Simple ways to improve your digestion and subsequently, your overall health and well being.
Throughout history, the greatest bodybuilders have always been meticulous bastards perhaps not with fashion choices, but certainly in seeking out the absolute best foods to help them reach their goals.
But what if you aren’t absorbing all the nutrients from the food you’re putting in? You can be fastidious about your diet and count your macronutrients to the gram but if you have a digestive disorder, it’s like having all that hard-earned cash you banked get eaten up by hidden fees and service charges.
John “The Mountain Dog” Meadows has battled some digestive demons that forced him to become an expert in digestion, but if you don’t think digestion is cool, or even all that important, you need to read this article.
I’m encountering an increasing number of bodybuilders complaining of poor digestion.
Fact is, I’d say 10-15% of new coaching clients come to me with at least two to three staple foods that give them bloating, gas, or some other uncomfortable symptoms of digestive disorder.
Digestion is of the utmost importance to anyone who cares about his or her health, and it can make or break your progress in the gym as well. This article will discuss a few simple ways we can improve our digestion and subsequently, our overall health and well being.
I’m very passionate about digestion. As some of you might know, I almost died in 2005 from an internal disorder.
Briefly, I had a disease called “Idiopathic Myointimal Hyperplasia of Mesenteric Veins.” A set of veins in the recto-sigmoid portion of my colon became diseased and blood flow was blocked. The vessels eventually exploded. Fortunately, I was in the hospital when it happened, so I could be rushed into emergency surgery as I was bleeding to death and in shock.
When I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit, I learned that I no longer had a large intestine/colon, and that I was temporarily the proud owner of a new ileostomy. From that point on, I became very interested in learning everything I could about the digestive system.
Other than a propensity for dehydration, I’ve had no real issues for the last three to four years and have competed successfully – and in great condition, I might add. I credit that to my dogged pursuit of knowledge in this area as well as having progressive doctors like Eric Serrano in my corner.
The only medication I have to take is Imodium: I take one every morning and night, and will likely need to do so forever. It has no negative effect on me though, so I consider myself lucky. I can also eat anything I want, unlike the unfortunate folks who suffer from other digestive maladies.
Let’s begin with the basics.
Here’s a simple test to make you aware of how well your digestive system is working. It’s called the Bowel Transit Time Test.
- Buy some charcoal tablets.
- Take 5 grams on an empty stomach. Note the time specifically.
- Look for dark stool when you go to the bathroom.
- When you see the dark stool appear, this is your bowel transit time.
- If it’s been less than 12 hours, usually this indicates that you’re not absorbing all of your nutrients.
- If it’s been 12 - 24 hours, this is usually perfect transit time.
- If it’s been more than 24 hours, food is sitting in your colon for too long. This can indicate a potential problem as substances that are supposed to get eliminated can make their way back into the bloodstream, not to mention increase the risk of colon diseases.
Now, let’s talk about the layout of your digestive system. Think of the digestive system as a 25 to 35 foot-long fire hose that goes from your mouth to your anus. The actual lining of the digestive system replaces itself every three to five days.
The digestive system’s basic function is to break down food into small particles that the body’s cells can then use for energy, repair, growth, etc. As food passes through the system, it’s broken down into amino acids, glucose, and glycerol, depending on whether you’re eating protein, carbs, or fat.
The frustrating part for many is that they can be eating what many would consider to be a perfect diet but still have issues. Simply put, it doesn’t matter what you eat if you can’t absorb it properly due to a digestive disorder.
This is something that I caution those who force feed themselves thousands upon thousands of calories a day: your body can only handle so much. So let’s take a closer look at the digestive process from where it starts all the way through to where it ends.
Digestion actually starts in the brain. Remember Pavlov’s Dog, the famous example of classic conditioning? The Russian researcher Ivan Pavlov would ring a bell, and his dogs would begin to salivate as they knew food was coming. What was happening was the dog’s body started revving up for digestion at the very thought of incoming food, and the same thing occurs in humans though hopefully in a more socially acceptable manner.
