As a naturopathic doctor who specializes in the treatment of chronic and complex gastrointestinal issues, I use a wide variety of supplements in my practice daily. One of the founding principles of naturopathic medicine is to identify and treat the underlying cause of a patient’s disease (as opposed to simply suppressing symptoms). But there can be great variability from patient to patient in what that underlying cause or causes might be – even in patients who have the exact same diagnosis. For this reason, every patient who comes to my clinic receives a personalized treatment protocol that is focused on what I understand to be the root underlying cause of their disease.
But with all that being said, there are a few supplements that I find are more frequently needed by my patients. In this article, I will outline the three top supplements I use in my practice daily. Of course, this article needs a disclaimer: these supplements are not indicated for everyone and reading this article does not constitute medical treatment. Supplements are powerful therapeutic tools, and any supplement has the potential to cause negative effects if used by the wrong person for the wrong condition. I recommend working with a skilled naturopathic doctor, herbalist, or your current physician to make sure what you are taking is safe based on your own medical and medication history.
#1: Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes are substances produced by the body that aid in the breakdown of food into smaller, more absorbable components. They play a crucial role in the digestive process by helping to break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats into smaller molecules that can be absorbed and used by the body.
The main types of digestive enzymes include:
- Proteases: These enzymes break down proteins into amino acids. Examples include pepsin, trypsin, and chymotrypsin.
- Lipases: These enzymes break down fats (lipids) into fatty acids and glycerol.
- Amylases: These enzymes break down carbohydrates (starches and sugars) into simple sugars like glucose.
There are many conditions where digestive enzymes can be a beneficial component of treatment. Some of the top conditions are:
- Pancreatic Insufficiency: The pancreas is responsible for producing several digestive enzymes. Pancreatic insufficiency occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough enzymes, leading to improper digestion and malabsorption.
- SIBO: In patients with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, improperly digested food molecules serve as an ideal food source for opportunistic bacteria. Starving these bacteria of their food source while simultaneously treating with antimicrobial herbs and/or antibiotics is part of a comprehensive SIBO protocol.
- Lactose Intolerance: Lactase is the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Lactose intolerance occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough lactase, leading to gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, gas, and diarrhea after consuming dairy products. Lactase supplements can help people with lactose intolerance digest dairy foods more comfortably.
- GERD: While some patients with gastrointestinal reflux disease have abnormally high levels of hydrochloric acid (HCL) in their stomach, many others actually suffer from low acid levels along with pancreatic enzyme insufficiency. For this subset of patients, a comprehensive enzyme can significantly alleviate GERD symptoms. Caution: in patients with active ulcers and gastritis, HCL supplementation can cause additional damage to the stomach lining. Always work with a professional when considering acid supplementation.
- Celiac Disease: Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye) triggers an immune response, damaging the small intestine lining. This can lead to malabsorption of nutrients. Some individuals with celiac disease may benefit from digestive enzyme supplements to aid in the breakdown of gluten and other nutrients, although these supplements are not a replacement for a strict gluten-free diet.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Some people with IBS may have difficulties with digestion and absorption of certain nutrients. Digestive enzyme supplements might be helpful in easing symptoms like bloating, gas, and abdominal discomfort, but results can vary from person to person.
Glutamine is an amino acid, which is one of the building blocks of proteins in the body. It is considered a conditionally essential amino acid, meaning that under certain circumstances, the body may not be able to produce enough of it on its own.
Glutamine plays a crucial role in various physiological processes, and it is particularly important for the health and function of the intestinal tract. Here’s how glutamine is helpful in the treatment of many types of intestinal disorders:
- Intestinal Barrier Function: Glutamine is a primary source of energy for the cells lining the intestinal tract. These cells, known as enterocytes, form a protective barrier that prevents harmful substances and toxins from entering the bloodstream. Glutamine helps maintain the integrity of this barrier, reducing the risk of leaky gut syndrome, where the intestinal lining becomes more permeable than normal.
