When it comes to digestive health, too many of us prefer to suffer in silence rather than engage in an open and honest discussion about bowel movements, constipation and intestinal distress. The digestive system is far too critical to both proper nutrition and health to go under the radar. When all functions as it should, we feel healthy, vibrant, and energetic. When it doesn’t, we feel sluggish, uncomfortable and even ill. There are other more serious health concerns, as well. By simply not getting enough fiber daily, for example, we are increasing our risk of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. This should be concerning, given that most Americans consume less than half the recommended daily fiber intake, in large part due to the high sugar, highly processed foods we eat today. On top of this, we are constantly exposed to potential dangerous chemicals and toxins in our food, water and air. Our excretory system plays a critical role here too, eliminating many of these toxins. Fortunately, there are a variety of digestive health aids on the market designed to address and resolve many of these issues. However, for many consumers, sorting through the various product options can be overwhelming, even paralyzing at the point of purchase. With so many options, following some expert advice will help consumers select the most effective digestive health products from fiber supplements and detox formulations to total body cleanses.
Fiber and Laxatives
According to the Institute of Medicine, the recommended daily intake of dietary fiber is 25 grams of fiber for women and 38 grams for men. The problem is that most adults only get about 15 grams of fiber per day, so fiber supplements are often recommended. Dietary fiber includes the parts of plant foods the body can’t digest or absorb. Instead, it passes relatively intact through the stomach, small intestine and colon and out of the body. Many high fiber foods contain soluble and insoluble fiber, which are both beneficial for different reasons. A diet high in fiber promotes bowel health and regularity. It also can create a feeling of fullness, a useful tool in weight control.
While multiple types of fiber supplements exist, one of the most popular is psyllium. Psyllium comes from the ‘husk’ or outer coating of the psyllium plant’s seeds, says Sigmund Brzostowski, National Sales Manager at Yerba Prima, an Ashland, Oregon-based pioneer of dietary fiber and internal cleansing products since 1980.
On contact with water, psyllium thickens into a gel-like substance that acts like a broom to sweep waste from the digestive tract and colon, so it does not get re-absorbed through the colon wall back into the bloodstream to recirculate in the body, explains Brzostowski. Since psyllium husk fiber provides a soft bulk and mass in the colon, it makes elimination easier and more comfortable. Psyllium also keeps the lining of the colon cleaner, since it cleans out pockets in the colon that may accumulate toxic waste material. Psyllium husk also help maintain the body’s blood sugar levels in the normal range, slowing and leveling off the release of sugar into the bloodstream. This reduces stress on the body and minimizes the blood sugar spikes and crashes that often lead to hunger pangs. Medical studies have also shown that psyllium husk can help lower high “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, helping to protect against the risk of heart disease.
One of the first choices consumers must make is how to take psyllium. When not in capsule form, the product is typically mixed in with water or another beverage, and even put in food. “Those who like the fiber in more of its natural form prefer whole husk psyllium,” says Brzostowski. “The powder is a finer grind, which breaks down in your system faster. The capsules are for convenience.”
The quality of the fiber also matters and can impact its effectiveness. “You want to avoid lower grade fiber products that grind the whole plant, including parts that are essentially fillers,” explains Brzostowski. “Instead, check the label to make sure that the most effective parts of the plants are used, such as the psyllium plant’s seeds.”
Another aspect to look out for is the sugar content, adds Brzostowski. “Some of the most well-known brands have very high sugar content, so be sure to check the label,” says Brzostowski. “Because that amount of sugar is a concern for many health-minded consumers, look for fiber products that are sugar-free.”
Other choices to consider are whether the psyllium is organic, gluten free, non-GMO, or vegan.
If constipation is an issue, a fiber supplement may not be sufficient by itself, says Brzostowski. In such cases, a mild laxative can be taken for a limited time.
Read about five more ways to prevent constipation
Two of the most common include senna, prepared from the dried pods of the cassia tree, and cascara sagrada, a laxative derived from the bark of the cascara sagrada tree. “Both can be effective, but most people prefer senna because it tends to be gentler on the digestive system,” says Brzostowski. Some formulations, combine the two, along with other herbs designed to soothe the digestive system.
Detoxification is a popular strategy for purging our bodies. Many of the toxins we are exposed to are fat soluble so they are stored in our bodies. Any one of them may be safe, but cumulatively over time they burden the liver and stress the body’s detoxification capacity. One of the most effective ingredients for a safe, natural detox is bentonite, a natural volcanic clay that attracts toxins through adsorption and is taken in a solution or capsule form. The clay is not digested, but passes through the gastrointestinal tract, where it binds to toxins – including pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals – and removes them from the body through the stool.
“Bentonite attracts toxins like a magnet via a chemical adsorption process as it passes through the body’s digestive tract,” says Brzostowski. “When combined with psyllium, it is even more effective because the two work in different ways.”
Total Body Cleanse
Because exposure to environmental contaminants, including industrial pollution and heavy metals, is cumulative, it is advisable to do a total body cleanse on an annual or semi-annual basis. “People do a cleanse when they want to jumpstart their system and get back on a healthy track,” says Brzostowski. “It is popular as part of a new year’s resolution, or in preparation to change a diet or begin exercising.”
Often a total body cleanse will start with a powerful detoxifying combination like bentonite and psyllium, but then go farther as part of a multi-stage process. “The goal of a cleanse is to remove accumulated chemicals through all the body’s channels of elimination: the bowels, kidneys, lungs, liver, and lymphatic system,” says Brzostowski.
A cleanse can be achieved by taking many individual supplements, such as milk thistle for liver support and bilberry fruit extract to strengthen capillaries for better blood circulation. However, it is considerably easier to take a product that provides a complete range of desired health effects, which is coordinated for safety and effectiveness.
Gender Specific Formulations
Because men and women have different physiological and nutritional needs, there are different requirements for men and women when it comes to internal cleanses.
For example a woman’s formula may include Chaste-tree berry extract, the fruit of a small tree native to Central Asia which has been used for thousands of years to ease menstrual-related issues. Also, dong quai root extract, it supports the cleansing process by balancing female hormones. The combination helps women feel healthier and more energetic throughout the month.
Similarly, a men’s formula may contains a common base of powerful cleansing supplements, along with gender specific ingredients. This includes saw palmetto for prostate health, as well as Asian ginseng and sarsaparilla root extract to support male vitality.
Good Digestion is a Foundation for Good Health
Although digestive health may not be the first thing we talk about at the dinner table, it is essential to long term health, says Brzostowski.
“Just as you would not run your car until it breaks down without maintaining it, you should not do that to your body,” concludes Brzostowski. “Whether you are taking fiber, detoxing or doing a total body cleanse, it is all about taking care of yours digestive health so you can look and feel your best each and every day.”