When food enters the mouth, salivary amylase continues the digestive process by splitting carbohydrates into maltose. This is accomplished by breaking the bonds between the carbohydrate molecules to produce disaccharides and trisaccharides.
After leaving the mouth, food passes through the esophagus. This is the tube that transports food from the mouth to the stomach, and it usually takes food five to six seconds for it to pass through, although it could take upwards of a few minutes for food that isn’t chewed thoroughly.
Lastly, there’s a little flap at the bottom of the esophagus called the esophageal sphincter. Ideally, it should keep food and stomach acid from coming back up, provided it stays closed most of the time. If not, people can suffer from reflux, or even hiatal hernias.
Okay, perhaps your stomach isn’t an atom smasher, but it does blend up and liquefy food into a gooey liquid called chyme.
HCL (hydrochloric acid) begins to break apart protein chains into smaller pieces. HCL and chyme are both very acidic – you’d get a nasty burn if HCL came into direct contact with your skin. HCL’s acidic properties also help to sterilize food by killing off nasty microbes that might have made their way onto it, like the germs that set up shop on that KFC drumstick you found under the sofa.
Fortunately, there’s a protective layer of mucous that keeps HCL from burning and damaging your stomach, though you likely know someone who’s had an ulcer. An ulcer results when the layer of protection breaks down and the HCL literally burns a hole through the stomach. I had an ulcer when I was 20 years old, and it was extremely painful. (My ulcer was primarily stress induced; fortunately, I learned a few ways to de-stress and was able to put this behind me.)
Your stomach also produces pepsin, which helps to break down protein, and lipase, which helps to break down fats. Even though most of the nutrition in your food will be absorbed later on in this trip, water, some salt, and ethyl alcohol can go directly into your bloodstream from your stomach. This might explain the great mystery of why when I indulge in an Absolut Mandarin Vodka with diet Sprite, I feel it right away!
Food will usually be in the stomach for two to four hours, depending on the makeup of the meal. As you know, fiber and fat can slow down this process.
This part of the hose is 15 to 20 feet long. Food is primarily digested here, where tiny fingerlike folds on your digestive track called villi absorb all the nutrients. These villi and smaller microvilli are part of what makes up your intestinal wall and serve to produce digestive enzymes while blocking potentially harmful substances from being absorbed.
It’s important to note that there are certain foods and medications that can cause your intestinal wall to lose the ability to figure out what to absorb and what to block, resulting in a condition called leaky gut syndrome. This gut permeability malady can result in many issues we’ll discuss later.
- The duodenum is the first foot of the small intestine. Generally, minerals such as calcium, copper, manganese, and magnesium get absorbed here. Digestion of many water and fat soluble vitamins also starts here, as does digestion of fat and different kinds of carbs like fructose, glucose, and galactose. Knowing this, if the pH of the stomach is off (usually not enough hydrochloric acid), these nutrients won’t absorb well.
- The jejunum is next, making up approximately 40% of the remaining intestinal length. The jejenum has intestinal brushes that secrete enzymes to help absorb other carbs such as maltose, sucrose, and lactose. Some water soluble B vitamins begin the digestive process here, as does protein and amino acids. This is where most of your bodybuilding nutrition will get absorbed.
- The last and largest part is the ileum, and I know this part of the intestine all too well. When I woke up in ICU after my ileostamy, this is what was sticking out of my body and greeting me like a scene from Alien. The ileum is where you absorb cholesterol, B12, and bile salts (needed to break down or emulsify fat).
- The next stop on the trip is the colon, and you’ll see why I’m predisposed to dehydration. Your large intestine, or colon, is responsible for absorbing water and any remaining nutrients from chyme into the bloodstream. It’s a crucial step in staying properly hydrated, and not having this organ forces me to be very mindful of my hydration levels.
- You have an ascending part of your colon that goes up the right side of your body. This is where the stool begins to form and water is absorbed. If the chyme passes through too fast and you can’t get enough water out, the result is diarrhea.
- You have a transverse part of your colon that goes across your belly and under your ribs.
- Lastly, you have a descending colon that runs down the left side of your body and attaches to your rectum, where it exits your body.
