Indigestion is thought to affect about a third of the UK population. Acid-suppressing medications, of both the over-the-counter and prescription variety, are some of the most commonly used drugs of all. However, experience shows that indigestion can often be effectively combated without drugs. Just this month, the medical journal Gut published a study which suggests that fat can increase the pain and discomfort of heartburn. However, apart from avoiding fat in the diet, there is a whole host of natural approaches which may be help to control digestive discomfort. Here, we look some of the most effective strategies for quelling this most common of conditions.
When we swallow, food is carried down a tube called the oesophagus into the stomach. At the end of the oesophagus (gullet) is a valve which is designed to keep the acidic contents of the stomach from escaping back into the oesophagus. In some people, however, the valve is somewhat lax, and this can lead to problems with indigestion and heartburn. The medical term for this condition is ‘acid reflux’. Because of the feelings of excess acidity commonly associated with it, heartburn is often assumed to be partly related to excess production of acid. This is why the conventional medical drugs prescribed for indigestion and heartburn are essentially geared to reducing stomach acidity. However, for many individuals, problems with indigestion stem from not too much acid, but too little.
A low level of acid in the stomach stalls the digestion of food, causing it to ferment. Indigestion, bloating and burping are the result. Also, acid in the stomach stimulates closure of the valve between the stomach and the oesophagus. When stomach acid levels are low, there can be a tendency for the valve to remain open, increasing the risk of acid reflux. While it is best to have low stomach acid diagnosed by a health care practitioner, a simple home test can help identify this condition. A level teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda should be dissolved in water and drunk on an empty stomach. If sufficient quantities of acid are present in the stomach, bicarbonate of soda is converted into gas, producing significant bloating and belching within 5 or 10 minutes of drinking the mix. Little or no belching is suspicious for low stomach acid.
Very often, indigestion and reflux can be remedied without recourse to medication. Some simple dietary modifications often help to improve digestive function and reduce digestive discomfort, whatever the cause. Of particular importance here, is the need to chew food thoroughly. Proper chewing is essential for digestion. Chewing mixes food with saliva which contains an enzyme called amylase. Amylase starts the digestion of starchy foods such as bread, potatoes, rice and pasta. Chewing also breaks food up, which increases the surface area exposed to acid and digestive enzymes. Each mouthful of food should be chewed to a cream before swallowing.
In addition to thorough chewing, it helps to avoid large meals (the larger the meal, the larger the load on the digestive system) and late meals (digestion is at its lowest in the evening). Generally, it helps to avoid drinking with meals, because this can dilute the digestive secretions which break food down, disturbing digestion. Finally, it can often help to
separate protein-based foods such as meat, fish and cheese from carbohydrates such as bread, potatoes, rice and pasta at mealtime. This makes it much generally easier for the body to digest food efficiently.
Apart from poor digestion, another common cause of indigestion is a condition known as ‘peptic ulcer’. The lining of the gut is shielded from potentially damaging digestive secretions by a coating of protective mucus. Sometimes, this protective mechanism breaks down leading to the development of a raw area or ‘ulcer’ in wall of the intestine. The majority of ulcers develop in the part of the gut just after the stomach called the duodenum. Many ulcers are caused by an organism known as Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). The usual treatment for H. pylori is a combination of antacid and antibiotic medication. However, re-infection is quite common, and some sufferers may experience recurrent problems despite treatment.
Dietary changes and certain nutritional supplements may promote ulcer healing and help prevent a recurrence of the problem. In general, sugar, alcohol, coffee and tea should be avoided, as all of these foodstuffs seem to increase the risk of developing an ulcer or slow down its healing. Certain nutritional supplements may also help heal ulcers. Vitamin A at a dose of 10,000 IU per day for women and a dose of 25,000 IU a day for men and zinc at a dose of 30 mg per day can both be beneficial because they enhance tissue healing. Another effective natural remedy for ulcers is deglycyrrhizinated liquorice (DGL). This compound has been shown to be about as effective as conventional drugs in healing ulcers. The normal recommended dose is 250 – 500 mg, 15 minutes before each meal and 1 – 2 hours before bedtime.
With regard to the H. pylori infection specifically, this is often helped with a supplement called mastic gum. This product is prepared from the resin of a tree which grows on an island in the Aegean Sea. Mastic gum has been found to kill H. pylori in the test-tube. Experimentally, mastic gum has been shown to reduce symptoms in 80 p.c. of sufferers, and heal 70 p.c. of duodenal ulcers. 1 g of mastic gum should be taken each day for two weeks.