A sensitive stomach can make for a sensitive subject. After all, it's far easier to explain your horrible cold than your bad case of diarrhea. However, many are looking for natural alternatives to such conventional medicines as Tums and Imodium.
Naturopathic doctors and herbalists are quick to point out that there is no herbal equivalent to these over-the-counter drugs. Most stomach problems stem, they say, from lifestyle issues like poor diet and lack of exercise, and can't be treated with a quick fix. "The most important things when it comes to stomach problems are our dietary habits and even the mood we're in when we eat," says Janet Zand, OMD, a private practitioner in California and Florida. "It's important to have a lot of high fiber—vegetables, fruits and whole grains—and it's important to get enough water." Physical activity, she says, is also crucial: "For your digestion, you don't need an intensive exercise routine, you just need a walk."
Brigitte Mars, a Boulder, Colo.-based herbalist, nutritional consultant and author, suggests keeping a food diary to track food sensitivities and allergies—common causes of upset stomach. After discovering which foods, alone and in combination, cause conditions such as constipation or indigestion, customers can remove them from their diets. "First, look at what you're putting into your body that's causing it to tell you it's unhappy," she says. Foods that commonly cause stomach sensitivities are coffee, alcohol, processed food, spicy food, tomatoes, wheat, dairy, soy, citrus, peanuts and corn.
Beyond the essential role diet plays in maintaining good digestive health, various supplements and herbs can help calm normal bouts of stomach discomfort.
Indigestion and acid reflux
Also referred to as dyspepsia, indigestion may refer to a variety of symptoms including heartburn (also called acid indigestion), sour stomach, bloating, gas and abdominal pain. Commonly caused by overeating or eating food to which a person is sensitive, indigestion can also be a sign of more serious problems such as acid reflux, ulcers, stomach cancer and irritable bowel syndrome.
Indigestion is often caused by food not being broken down properly in the digestive system. Eating more slowly and chewing more thoroughly can help. Supplemental digestive enzymes can be used to further aid breakdown of food in the stomach. These enzymes are generally given in capsule form and come from both plant and animal sources. Some common digestive enzymes are lipase, which helps break down fats; protease, which helps break down proteins; lactase, which helps break down dairy; and amylase, which helps break down starches. Two common plant-based digestive enzymes are bromelain (from pineapples) and papain (from papayas).
One treatment for both acid indigestion and acid reflux is deglycyrrhizinated licorice, an extract of the licorice root. "Licorice is an amazing, amazing plant for healing the digestive system," says Angila Jaeggli, N.D., a practitioner at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle. It works by countering the inflammation caused by acid and also helps heal cells in the stomach and esophagus damaged by acid. Studies have shown that DGL is as effective as Tagamet or Zantac in combating damaging stomach acid. Acid reflux can be treated by combining DGL with slippery elm and marshmallow root, which stimulate production of the mucous membrane that lines the stomach and protect it from digestive acids.
Gas and bloating can also be caused by poorly digested food. "A person can be deficient in hydrochloric acid, so proteins aren't breaking down, which causes bloating and gas," says Jaeggli. One short-term solution she recommends is taking betaine hydrochloric with meals.
"Some people might find that some culinary herbs like cinnamon, ginger, caraway and fennel help digestion," says Mars. "They're carminatives, which means they help to expel trapped gas." Carminatives, explains Jaeggli, work by soothing the lining of the stomach and calming the nerves, so there is less irritation. Stomach gas can also be decreased by drinking a cup of chamomile or peppermint tea—also carminatives—before or after eating.
An essential nutrient for intestinal health is the amino acid l-glutamine, which intestinal cells use for food and to repair themselves. "As you have intestinal distress, physical or mental, your requirements for glutamine go up. It might be hard to get enough from food," says Jaeggli. This lack of glutamine, often caused by a disease like Crohn's, celiac or colitis, can lead to diarrhea and may signal the need for a glutamine supplement.
In addition, diarrhea can be caused by general stomach irritation as a result of poor diet. "If you repair the irritation then the diarrhea will resolve," says Jaeggli. Carob powder is one way to ease this irritation. Carob contains tannins, which protect inflamed mucous membranes in the stomach and prevent the excess production of mucous and water that can create loose stool.
A major culprit behind constipation is fiber deficiency. The best way to deal with this lack is to eat enough high-fiber foods. Fiber supplements can also help. Zand recommends flaxseed. "It moistens the bowel because it has a very favorable combination of fatty acids, and it's also a bulking agent," she says. The fatty acids in fish oils serve a similar purpose. Jaeggli recommends psyllium, a seed high in fiber. "If you take enough psyllium, it's going to clear the digestive system," she says. "But it can be irritating, so it's best to pair it with [a supplement also containing] fiber from fruits."
In addition, Zand recommends aloe vera juice, a natural anti-inflammatory that helps reduce constipation, and magnesium, which "encourages the movement of bile through the gall bladder, which indirectly encourages bowel movement."
Recent research supports the use of various supplements for more serious diseases. DGL has been shown effective in treating certain types of ulcers. Some research has pointed toward the potential of probiotics in treating Crohn's disease and fish oil for treating ulcerative colitis. Treatment for serious conditions like these should always take place under the supervision of a doctor.
The bottom line: "You could be missing some serious condition if it's a common symptom like gas or bloating," says Jaeggli. "If it's a day or two and you've had a big Thanksgiving meal, that's understandable. But if it goes on for a week or two, you should see a doctor."
O'rya Hyde-Keller is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer who chews her food very well.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 2/p. 32, 34