Next, we’re going to discuss how we can turn your digestive system into a high performance machine.
The causes and treatments of digestive maladies is an enormous topic. For the sake of time, I’m going to focus primarily on treating leaky gut as it can lead to many serious complications down the road. Put simply, we need to remove this “roadblock” to ensure optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients, and the strategies you employ will also serve to increase your body’s digestive capacity.
Leaky gut syndrome is a condition where a damaged bowel lining leads to increased permeability of the gut wall to substances that shouldn’t be going into your blood or interstitial areas. Certain things (like bacteria and foreign invaders) don’t get blocked from being absorbed through your intestinal membrane, and things that should get absorbed don’t!
Leaky gut is common in irritable bowel diseases such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, allergies, and many other ailments.
So what causes leaky gut? Doctors haven’t established a singular cause to any digestive malady, however, there are a few things that most doctors would agree are a factor:
I’ve come to the conclusion that stress is an underlying cause in just about everything. All the reading I do on heart disease points to stress – not cholesterol and saturated fat intake – as being the major culprit, and the same is true with your digestive system.
When you’re constantly stressed, your body begins to slow down digestion, reduce blood flow to digestive organs, and produce toxic metabolites. The thing is, your body just can’t tell the difference between, “Oh crap, there’s a rabid wolverine chasing me!” and “Oh crap, I’m late for another meeting at work.” It gets desensitized and begins treating all stressors the same.
When you eat junk, you damage your intestinal lining. period. Sugar, man-made fats, and processed foods inflame the GI tract. Also, if you’re eating a diet too low in fiber, you’re likely to have food hanging around too long (bowel transit time is too long), allowing nasty byproducts of digestion to irritate and inflame your gut.
You’ve no doubt heard about maintaining the proper ratio of acidity versus alkalinity in your gut? This ratio can be compromised by poor food choices as well.
Perhaps you know someone who became even more ill because their antibiotic medicine killed off the “good” gut bacteria right along with the bad? Broad spectrum antibiotics are usually to blame.
Something that hard training athletes and bodybuilders should know is that anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs specifically) can also wreak havoc. These drugs may be a little easier on your stomach lining, but they cause damage to your intestinal lining, sometimes to the point of causing actual physical pain.
The response is often to take even more to help keep the pain at bay, and while NSAIDs block pain and inflammation causing prostaglandins, they also block the prostaglandins that heal – a vicious cycle!
Another important fact is that all of these medications can damage the brush borders of your small intestinal lining. These little paint brush-like projections serve to execute the final phase of carbohydrate digestion.
Finally, NSAIDs can impede the repair process your intestinal lining undergoes every three to five days, causing it to become weak and potentially lead to leaky gut and other gut permeability issues.
Dysbiosis When Candida gets into the gut wall and breaks down brush borders, you get a condition known as dysbiosis. This is an imbalance in the intestinal bacteria in the gut and ties back to our previous cause, as medications can kill off the good bacteria/friendly flora that normally keep Candida in check.
You may experience symptoms like diarrhea, chronic joint pain, fever, gas, constipation, bloating, mood swings, anxiety, fatigue, and indigestion, just to name a few.
If you think you might have leaky gut, you can get a test from your doctor that involves drinking a mannitol-lactulose solution and collecting your urine for the next six hours. Your doctor will send this to a lab where they can determine if you have leaky gut based on the mannitol and lactulose levels in the urine.
- High levels of mannitol and low levels of lactulose means you’re healthy – no leaky gut (mannitol is very easy for your body to absorb, lactulose is not).
- High mannitol and high lactulose means you have a degree of leaky gut, based on results.
- Low mannitol and low lactulose means you have an absorption problem.
- Low mannitol and high lactulose is also bad. Usually people with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis have this result.
This is where the rubber meets the road, and why you’re probably reading this article.
Here are eight things you can do to turn around the digestive issues you’re having and start absorbing your nutrition better!
You may need to replenish your bacterial flora if you’re having issues. The bacteria living inside our digestive tract weigh nearly four pounds! Not all bacteria is good (salmonella for example), but there are many that are friendly, and we call these probiotics “intestinal flora.”
