Reneé Barasch, founder of Nutritional Health Solutions, is a certified digestive health specialist who is fully committed to both making her clients feel better and educating them about what is causing their discomfort. Barasch is an advocate for proper digestive health and regularly writes and speaks on the topic. The first time she tried digestive enzymes, she found that not only did her gut feel better, but her hormonal acne cleared up, she slept better and her 3 p.m. Snickers craving was gone. She went on to study at the Loomis School of Enzyme Nutrition, in Wisconsin, and has been in practice for 11 years as an enzyme specialist. We caught up with her in her Highland Park office to get some tips for better digestion.
What are some common misconceptions about digestion?
Most people don’t know that the kind of food they eat affects their digestion. Something that sounds healthy, like a piece of organic whole wheat bread, could cause inflammation. Much of the food we eat is overprocessed, and our bodies don’t recognize the original ingredients. Dairy also causes many problems, in part because the homogenization process that most dairy products go through damages the fat molecules. If you drank raw milk right from a cow, the enzymes would still be intact and might not cause a reaction.
Digestive problems can manifest themselves in many ways, including fatigue, a compromised immune system, sleep disorders, headaches, joint and muscle pain, dullness in the hair and skin and even brittle nails. When you start digesting your food better, you actually deliver complete nutrition to the cell. When your food is not digested, the brain sends a message to the tongue to “get more food,” and causes us to overeat. The gut is like a second brain.
How can digestive enzyme supplements help digestion?
Our bodies use enzymes to break down protein, fats, carbohydrates and fiber in the foods we eat. They allow for more nutrition and hydration to go directly into the cell and remove the waste from the cell. We can’t function without enzymes. They are naturally occurring, but over time, the body gets depleted and we lose our ability to produce enough. If there’s a lot of digestive stress, the body becomes compromised. The adrenal glands, which produce hormones, use a fight-or-flight reaction to respond to this stress. This takes a toll on the adrenal glands, as well. Enzymes act as an insurance policy to make sure things run smoothly.
Why should nursing or pregnant women be especially attentive to their digestion?
If you’re not breaking down your food properly, this could lead to leaky gut syndrome, a form of inflammation that manifests with bloating, gas, cramps, food sensitivities and aches and pains. The waste that is supposed to get flushed out instead goes back into the bloodstream. In women who are pregnant, the baby is getting nutrition from the umbilical cord and is more prone to pick up bacteria if it’s in the bloodstream. Nursing women who start on digestive enzymes also find that their babies have great gut health because the milk is healthier. They are not as colicky and have less gas.
What are some everyday habits that can improve digestion?
Slow down! Take time to thoroughly chew your food. Digestion starts in the mouth, when the food comes in contact with saliva. Chewing food completely allows the enzymes in the saliva to work better and makes it easier for the rest of the body to break down. Consider chewing as a way to nourish your body. Also, stay hydrated, but drink most of your water in-between meals. If you drink too much while eating, your digestive juices get diluted and can’t work properly. A few sips of water is all you require when eating.
If you feel that you need a lot of liquid to flush down your food, you’re probably not breaking it down properly. There are a few spices that are known to aid digestion, namely turmeric, ginger, fennel and oregano, and these can easily be added to meals. Instead of telling people they can’t eat their favorite foods, I encourage them to make swaps. If they want something smooth and creamy, for example, they can try yogurt made with almond or coconut milk instead of traditional dairy.