The Hidden Costs of Poor Protein Digestion
While getting enough protein in your diet is very important for optimal health, not properly digesting the protein foods you eat can actually harm your body in many ways.
Here’s how undigested protein in your gastrointestinal tract can lead to much more serious health issues than just bad gas.
Also, why low stomach acid is often the key to fixing your digestive problems, and how to improve protein digestion naturally using 4 simple remedies.
It’s a widespread, yet rarely treated problem and it’s vital to understand the potential dangers of poor protein digestion, so let’s get started.
The Importance of Protein
High protein foods, like eggs, fish, meat, nuts, seeds, beans and dairy products, are concentrated sources of essential amino acids — the essential building blocks of your body.
Effectively breaking down this protein, into its individual amino acids during digestion, is essential for both preventing gastrointestinal problems and maintaining your overall health and well being.
Well digested protein is used by your body for thousands of processes that keep you alive each day. It’s actually difficult to overstate the importance of protein to good health and disease prevention.
Proteins build your muscles, organs, bones, skin and hair. They run through your blood as hormones and oxygen-carrying hemoglobin. All enzymes and neurotransmitters are made of protein, as is the DNA and RNA at the heart of every cell in your body.
In one way or another, proteins are responsible for all the processes that power digestion, nutrient distribution, cellular communication, your body’s immunity to disease, and many more life-giving functions every moment of every day.
Given their importance then, shouldn’t you be eating as much protein as you can with each meal? Definitely not and here’s why.
While protein is essential for your body, poorly digested protein foods can actually be destructive, particularly within your gastrointestinal tract, where they putrefy into toxic compounds and bad gas.
As you’ll see ahead though, foul smelling flatulence can be the least of the problems caused by poor protein digestion.
How Impaired Protein Digestion Causes Disease
Putrefaction is the process by which undigested proteins are broken down in your lower intestine by bacteria.
Dangerous byproducts of intestinal putrefaction include hydrogen sulfide (the so called rotten egg gas), mercaptans (more of a decaying cabbage smell), inflammatory leukotrienes, ammonias, amines like cadaverine and putrescine, and a whole host of other toxic, allergenic and potentially carcinogenic gases and compounds.
When your colon is full of undigested protein, good intestinal flora are diminished and bad bacteria take hold. The very lining of your intestines can also be damaged, releasing undigested proteins into the bloodstream and wreaking havoc throughout your body.
Aside from foul smelling flatulence, abdominal pain and alternating constipation and diarrhea, other more serious health concerns and diseases associated with poor protein digestion include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Food allergies
- Increased headaches
- Chronic fatigue
- Ulcers and gastritis
- Autoimmune disorders
Mineral deficiencies and other signs of poor nutrition also become far more prevalent, even if you are eating well, as your body isn’t properly absorbing nutrition from the food you eat.
Understanding Protein Digestion
Clearly, it’s very important to digest your protein properly. The first step, that most of us have been told since childhood, yet still neglect, is to chew your meals properly.
All protein foods, and especially meats, need to be chewed very well to break them up into smaller pieces and increase their surface area. Make sure you take your time and savour what you’re eating before you swallow each mouthful.
Chewing protein actually signals your stomach to start producing hydrochloric acid. In fact, if you’re eating a mixed meal, like meat and potatoes, you should always start with the protein portion first to stimulate stomach acid production.
Once proteins in your food reach your stomach, they should be bathed in a strongly acidic environment to sterilize them of pathogens, like bacteria, yeasts and parasites. If this doesn’t happen, these parasites and bad bacteria can take hold lower down in your digestive tract.
Next pepsin, a protease enzyme, is activated in your stomach to cleave the protein peptide bonds and break them down even further. This won’t occur without gastric acid first being released in sufficient quantities, and at a low enough pH, to begin protein breakdown.
In the third stage of protein digestion, your food travels to the small intestine, where it is worked on further by pancreatic enzymes, such as trypsin and chymotrypsin. Ideally, it is here that protein should be rendered into amino acids and absorbed into the bloodstream.
Trypsin and chymotrypsin cannot do their job properly though if protein has not first been cleaved into smaller peptides by pepsin in the stomach. And without enough stomach acid, there won’t be enough pepsin for this to take place.
While both proper chewing and adequate pancreatic enzymes are important, when it comes to poor protein digestion leading to indigestion, the key problem is usually low stomach acid.
Improving Stomach Acid for Better Protein Digestion
When gastric acid is low, meals high in protein tend to sit like a rock in your stomach for long periods without moving. You won’t have the usual low churning of your tummy after a meal and you’ll likely feel tired and weighed down by all that stationary food.