A wide variety of strains is best when buying a probiotic supplement, or just make sure that these two are core components of the formula:
Lactobacilli: You’ve probably heard of Lactobacillus acidophilus or L-acidophilus? Located primarily in the small intestine, this is a great supplement to prevent overgrowth of bad bacteria like e. coli, candida, and salmonella. It also aids in digesting dairy products, breaking down casein and gluten, improving nutrient absorption, and acidifying the intestinal tract by fermenting lactose. A low pH provides a very hostile environment for pathogens and yeasts. These intestinal floras also can generate B vitamins and even Vitamin K.
Bifidobacteria: Found primarily in the large intestine, it prevents bad bacteria from colonizing in the colon by setting up shop in the intestinal lining and crowding out bad bacteria and yeasts, thereby protecting the intestinal lining.
It also produces acids that maintain the proper pH balance in the intestine, killing off microbes that can cause disease. This is a very important supplement for those taking antibiotics and other medications discussed earlier, as it lessens the side effect of killing off beneficial bacteria.
These bacteria also help to regulate peristalsis, which is the process that moves food through the digestive tract. Again, food that sits in your intestines too long creates issues, so this is a particularly important benefit. Lastly, it can even manufacture B vitamins.
When supplementing, look specifically for lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria bifidum. Also, the best brands are usually refrigerated. Be very wary of supplements sold over the internet that claim their probiotics never need refrigeration. There are some strains that don’t, but most of the stronger, more critical strains do.
I am not associated with any, but the two I recommend are Klaire Labs and Innate Response.
The difference between pre and probiotics is that:
- Prebiotics are fuel for good bacteria, whereas probiotics are the actual good bacteria.
- Prebiotics are non-digestible nutrients that your good bacteria can use for energy. They stimulate the growth of good bacteria such as the bifidobacteria and lactobacilli discussed. The two most common types are inulin and FOS (fructooligosaccharides). Prebiotics generally pass through the digestive system intact and really perform their magic in the colon.
As for food choices, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, raw organic honey, garlic, onion, leeks, and chicory are all good sources. Be sure to include some of these selections in your diet.
Certain nutrients can minimize free radical damage in your gut. Once you start getting gut damage, these free radicals can spiral out of control. Here’s what I recommend to control this:
- Glutamine: This nutrient repairs your mucosal lining directly. It’s the preferred food of cells in your small intestine! This should be at the top of your list for healing and to maintain the integrity of your mucosal lining. Try five grams twice daily.
- NAC, or N-acetyl cysteine: This is a powerful antioxidant and immune support supplement. It’s a precursor for glutathione, along with glutamine and glycine, and an important antioxidant that protects cells against oxidative stress. This will help minimize the damage already occurring in the gut and has immune system enhancing effects. Take two grams daily.
- ALA, or Alpha Lipoic Acid: Another awesome supplement to reduce free radical activity, this supplement can also support the liver, and even act as a glucose disposal agent to maintain stable blood sugar levels. ALA recycles antioxidants in your body, which can help ward off gut infections. I like 300 mgs in between meals, three times a day for antioxidant purposes (half that dose for the R-form).
If you look at much of the research out there, you’ll see that a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori is the main culprit in gastritis, ulcers, and stomach cancer. Antioxidants can help defend against this!
Fermented and cultured foods are my main weapon in this battle. Fermented foods have increased probiotic content, help with digestion, and are loaded with digestive enzymes.
My top three are:
- Kimchi: An Asian fermented cabbage type product that’s a staple in my diet. I get mine from Whole Foods in the form of Sunjay’s Spicy Kimchi.
- Sauerkraut: It’s actually used in Europe to treat ulcers and digestive problems. Just leave the bratwurst at the ballpark.
- Yogurt/Kefir/Cottage Cheese/Cultured dairy: It’s digestion-enhancing properties are well documented.
High fiber fruits and veggies protect the colon and reduce the chance of getting bowel diseases, including colon cancer. Remember, adding in good sources of fiber can give you gas until your intestinal flora adjust, and that’s precisely what we’re after (intestinal flora adjustment not gas)!
