How many times have you seen a Facebook ad, watched a celebrity endorsement, or seen your friend’s supplement drawer and bought the next best supplement on the market? I think we are all guilty of this to some degree — there are so many out there!
While supplements can be a great natural alternative to medication, especially in cases where medication truly isn’t necessary, we’ve become too accustomed to the “pill for an ill” mentality. For example, we think we’re deficient in a certain vitamin (often without testing first) so we load up on it in supplement form. Or, we feel that we have a yeast overgrowth, so we go out and get a bunch of herbal antifungals. Or perhaps we see all the supplement others take and feel we should be taking them too.
I see over-supplementation all too often. Clients come to me with a laundry list of supplements they’ve been taking, which are the results of years of accumulation. And no tests were done prior to find out if they truly needed to be taking such high quantities of Vitamin D, for example, or a certain kind of probiotic.
But supplements can be a great way to boost your body’s natural function — if you take the right ones, in the right dose, for the right amount of time. That’s why it’s so important you work alongside a certified health professional to review what you’re currently taking, or want to take, so you can prune out what’s unnecessary and add in what you really need.
For those of you with digestive issues, I want to explore today the four best supplements to help stimulate function, which can be taken short or long term, depending on your unique scenario. To be clear, this is not a recommendation for everyone, and I encourage you to first work with someone like myself or your current healthcare provider who can guide you in determining if any or all of these are right for you. But in general, these are the four supplements just about everyone with a digestive condition can benefit from and are often deficient in.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can be taken either via pill supplementation or by eating probiotic-rich foods like kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir (recipes here). A probiotic can help maintain balance between the good and bad microorganisms in your intestines. A healthy balance is required for a number of reasons.
First, the bacteria in the gut are responsible for detoxifying our bodies and ensuring that food is broken down to be used as fuel or passed through our systems. If this balance is out of whack, we can end up with frustrating symptoms like bloating, abdominal discomfort, and inconsistent bowel movements. One way to revitalize your beneficial bacteria (if they have been depleted due to things like antibiotics, birth control pills, environmental toxins and infections) is to supplement them in. Some people only need to take them for a few months, but others who have chronic digestive issues or long-term antibiotic use often need it for a year or perhaps much longer. That’s something you and your healthcare professional should determine.
Next, probiotics can help to boost immune health. That’s because 70% of your immune system is in your gut! When your gut is healthy, with a diverse population of beneficial bacteria, immune function can get a boost, too. Good bacteria can also help to fend off and crowd out bad bacteria and other pathogens, aiding your immune system in its efforts. Without these good guys present, or in weaker numbers, infections can take hold and you may become more susceptible to sickness.
Wondering how to pick out a good quality probiotic? Here are a few things to look for:
To see a list of my favorite probiotic brands, see this post.
My protip: Don’t skip on the quality! And if you want recommendations on which probiotic is right for you, you can schedule a single session with me here to review all of your supplements, discuss your gut health in detail, and create an action plan to restore optimal gut health.
Digestive enzymes are another type of supplement that can help to stimulate function in the digestive tract. While our bodies already make digestive enzymes on their own, production can be hindered for a number of reasons, such as from stress, long-term medication use, and eating processed foods. All of these can put a strain on the digestive system, making it harder to develop new enzymes while trying to handle the immediate stressors. Enzymes are made in different parts of our digestive system, such as in the pancreas, so if there is also an imbalance in one of those organs, enzyme production can also be hindered.
It’s important to note here that we also need different enzymes (and acid levels) to break down different macronutrients. While some enzymes are designed to break down fats (like lipase), others are designed to break down proteins and carbohydrates. We need a good mix of each in order to ensure proper digestion of our macros. As you can imagine, if we’re depleted in a certain kind of enzyme, this can slow digestion down. When digestion slows down, such as in the case of constipation, food can begin to ferment in the body. This can cause issues like bloating and gas as well, and you generally don’t feel too comfortable. The off put of fermentation can create growth of unfriendly bacteria, which can go on to complicate digestive issues further. In this way, proper digestive enzyme levels can help to move things along and prevent toxic buildup.
If constipation or other complications around eating food are a regular thing for you, it’s important to also take into account what your stress levels are like. If we eat when we’re stressed, we’re not signaling to our brain that we’re eating and need digestive secretions, like enzymes and acid. So, our body doesn’t release them, or at least not in the amount needed to properly break down food and we can become constipated and “toxic”.
While there are also naturally-occurring enzymes we can consume in raw fruits and vegetables, cold pressed oils, and raw dairy, these enzymes can quickly become denatured, especially when we cook and heat food. By incorporating digestive enzyme supplements and eating more raw foods, you can supplement your bodies naturally occurring enzymes to provide your system a boost. This removes some of the work for your overly-taxed body.
Digestive enzymes are a simple addition and are especially helpful in the early stages of gut repair; a dose of enzymes with each meal daily will make a big difference in beating out bloating, gas, and constipation. Don’t be surprised, however, if it feels that digestion gets worse before better. Often if there is matter that has collected in our guts and it begins to be broken down quickly once we add additional enzymes, we can experience a burst of digestive activity.
Once your system is healthier, you may find that you do not need to supplement with digestive enzymes to keep your digestion in check and energy up, but they make a phenomenal short-term solution anytime you need a boost. Two digestive enzymes I recommend are Pure Encapsulations (here) and NOW Super Enzymes (here).
More of a food than a supplement, collagen powder is a gut-healing superstar. Collagen is a major building block of the body and can help to repair damaged cells. This is especially important when it comes to your digestive health. If you suffer from a digestive health condition, have taken long-term medication, have had an infection, or eaten processed foods, there may be some level of damage to the cells in your intestinal wall.
Consuming collagen powder daily can help to soothe and rebuild damaged cells, thus strengthening the digestive tract. This can go a long way towards repairing things like leaky gut, which in turn can minimize food sensitivities, can make your digestive tract stronger to defend against things like bad bacteria.
The even better news is collagen powder is incredibly easy to add to your daily routine. Completely flavorless and easily blendable, it can be added to smoothies, juices, or even plain water. I recommend the Vital Proteins brand, and if you visit their website, they have many recipes so you can get creative with it!
Magnesium is a vital mineral we all need, but so many of us are deficient in today. In fact, almost have of the U.S. population doesn’t get enough magnesium in their diets. Many with magnesium deficiencies report strange cravings, fatigue, weakness, inability to handle stress, abnormal heart rhythms, and more. In particular, low magnesium intake and blood levels have been associated with type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. That often explains why we experience unexplained sugar and carb cravings, but it’s also a signal from your body that it’s lacking a key nutrient.
Cravings, metabolic syndrome and diabetes can all take a toll on the body, not to mention a deficiency makes us less able to handle stress, which can have a big impact on our digestion.
So, how do you boost your magnesium levels? The following are magnesium-rich foods: dark leafy greens, avocados, nuts like almonds and cashews, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, broccoli, and bananas. If you can’t get enough of these foods into your daily diet, consider supplementing.
Here are a few different options when it comes to magnesium:
Of course, before taking a new supplement, especially if you’re not sure which of these three you need, setup a consult to discuss all of this in detail.
And don’t underestimate the power of good food and stress reduction to your overall health. All of these need to be addressed in order to feel fully well. If you’re just starting your journey, choose one area of improve and build from there. For step-by-step guidance on all of this, set up a time to chat with me to see if you’re a fit for my one-on-one gut health program.
Kristin Thomas is a health coach and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner specialized in helping women with hormone, digestion, and autoimmune health concerns. Having gone through these health challenges herself, she now helps clients find their own path to complete wellness through practical and natural diet and lifestyle changes.
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