| Some sources indicate that more than 70 million Americans suffer from digestive disorders, with more than $42 billion spent on products to relieve indigestion. In addition, almost 50 percent of Americans have heartburn once a month, while 7 percent have it daily. |
Gastrointestinal remedies are abundant, but many simply mask the symptoms rather than attack the problem. Antacids suppress the body’s acid-producing capabilities, causing problems with protein digestion and absorption of vitamin B12. In addition, long-term medication use can not only change GI function, but also interfere with absorption of many nutrients. For example, some antacids reduce iron absorption, which ultimately affects the capacity to make red blood cells. Prolonged antacid use affects calcium stores, leading to musculoskeletal problems. Plus, many people assume that calcium-containing antacids supply them with the required calcium, when, in fact, the body cannot readily use the calcium in most antacids.
One major problem with our modern diet is its lack of enzymes. Cooked or processed foods lose their natural enzymes that help us digest the food. Digestive enzyme supplements can help the body effectively digest food. Plant-based enzymes provide the most benefit because they work earlier in the digestive process, beginning digestion in the stomach’s more acidic environment. Animal-based enzymes (like pancreatin), however, start working in the small intestine, but don’t promote digestion in the stomach, where indigestion originates.
Those with simple occasional heartburn who use over-the-counter medications are ideal candidates for enzyme therapy. Their symptoms usually result from food intolerances, occasional overeating, or transient stress and have no underlying pathology. Patients with chronic problems, however, require more sophisticated diagnostic measures. A careful, thorough history and exam can often determine which category your patient falls into. Ask your patient about symptom severity and duration to help you get a clearer picture of whether it’s an acute problem or a long-standing chronic condition (see sidebar.)
Those with gastric or peptic ulcers should avoid products containing protease, which can irritate open wounds, causing further discomfort. For these patients, specially formulated products that substitute peptidase or papain for protease may be a better choice.
Some herbal extracts also aid digestion and, in some cases, promote healing of gastrointestinal mucosa. Marshmallow extract, for example, contains mucilage polysaccharides, which help protect the mucosa and have been shown to improve healing of damaged tissue. Licorice can block prostaglandins—compounds involved in inflammation—and can help relieve pain and discomfort common with indigestion.
Just like medications, however, herbs can also have contraindications. Pregnant and lactating women should always consult their healthcare providers before using herbs. Patients with cardiovascular conditions or on anti-hypertensives should not use licorice, because its glycyrrhizin component may contribute to hypertension. Many products used for gastric distress, however, include deglycyrrhizinized licorice, without the glycyrrhizin component.
Licorice may also reduce potassium levels, so it’s contraindicated for those on diuretics or stimulant laxatives. Since licorice also exhibits estrogenic activity, women on hormone therapy and with estrogen-dependent cancers (i.e., breast, uterine, ovarian) or other conditions affecting the reproductive organs—like endometriosis or fibroid tumors—should avoid licorice as well.
Because of its ability to protectively coat the GI tract, marshmallow may interfere with the absorption of drugs taken orally. Its hypoglycemic properties may also interfere with diabetic medications or other means of blood sugar control or alter the results of blood sugar tests.
The next time you or someone you know reaches for an antacid, or the newest prescription for reflux, consider the natural benefits of digestive enzyme supplements and herbal extracts. enzymes and herbal products can be utilized between meals to provide relief, enhance digestion and promote healing, and to improve symptoms of digestive distress and overall health.Enzymes, Inc. has been formulating, marketing, and distributing broad-spectrum, high-potency, enzyme-based nutritional supplements for over two decades. For more information visit www.enzymesinc.com and call 800.637.7893
Before beginning supplementation with enzymes or herbal products, consult a physician to rule out the possibility of serious chronic conditions, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These require a complex diagnostic and treatment approach. The symptoms of most common GI conditions are as follows:
Pain on an empty stomach, usually 2 to 3 hours after eating often indicates ulcers. Pain can appear in the middle of the night, awakening the patient, but is usually relieved by eating.
Appearance of blood in vomit or the stool usually indicates gastrointestinal bleeding due to ulceration. Coughing or vomiting blood results from bleeding in the upper GI tract. Digested blood—usually from the upper GI tract—appears black or tarry, while bright red blood in the stool indicates bleeding at a more distal location closer to the rectum. Changes in blood pressure or heart rate manifest severe blood loss. Clay-colored or fatty stools can indicate a gallbladder problem.
GERD is characterized clinically by chronic heartburn and upper abdominal pain within an hour after eating. It is often accompanied by a chronic cough or asthma. Lying down worsens the pain.
The symptoms of irritable bowel disease vary in severity and extent, but frequent or chronic diarrhea is the most common symptom. In severe cases, dehydration, weight loss and anemia can be present as well.
A definitive diagnosis of most gastrointestinal conditions is made using endoscopy. Ambulatory pH monitoring is often performed as well with GERD. A barium swallow or enema, followed by a diagnostic x-ray, can determine the presence of ulcerations or lesion in the GI tract, or hiatal hernia, where the upper part of the stomach protrudes through the diaphragm into the thoracic cavity.