It has happened to everyone, perhaps you went to try out that new restaurant all your friends were recommending and before you know it your stomachs bubbling and you have an uncomfortable case of the runs. It’s a very crappy situation, pardon the pun, but the diarrhea and digestive disturbance for most will last a day or two then things are back to normal. While not a comforting scenario it is much better than what many who have Celiac disease, Crohns disease, IBS(Irritable Bowel Syndrome), IBD(Irritable Bowel Disease) or a strong gluten intolerance have to endure day after day for their entire lives. These conditions while characterized by symptoms of diarrhea, intestinal cramping and incontinence all have one common factor; the inability to properly process the food you’re consuming. The digestive system for most people, even performance minded people is mostly an afterthought, it only enters our minds when something goes wrong, when in fact it is a primary factor in health and performance and should be treated as such.
Obviously every person was not made to process every type of food, so if you are ingesting something that does not agree with you the best thing to do is just stop eating it, but often the solution nowadays is not that simple. We live in a period of mass food production, extreme processing, GMOs, horrible chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Animals are pumped with antibiotics and steroids and fed unhealthy grains to fatten them up all in the name of profits. It seems no matter how careful you are with your eating habits; organic, grass fed and gluten free isn’t necessarily going to save you due to confusing labeling laws that allow them to obfuscate the truth and put you at risk. Definitely make the best, cleanest, least processed choices you can but consider that you may need to include ‘special’ foods or even supplements to balance things out. Also consider that at some point everyone is going to have cake at a wedding or cut loose with junk food while on vacation or have a few beers with some buddies while watching the game. All of these behaviors can kill beneficial bacteria and contribute to an imbalance in the digestive system, don’t beat yourself up about it but be aware when you may need to be a bit more aggressive with digestive prep.
The parts of the digestive system with which we are primarily concerned are the stomach, small intestine and large intestine or colon. When you eat food the initial step of breaking it down is chewing and the food being covered by a small amount of digestive enzymes contained in saliva. From there it enters the stomach and is broken down by hydrochloric acid and more enzymes before entering the small intestine, where it is further processed by a large amount of beneficial bacteria. This is where the bulk of nutrient absorption takes place. From there it enters the large intestine as mostly waste. The final steps are taken before it is passed to the rectum. Right after the skin, the intestines are the largest organ system in your body. If you were to stretch out the small and large intestine at length it would measure over sixty feet. Sixty percent of your immune system is contained inside your digestive system, so we are talking about the foundation of your constitution. When the digestive system does not function properly quality of life suffers right along with performance and recovery. Simply put, if you cannot process the food you are taking in optimally then you won’t be able to live optimally either.
Adequate fiber intake is the first step to keeping things moving smoothly. Fiber is technically a indigestible carbohydrate, it has no actual nutritional value, it acts as roughage, there are two types of fiber soluble and non-soluble. The rule of thumb for fiber is to consume 1 gram for every 10 grams of protein. Fiber has been shown to help maintain a healthy balance in the gut and GI tract and help escort toxins out of the body. Fiber also helps to prevent constipation and bloating. The best food sources for fiber are vegetables of all types, fruits of varying types and whole grains. Most people have at least a cursory knowledge of fiber so now let’s get to the beef of this burger.
The foundation of a healthy digestive system is what we like to call beneficial bacteria or probiotics, the good flora and fauna of or our intestines that are responsible along with digestive enzymes for the more complicated process of absorbing the nutrients from the food we consume. So maintaining a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria and digestive enzymes is paramount in our quest for optimal performance. Digestive enzymes are enzymes that break down macronutrients into their constituent parts for absorption. Proteases and peptidases split proteins into small peptides and amino acids. Lipases split fat into three fatty acids and a glycerol molecule. Amylases split carbohydrates such as starch and sugars into simple sugars such as glucose. These are the classes of digestive enzymes we are primarily concerned with. Probiotics need an environment conducive to their growth and this is where prebiotics can be useful. A prebiotic is a type of fiber, usually a saccharide, that does not emphasize a particular bacterial group but provides a healthy environment for the probiotic to flourish in. Probiotics are classed into two main bacterial strains: lactobacillus, the most common coming from yogurt and other fermented products and bifidobacterium, found in certain dairy products. A proper balance of these 3 nutrients is paramount to keeping your digestive system running at peak performance.
First we should look at our food, as we can get both prebiotics and probiotics from food sources. The best food sources for prebiotics are: Arabic gum, raw (dry) chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, garlic, leek and onion. The best food sources for probiotics are: Greek yogurt, pickled vegetables, tempeh, miso, buttermilk, kombucha (fermented tea), sauerkraut and soy sauce. It is a good idea not to ingest sugar with probiotics because the bacterium may feed off the sugar rendering it inactive before it has time to pass into the intestines. It is also recommended that you take probiotics on an empty stomach so as not to release digestive enzymes that attack the bacterium before it passes out of the stomach. Most probiotics should be kept refrigerated or in a cool dry place, if it gets too hot the bacterium will die and become useless. You also want to be careful consuming food at temperature extremes, too hot or too cold can slow digestion as well as kill of beneficial bacteria that may already be in your digestive system. Luke warm is the best way to consume just about anything as the bodies internal temperature is 98.6, the closer to that temperature your food and liquid is, the more easily processed and absorbed.
Supplementation has become such a big growth industry in part because of what unhealthy food has forced our bodies to endure, and while supplementation is still a small part of the puzzle, supplementing with prebiotics and probiotics may be the best option for people that don’t have either availability of all the proper foods, or need extra help to keep a healthy balance of gut flora. A prebiotic supplement with which I have found useful is called Inulin, it is a soluble fiber a type of fructooligosaccharide which not only has the ability to create the correct environment but also has shown the ability to bind to bad bacteria and exit the body as waste. There are also many probiotic supplements that use a combination of the two bacterial classifications in the billions of cells in order to help repopulate the intestines and keep the delicate balance which allows us to get the most from our food. One of the most interesting probiotics is Saccharomyces Boulardii, it has been shown to survive the stomach acids much better than many of the other probiotics. Athletes consume and use more protein that the average sedentary person, and for that reason supplementing with some type of proteases and peptidases digestive enzymes makes sense on a somewhat regular basis as the body may not make enough to break down the added protein. Here at supplementcentral we sell a wide variety of cheap and effective probiotics and digestive enzymes that can help you get the most out of every morsel of food that crosses your lips. My personal favorite is the NOW Foods Probiotic-10 this supplies effective doses of both main classifications of bacterium.