- Maintenance of Gut Immune System: The intestinal tract is home to a large part of the body’s immune system. Glutamine supports the functioning of various immune cells in the gut, helping to defend against pathogens and harmful bacteria that may cause infections or inflammation.
- Gut Healing and Repair: In conditions where the intestinal lining is damaged, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Celiac disease, SIBO, and in patients with multiple food intolerances, glutamine can aid in the healing and repair of the intestinal tissues. It promotes cell growth and regeneration, accelerating the recovery process.
- Reducing Gut Inflammation: Glutamine has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce inflammation in the gut. This can be beneficial for individuals with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
- Support During Stress or Injury: During times of physical stress, such as illness, trauma, or intense exercise, the body’s demand for glutamine increases. The intestinal tract is particularly susceptible to stress-related damage, and adequate glutamine levels can help protect and support its function during these challenging periods.
- Management of Diarrhea: Glutamine may help manage diarrhea by promoting water and electrolyte absorption in the intestines, thus reducing the severity and duration of diarrhea episodes.
Allicin is a compound found in garlic (Allium sativum) that is responsible for many of its health benefits. It is a sulfur-containing compound that is formed when garlic is crushed or chopped. Allicin is known for its potent antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, and it plays a role in supporting the gastrointestinal system in several ways:
- Antibacterial and Antiviral Effects: Allicin exhibits strong antimicrobial properties, making it effective against various bacteria, viruses, and fungi. In the gastrointestinal tract, allicin can help combat harmful bacteria like Helicobacter pylori, which is associated with stomach ulcers and gastritis.
- Supporting Gut Flora Balance: While allicin can target harmful microorganisms, it also has the ability to preserve beneficial gut bacteria. Maintaining a balanced gut microbiome is essential for overall digestive health and immune function.
- Reducing Inflammation: Allicin has shown anti-inflammatory properties, which can be beneficial for individuals with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. By reducing inflammation, allicin may help alleviate symptoms and support the healing process in the gastrointestinal tract.
- Antioxidant Benefits: As an antioxidant, allicin helps neutralize free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can cause cellular damage. Reducing oxidative stress in the gut may contribute to a healthier gastrointestinal system and potentially lower the risk of gastrointestinal disorders.
- Managing Intestinal Parasites: Some studies suggest that allicin may have anthelmintic properties, meaning it can help in the expulsion of intestinal parasites, such as worms.
- Enhancing Digestive Function: Garlic, and by extension allicin, has been used traditionally to aid digestion. It may help stimulate the production of digestive juices, such as gastric acid and bile, supporting the breakdown and absorption of nutrients from food.
- Improving Gut Barrier Function: Allicin has been shown to enhance the intestinal barrier function by promoting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and supporting the integrity of the gut lining. This can be beneficial in preventing leaky gut syndrome and reducing the risk of harmful substances crossing into the bloodstream.
While I find these supplements to be incredibly helpful in the treatment of many different gastrointestinal conditions, as I stated at the beginning of the article, the most important factor in effectively treating a disease is to identify and treat the underlying cause. This is where working with a skilled physician can save patients a significant amount of time and money in the long run. If we can figure out why the gut lining is inflamed (is it stress, underlying food intolerances, Celiac disease, infection, or other?), why we aren’t making enzymes properly, or why our intestinal tract is happy to host bacterial overgrowth instead of taking care of the infection on its own, then we can eventually stop the cycle for good. When we take things back to the root cause and treat from that point, I find that patients can finally remove themselves from the cycle of repeated relapses and the constant need to take supplements and medications to manage symptoms. That is naturopathic medicine at its core. And the supplements, while important, are only a tool to help us achieve optimal health.
Dr. Katie Nuckolls is a naturopathic physician and owner of Thrive GI: Natural Digestive Medicine in Vancouver, Washington. She currently sees patients that live in Washington, Oregon, and Arizona using telemedicine. For more information, visit our contact page or schedule a free 15-minute consultation online.