Optimising Your Digestion

A guide to optimising your digestion in Australia

Living a Bulletproof lifestyle is one of the best ways to improve both your physical and mental health. In particular, one of the biggest changes that I see in clients who ditch the grains and processed foods (in favour of eating real food) is improved digestion.

Symptoms such as bloating, gas, reflux or problems with poo can disappear within days of changing your diet! Your digestion is the key to good health, and the two main functions of your digestive system are to absorb nutrients and eliminate waste products and toxins.

It sounds simple but when things go wrong with the absorption or elimination process it can lead to a long list of symptoms, some of them not even related to your digestion. This includes:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Reflux
  • Poor Skin
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fatigue

One of the advantages of the Bulletproof diet is the nutrient dense foods that you are eating, but if you are not absorbing these nutrients efficiently then you are not experiencing the benefits of your great diet, and this can explain why you may still be feeling flat and sluggish.

Five Common Causes of Digestion Problems:

1. Low stomach acid or low levels of the pancreatic enzymes are one of the common causes of poor absorption of nutrients. We depend on these digestive enzymes to break down the food we eat and absorb amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fats and glucose through the intestinal wall to be used throughout the body.

A common cause of low stomach acid can be stress; if your body is in a constant state of flight or fight because you are eating on the run, sleeping poorly or eating too quickly then this can lead to digestion problems. The solution is to eat in a relaxed place, free of distractions like TV and computers so you can focus on chewing well, as this is the first stage in the digestion process.

Popular supplements to take these days to improve digestion function is Betaine HCL or Pancreatic Enzymes. While these supplements can help, they do not address the underlying cause of low digestive enzymes.

Other causes of low digestive enzymes can be a Helicobacter pylori infection or a SIBO infection. Nutritional deficiencies can also be a factor, especially if you are low in zinc, B12 and iron.

2. SIBO stands for Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth and is one of the most common causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Yet SIBO is rarely tested by your local doctor, as the test is not covered by Medicare. Most of the research on SIBO has happened in the last 5 years, so a lot of the information on SIBO is not widely known

You are meant to have trillions of bacteria in the large intestine, but very few bacteria in the small intestine. When you get an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, this is known as SIBO. These bacteria produce methane and hydrogen gas, which is what causes symptoms such as bloating, gas, reflux, constipation or diarrhoea.

Besides causing many digestive symptoms, the bacteria damage the microvilli of the intestinal wall. This creates intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and not only leads to problems with absorption of nutrients but can cause many other health problems. 

SIBO can easily be tested through a special breath test.

3. Parasite and bacterial infections like Giardia, Blastocystis Hominis, Dientamoeba Fragilis, Helicobacter pylori, Klebsiella and Salmonella are also major causes of digestion problems. These types of infections can produce symptoms like pain and diarrhoea in the acute stage, but if they are not eliminated, they can cause low-grade chronic symptoms that come and go with the life cycle of the parasite.

If your health has never been the same since getting sick on an overseas holiday or even getting a stomach bug at home, this could be the reason. While these types of infections are more common in third world countries, they are still common in Australia.

As well as digestive symptoms, chronic infections can cause fatigue, muscle aches, mood changes, brain fog, sleep issues and skin problems. I recommend getting tested for parasite or bacterial infections if you have chronic health problems, even if you think your digestion is ok.

The best way to test for these types of infections is with a PCR/DNA stool test which is a new type of testing that looks for the DNA of the parasite or bacteria. The PCR/DNA test is part of the Comprehensive Digestive Stool Analysis (CDSA) test that we do at Planet Naturopath which also includes other methods for detecting pathogenic bacteria.

4. Dysbiosis and fungal overgrowth occurs when there is an imbalance of gut bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. We have around 100 trillion bacteria in our gut, many of them beneficial and essential to our survival, and some of them not. This is known as the gut microbiome.

The imbalance caused by dysbiosis can either be an overgrowth of pathogenic or commensal bacteria and yeasts or not enough of the beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species. Usually, it’s both of these factors in combination.

Candida overgrowth is a good example of what happens if you have dysbiosis. Candida is normally found in small amounts in the gut but due to poor diet, antibiotics, stress and other infections this can lead to an imbalance in our good bacteria which allows candida to thrive, causing many digestion and other systemic symptoms, especially fatigue and neurological symptoms.

Dysbiosis does not just affect Candida, but it can also lead to overgrowth of other bacteria like Klebsiella that are normally present in the intestinal tract and only cause problems when there is too many in comparison to your beneficial bacteria.

Dysbiosis and Candida can be identified with a Comprehensive Digestive Stool Analysis (CDSA) test which measures levels of both beneficial bacteria, as well as pathogenic and commensal bacteria and yeasts.

5. Food intolerances and allergies are one of the most common causes of digestion problems, and while true allergies to a particular food are quite rare, intolerances are a lot more common.

There are 8 foods that cause over 90% of all food allergies and these include dairy, wheat, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts and soy.

Celiac disease is an allergy to gluten, and despite the severity of symptoms that celiac disease can cause, many people have undiagnosed celiac disease. The standard test for celiac is not very good, so even if the test says you do not have celiac disease, it’s a good idea to do a 30-day gluten-free period to see how your symptoms respond. Even if you do not have celiac disease, it is still possible to be intolerant to gluten, so avoiding gluten is still a good idea if you do the 30 day challenge and you have a negative response to gluten after re-introducing it.

Other digestion problems like SIBO, low stomach acid and intestinal permeability can cause food intolerances. Fortunately, once you address the cause, often you can re-introduce the “problem foods” again. This is especially true if the food intolerances occur late in life or after you have had an infection.

Food intolerance can be hard to identify because sometimes symptoms occur hours or even days after eating a particular food. Food intolerances can cause many digestive symptoms as well as fatigue, nutritional deficiencies, skin problems, headaches and many other common symptoms.

There are a lot of different tests out there for food intolerances, but I believe the best way to assess if you are reacting to a particular food is to do a 30-day challenge. This is when you eliminate all processed foods and other common reactive foods for 30-days, and then one by one reintroduce a new food every three days to assess how your body reacts.

The Next Step:

If you have not yet committed to following a Bulletproof diet and lifestyle for at least thirty days then this is where I would start if you are trying to optimise your digestion. This way of eating cuts out the most likely foods that cause food intolerances like grains and processed foods. I would also eliminate dairy during this stage.

If you have already gone down the path of trying different diets but are still experiencing digestion or health issues, there are two tests that I recommend that you do to get a thorough understanding of what is happening with your digestion. These test kits can be shipped anywhere in Australia for home collection, and then sent back to the lab for analysis.

The CDSA test that we do at Planet Naturopath is the most advanced stool test available to measure digestion and absorption markers, inflammatory markers, gluten intolerance, beneficial bacteria, pathogenic bacteria and parasites.

The SIBO test measures overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine and is the best option if bloating and gas are your main symptoms or you have tried “everything” and have been told it must be IBS.

If you have any questions, you can contact me at michael@planetnaturopath.com