Increase fiber slowly. Shocking the body by moving from a small amount to a large amount of fiber overnight is a bad idea. Aim for a serving of one or the other in every meal. Don’t neglect veggies by just eating fruit as excessfruit can cause gastric disturbances.
With soluble versus insoluble fiber, just focus on total grams, as most high fiber foods have a good mix of both already. Also, try to eat fruits and veggies that are in season, as these will likely have the highest level of nutrients and enzyme activity.
Minimize refined carbs, trans fats, and alcohol consumption. Remember that sugar, man-made fats, and processed foods inflame the GI tract.
One of my friends always says that if it won’t spoil or rot, don’t eat it. Good advice since “live” foods have more enzymatic activity!
I really like digestive enzymes because they can work in both the stomach and intestinal environments.
Look for these key ingredients in your search:
- Protease: helps break down protein.
- Lipase: helps break down fat.
- Amylase: helps break down carbs.
- Bromelain and papain: Two other great choices for protein digestion. If you prefer a food source, use fresh pineapple for the bromelain and fresh papaya for the papain. These enzymes work in all three sections of the small intestine, as opposed to protease, which may only work in the upper part of the small intestine.
- Betaine hydrochloride: This a good source of hydrochloric acid, a naturally occurring chemical in the stomach that helps digest food by breaking up proteins and fats. The low pH of HCL also destroys ingested bacteria and microorganisms that can make you sick and compromise gut integrity.
One of the most important things is to relax and find ways to de-stress and enjoy life more.
- Find something you enjoy doing (preferably legal), and do it often! For me, weight training is where all the stress from the daily grind dissipates. When I leave the gym, I may be hurting physically, but mentally I feel relaxed and at ease. Exercise also massages your intestines, which can help relieve constipation.
- Eat when you’re hungry. Forcing down food is not a good idea, and usually results in poor digestion. Now I do make an exception for people who don’t eat much at all or have extremely slow metabolisms; typically, I have them force feed for two weeks to get everything “revved up.” However, doing this long term is not a good idea.
- Try to chew food slowly and relax while eating. Slow down and say a quick prayer, or thank you, or whatever you want to say with the ones you love.
Having a balance in life is ALWAYS a good thing. Appreciate the ones you love, and enjoy a good meal together as a family.
The following is an example of a diet someone that has digestive disorders could use. It’s not perfect for everyone, as disorders vary greatly in their cause (allergies to particular foods, sensitivities due to gut lining damage, etc.). It should, however, hopefully give you some ideas on what you can do. Portion sizes are obviously based on the individual’s size and metabolism.
Meal 1: 1 cup organic full fat cottage cheese (cultured dairy with live enzymes), 3/4 cup cooked oatmeal (3 grams fiber), 1 banana (3 grams fiber + prebiotics)
Meal 2 (Snack): 1 apple with skin (4 grams fiber)
Meal 3: 6 oz chicken w/clove of garlic (prebiotic), 1/2 cup fresh papaya (papain digestive enzyme), 8 asparagus spears (2 grams fiber)
Meal 4: 6 oz wild Alaskan salmon, 2 pieces Ezekiel Bread, 1 raw pear (5 grams fiber), 2 tablespoons raw honey (prebiotic)
Meal 5: 50 grams whey isolate (on Amazon), 1 cup of raspberries (8 grams fiber), 1 cup raw milk (live enzymes such as lactase and probiotics), 1 medium sized sweet potato
Meal 6: 6 oz. grass-fed beef, 1 cup broccoli (5 grams fiber), 1/2 cup fresh pineapple (contains bromelain, a digestive enzyme)
Late night snack: 1 cup kimchi (live enzymes and probiotics)
The old bodybuilding expression is, “You are what you eat.”
I would amend that to, “You are what you eat, digest, and effectively absorb, minus what you excrete as waste.”
As incisive as my quote is, I doubt Hallmark will be calling me to help come up with greeting card captions anytime soon.
Fine by me. I’ll just stick with helping you reach your fitness and bodybuilding goals, safely and effectively.