Healing a digestive system in distress is a catch 22 at times. Providing the nourishment to restructure the tissues, regulate the hormones, and balance the systems to enact this healing requires some degree of digestive efficiency. But, without an efficient means of breaking down, absorbing and assimilating the nutrition you need, how do you break this cycle?
If you haven’t already found out what your sensitivities are, then have a go at an elimination diet. This allows you to identify sensitivities from foods, ingredients, environmental toxicity and ultimately provides you with a highly personalised blueprint of things to avoid. Finding and eliminating these sensitivities is step one, as they inhibit enzyme, bile, gastric acid secretions and nutrient uptake. Once you’ve got them under control, you can focus on supporting and restoring hormonal signalling, digestive secretions and mechanisms.
Providing your body with the nutrition to heal is one thing, ensuring it is equipped to deal with that nutrition is another. Thats why its important to create an environment which is able to draw the most nutrients from your food, with minimal complication. We want to improve the nutritional economy by which the systems of our bodies rely.
For example, bile requires a certain complexity of nutrients to facilitate the breakdown of foods. In order to get potassium, sodium, fatty acids and cholesterol, you have to be efficient at extracting them, and their building blocks (see the problem here).
What you can do before each meal is prepare your digestive organs for the food they are about to breakdown, and the withdrawal of nutrients. Spices are a fantastic way of achieving this. They are considered a pharmacological treatment within traditional medicine as digestive stimulants, especially for digestive disorders.
When a regular part of meals and supplemented, spices can help in a variety of ways:
- Stimulate digestion
- Improve health of the microbiome
- Decrease gas and bloating
- Increase fat, sugar and protein metabolism
- Exert antioxidant effects
- Improve transit time of food through the GI tract
Other ways you can improve digestion is through mindful eating and breathing – all in preparation for the bounty of nutrients that can enable you to thrive.
Stimulation of Bile Acid
This action of spices is invaluable to us as rich, salty bile acids allow for the digestion and absorption of fats; incredibly healing macronutrients provided they are from healthy sources. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are also fat soluble, so their absorption is dependent on secretion and strength of bile acid.
No doubt you’ve heard of the highly versatile root, Turmeric. One of the many fantastic properties of Turmeric is its action as a Cholagogue, stimulating the flow of bile from the liver. Curcumin, the active principal of Turmeric shows a powerful ability to stimulate the production of bile in the liver, and the secretion of that bile. In fact, it almost doubled the production of bile and bile salts, increasing its secretion by up to 62% above control.
Perhaps the most potent Cholagogue though is Fenugreek. When tested amongst other spices, it showed the highest secretion of bile acids at 80% above the control. Cumin and Coriander were also found to be noteworthy stimulators of bile acid, at 71% and 59% above the control.
Stimulation of Pancreatic Enzymes
Lipases, Proteases (Trypsin & Chymotrypsin) and Amylases are the enzymes which allow us to breakdown fats, proteins, and starches. Your pancreas secretes these in response to hormonal cues to eat, even upon seeing or smelling food. Especially important is the breakdown of fats by lipase, since the digestion of other macromolecules depends on fat digestion. Therefore the stimulation of pancreatic lipase is something that could do with a boost for optimising digestion, especially if you are eating Paleo, Ketogenic or Low Carb High Fat Diets.
Living up to its reputation as a wondrous spice, Curcumin has actually been shown to increase enzyme activity above control by up to (80%) for lipase, (96%) for amylases and (154%) for proteases. Another power root we all know and love is Ginger. Its a well known carminative, easing cramping and gas which may in part be down to its powerful stimulation of all pancreatic enzymes, notably amylases (184%) and Proteases (133%).
Coriander has modest yet noteworthy stimulatory effects on all pancreatic enzymes, making it a good addition to a spice mix.
Other spices such as Fenugreek also stimulate lipase’s to a notable extent (43%), but does inhibit the secretion of Amylases and Trypsin to a small degree. However, given the importance of fat digestion this may not be a of significance. Also the positive influences of these spices on digestive enzymes in general may out-weigh their negative influence on single enzymes observed in studies.
Digestive Enzymes Within The Small Intestinal Mucosa
The small intestine is the primary site of nutrient uptake and therefore relies upon the activity of digestive enzymes to facilitate this process. In fact, intestinal lipase does most of the heavy lifting in terms of hydrolysing fats, especially when the concentration of pancreatic lipase is limited. Coincidentally, the stimulation of intestinal lipase with Ginger, Curcumin, Cumin and Capsaicin are considerably higher in the intestinal mucosa at up to 160% above control levels.
Ginger and Coriander were two of the only spices found to stimulate all intestinal digestive enzymes, and Coriander even increased protease activity by 54%. Coriander even stimulates enzymes that hydrolzye sugars, like sucrase, lactase and maltase which are important for the efficiency of overall digestion and sugar metabolism.
Food transit time
Spices, likely due to their stimulation of bile and digestive enzymes can actually speed up the transit time of your food (time to digest start to finish). Whilst a longer transit time is beneficial for small intestinal nutrient absorption, spices increase only the post absorptive phase of digestion, in the colon – the longest phase of food transit.
That means you can still absorb nutrients efficiently, without food hanging around too long in the colon. Lingering carbohydrates are subject to bacterial fermentation of carbohydrates, which produces your bloating and gas. So spices can help 1) efficiently breakdown and extract nutrients, and 2) prevent excessive bacterial fermentation.
How to Take Them
Most of these spices studied exert therapeutic action when taken alone, but are equally if not more effective when taken in combinations. They are also beneficial in the short and long term, with some spices showing increased effectiveness after continued use.
Whilst you can add these spices to meals, that may not be enough to sufficiently stimulate digestion. The results from the studies above used spices in amounts up to 5 times the average spice consumption. However, the studies also concluded that these kind of levels can be comfortably consumed in your regular diet (with the exception of especially hot spices like chilli).
The most convenient way to kick digestion up a notch is to supplement your spices. If you are at home and have a little time around your meals, you may choose to make a tea to consume before, during and/or after your meals. Whats more likely is that you will be on the go during the day, so pre-made capsules will probably be the best fit for you.
Use a pestle and mortar to grind up whole, fresh spices or whizz them in a small food processor or coffee grinder. Then make your tea using 1 Tsp – 1 Tbsp spice mix. Once you have your spices ground, you can also put them into capsules.
When using capsules, you will have to play around and see what works well for you. Start at 1-2 capsules before each meal, and measure how well you tolerated that meal – so if gas, bloating and heaviness are reduced, then you know you have hit a sweet spot. If you need more, take no more than 4 capsules before each meal. Once you have found a sweet spot, maintain this for a week and slowly start to reduce the amount of capsules you take before each meal – you will be able to notice how your digestion responds. You might also like to play around with different spice combinations to see what produces the best results.