If you are experiencing this feeling of indigestion regularly, then look to low stomach acid as a probable cause of your digestive problems and use some of the following natural ways to address it.
Extremely bad smelling flatulence is also a common sign of protein putrefaction in the lower intestine due to low stomach acid. This kind of bad gas doesn’t usually have a lot of volume, but it more than makes up for it with its terrible odor.
You should consider both that heavy feeling in the stomach after a meal, and the smelly gas the next day, as symptoms of not digesting protein properly.
If you experience this regularly, then take it as a sign of impaired protein digestion that needs to be addressed properly before it results in more serious diseases. A good place to start is by improving your stomach acid.
The health benefits of proper protein digestion are significant, with many people reporting much higher levels of energy and a wide variety of health problems clearing up once they improve their digestive function in this way.
With this in mind, here are 4 simple ways to help alleviate low gastric acid. Doing so will definitely help improve all of the 3 main factors that damage your digestive health, but it’s after meals with a lot of protein that you’ll notice the most difference.
It’s still a good idea to avoid eating too much protein if you are suffering from indigestion and other digestive problems, especially from low quality sources like processed meats.
Also remember, if these natural methods for improving stomach acid aren’t enough, it’s important to make an appointment with a digestive health specialist and get a personal diagnosis.
4 Natural Ways to Increase Stomach Acid Production
1. Lemon Water and Apple Cider Vinegar
Both lemon water and diluted apple cider vinegar can enhance stomach acid production for better digestion.
Add the juice of half a lemon or a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to a big glass of water and drink it just before you sit down to a meal.
2. Herbal Teas
These are a much better choice if you enjoy a beverage when you eat than soda or coffee which can hamper digestion. Their volatile oils also naturally relax contractions in your gastrointestinal tract, greatly reducing the risk of abdominal cramps and bloating after eating.
3. Swedish Bitters
Another method for stimulating stomach acid before a meal is to drink Swedish bitters in water. This is a combination of herbal extracts that improves digestion and combats yeast overgrowth in your intestines. The taste isn’t amazing but it does work well.
4. Betaine HCl Capsules
For very low stomach acid, where your meals just seem to sit in your stomach forever, you can take betaine HCl capsules to supplement your natural gastric juices.
Betaine hydrochloride is derived from beets and stimulates your stomach to produce more of its own gastric acid. It can also improve digestive enzymes in the lower intestine as well.
A good one, like this bestseller, should contain both betaine HCl and pepsin for maximum effectiveness.
Importantly, they should be taken at least half an hour after eating a high-protein meal to give your stomach time to produce its own acids before supplementation. Don’t take them unless your meal has a reasonable amount of protein in it.
People suffering from ulcers or taking anti-inflammatory medication, including daily aspirin, shouldn’t take betaine HCl without talking with their doctor first.
Also note, this product is more of a temporary aid in improving your protein digestion. Over time your usual dosage can start to make your stomach feel a little more acidic.
This is actually a positive sign that your natural gastric acid production is increasing and your betaine HCl dose can be lowered, or if you’re already at the lowest dose, stopped.
For most people, this generally takes at least a few months, often more, and older people with diminished stomach acid production may well benefit long-term from betaine HCl capsules with every protein meal.
Other Factors that Impact Digestion
Even if you don’t decide to use the lemon water, apple cider vinegar, Swedish bitters or herbal teas recommended, there’s still a lot of value in drinking a big glass of water before every meal.
Dehydration can limit your body’s ability to produce stomach acid so make sure you keep well hydrated throughout the day. The best way to do this is by always having water before you eat.
Drinking water right before a meal also makes you less likely to drink during or just after it (which can dilute stomach acid). Religiously downing a full glass of water before eating has even been shown to suppress appetite and help you lose weight.
There’s also a lot of value in relaxing and taking your time eating. This will not only give you more time to chew your meal properly, it also allows more of your body’s resources to be dedicated to digestion. Relaxing for at least 10 minutes afterwards is also highly recommended.
Improving protein digestion and your overall gastrointestinal health will have some surprising health benefits, above and beyond just preventing stomach problems like cramps, bloating and excessive gas.
These benefits include less fatigue and more energy and mental focus; improved skin and hair; natural weight loss; less chance of many serious diseases; and an overall improvement in your health and well-being as your body starts working properly again.
Digesting the protein you eat properly and fixing low stomach acid that leads to indigestion is an important early step towards better digestive health and less bloating and embarrassing gas.
Longer term though, choosing healthier sources of protein and eating a primarily natural food diet with plenty of fresh, enzyme-rich vegetables is the best way to improve protein digestion problems.
Photo 1 credit: Nick Dawson / Photo 2 credit: Christian Schnettelker
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