

Doctors sometimes prescribe acidophilus for their patients taking antibiotics, since antibiotics indiscriminately destroy both bad and good bacteria in the intestines.

Many disease-causing intestinal bacteria “are nullified by substances produced by lactic bacteria, particularly acidophilin, bulgarican and a factor from bifidobacteria,” wrote William H. Lee, R.Ph., Ph.D., in Friendly Bacteria. “This obviously improves intestinal health.”

In a study conducted by Asher Winkelstein, M.D., 107 patients were give acidophilus supplements. These patients were suffering from constipation, diarrhea, mucous colitis, diverticulitis, megacolon and antibiotic colitis. “In all,” reported Dr. Lee, “45 of 49 patients with chronic constipation reported significant relief, as did 16 of 17 with functional diarrhea. All of those with other conditions reported good results.

“Some strains of L. bulgaricus have shown effective antacid action and produced heartburn relief; this process is fostered by the buffering action of the proteins found in the lactobacillus preparation.”

Herbal Preparations

Among the herbs commonly recommended as digestive aids are saffron, a gentle stimulant and antispasmodic which promotes appetite and stimulates gastric secretion; angelica root, which stimulates the gastric juices and is a popular European remedy for flatulence, indigestion and heartburn; and rhubarb, which in small quantities is a valuable treatment for diarrhea. These herbs, along with aloe, senna leaves, myrrh, camphor, manna, theriac venetian, zedoary root and carline thistle are the primary ingredients in a popular “bitters” tonic available at health food stores. Bitters tonics are based on an age-old European philosophy that the body needs a wide variety of food groups, including those that stimulate the “bitter” tastebuds, for healthy digestion. Since bitter foods normally are not included in the diet because of their unpleasant taste, “bitters” are available in capsules and liquid form, free of sugar, artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. In capsule form, the herbs are blended into a base of vegetable oils and soy lecithin.

In a double-blind study, Dr. Martin Dorn reported that 50 patients were treated with a bitters formula and 30 volunteers were given a placebo. During the four-month trial, the participants each received one tablespoon of the extract three times daily.

“The comparison with placebo reveals that the [Swedish Elixir] preparation posesses an appreciable efficacy, both on the symptoms described [flatulence, heartburn and abdominal spasms] and as a laxative,” Dr. Dorn said. He added that since the subjects were characterized as obese, aging, and laxative abusers, “a mild, side-effect free phytopharmaceutical is of particular importance.” The subjects who were constipated reported that the bitters formula relieved their constipation without producing undesired side effects such as diarrhea, Dr. Dorn said.

If you prefer to take herbs individually, anise, chamomile, comfrey, dandelion, fennel, ginger root, goldenseal, peppermint and slippery elm are some of the herbs that often are recommended as digestive aids. You may wish to consult a modern herb manual to find specific dosages and instructions for preparations. Herbs are available at health food stores in bulk form to be used for infusions or crushed and packed into gelatin capsules. You can also buy ready-made herb capsules, homeopathic herbal remedies and instant herbal teas, many of which list common uses and suggested dosages on the label.

Remember, a well-balanced diet is the basis for good health, and with a proper combination of foods, regular exercise and healthy habits, digestive health will come naturally. If you experience the occasional bout of indigestion, however, turn to any of the natural remedies available at health food stores for safe, effective relief.


[1]Morgan, Brian L.G., Ph.D., Nutrition Prescription New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1987. [2]Ritchason, Jack. The Little Herb Encyclopedia, Springville, Utah: Thornwood Books, 1980. [3]Rose, Jeanne. Jeanne Rose’s Modern Herbal. New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1987. [4]The United States Pharmacopeia Drug Information for the Consumer. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Consumers Union, 1989. [5]Soltanoff, Jack, D.C. Natural Healing. New York: Warner Books, 1988. [6]Mairesse, Michelle. Health Secrets of Medicinal Herbs. New York: Arco Publishing, 1981. [7]Trattler, Ross. Better Health Through Natural Healing. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988. [8]Kunz, Jeffrey, R.M., M.D., Editor-in-Chief. The American Medical Association Family MedicalGuide. New York: Random House, 1982. [9]Weiss, Gaea and Shandor. Growing and Using Healing Herbs. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1985. [10]Dorn, Martin, M.D. “On the Treatment of Digestive Complaints with Swedish Elixir,” unpublished study, Aug. 24, 1987. [11]Bland, Jeffrey, Ph.D., Digestive Enzymes. New Canaan, Conn.: Keats Publishing Inc., 1983. [12]Lee, William H., R.Ph., Ph.D. The Friendly Bacteria, New Canaan, Conn.: Keats Publishing Inc., 1983.

Assistant Editors Caroline Mure and Nancy Saltmarsh hold degrees in journalism and English, respectively. Their research is conducted in the extensive Better Nutrition and Today’s Living health and fitness library.

COPYRIGHT 1989 PRIMEDIA Intertec, a PRIMEDIA Company. All Rights Reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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