Understanding how to manage stress and its effect on the gut are keys to helping support the digestive systems. And, establishing and maintaining beneficial interactions with the associated micro-biota -- the bacteria that live within humans -- are key requisites for a healthy body.
The American love affair with eating appears to be increasingly affect digestive health. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), more than 15 million Americans now struggle with heartburn daily, and an even greater number -- some 60-70 million -- of American men, women and children suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). About one in 10 complain about some form of gastric distress, including bloating. The data clearly emphasize the need for better care of digestive health, and this seems like an open invitation to the food industry for foods to foster digestive health.
The scientific literature is replete with findings that indicate hectic lifestyles, poor food choices and lack of sleep are responsible not only for stress-induced stomach ailments, but also for chronic gastric conditions, such as IBS and ulcers. And, a new wave of science has been making it increasingly evident that gut microbiota, previously studied in the context of inflammatory diseases, also modulates our immune system, as well as influences physiology and general well-being. 
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is now regarded as the “second brain,” because it stores about 95% of the body’s serotonin reserves. It is controlled by the 200 million neuron-strong enteric nervous system, while being rich with a large reserve of neurotransmitters. Chronic stress depletes neurotransmitter levels, and the digestive system is inevitably affected.
Stress is a big factor in poor digestion. First, it causes adrenaline to surge. This slows down digestion, and even halts it completely, as part of the “flight or fight” response. When food and associated acidic gastric juices linger in the stomach, they ferment; produce gas; and cause acid reflux. Food stalled in the upper intestine produces gas and can also cause painful cramps.

Plant Power

The Austin, Tex.-based American Botanical Council has provided information and support for years on botanicals and their general benefits to overall well-being. Through the direction of founder and executive director Mark Blumenthal, Ph.D., the council has helped usher onto the labels of Western foods and beverages such once-uncommon digestive-health plants as ginger, fennel, mint and turmeric.
“Ginger is one of the most studied herbs for its GI tract benefits,” says Bharat Aggarwal, Ph.D., professor at the University of Texas, and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “Ginger helps increase stomach actions to move food through the intestines.” 
The rhizome also “prevents the accumulation of toxic substances and associated gastrointestinal reactions, which often trigger nausea,” says Aggarwal. The anti-inflammatory action, by inhibiting the COX-2 enzyme, is how turmeric, a rhizome cousin of ginger, supports digestive health and provides a myriad of benefits on the digestive system.
The power of certain botanicals -- especially ginger, turmeric, and the folkloric peppermint and chamomile tea -- to regulate the digestive system has evolved in the hands of beverage manufacturers, especially those making teas and tea-like products. For example, Numi Organic Tea Co. recently expanded its offerings into a new line of savory teas. Flavors include such blends as Tomato Mint, Carrot Curry, Fennel Spice, Spinach Chive, Beet Cabbage and Broccoli Cilantro. 
Turmeric, ginger and carrots make the Carrot Curry Savory Tea not only unique, but also functional, as those compounds soothe nausea. The mint in the Mediterranean Infusion -- with ripe tomatoes, mint leaves, decaf black tea, cinnamon and lemon peel -- combines zest with menthol that inhibits gut spasms. 
Mint, according to clinical trials, has significant improvements in IBS (or recurrent abdominal pain) in children. Other herbs help, too: chamomile offers anti-spasmodic effects to soothe the GI tract, and piperine in black pepper can regulate hydrochloric acid secretion to help prevent heartburn.

Immunity Begins Here

A new mantra in health is that immunity begins in the GI tract. The immune cells lining the digestive system protect the body from harmful bacteria in the intestine and also play an important role in controlling food allergies, inflammatory diseases and obesity, in part by promoting the proliferation of the beneficial symbiotic bacteria.
Gabrielle Belz, Ph.D., and colleagues, working at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s Molecular Immunology division in Victoria, Australia, found that the gene T-bet, essential for forming these critical immune cells in the body, responds to signals in the foods people eat. 
“Proteins in green, leafy cruciferous vegetables switch on T-bet to produce these critical immune cells,” Belz explains. The opportunity is timely, with processors already focusing on incorporating more such vegetables into foods and even drinks.
“Kale is a perfect example of how greens can appear not only on restaurant menus and in prepared meals, but also in juices and beverages,” notes Lu Ann Williams, research manager of Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights. While there certainly has been an explosion of kale chips on the shelves in just the past two to three years, Williams reports that the U.S. alone saw more than 60% of the global 2012 introductions featuring kale, with activity across a wide range of product types. This was led by supplements, finished fruit and vegetable products, soft drinks and snacks. 
Examples of the “kale revolution” are Pasta Prima Inc.’s Superfood Spinach and Kale Ravioli; and H. J. Heinz Co.’s Mediterranean-style Parmesan, Kale and Seared Italian Sausage Soup. And, pushing the kale trend envelope are cold-pressed juices from Suja Juice LLC, in blends such as Glow (green apple, cucumber, celery, collard, spinach, kale, spearmint) and Green Supreme (kale, green apple, lemon). High-pressure processing (HPP) allows for the artful combination of kale and other ingredients that are typically not many people’s favorites to appeal to even the most finicky of consumers -- with a 30-day shelflife and without the taste of “cooked greens” not largely favored by American consumers.

The Enzyme Equation

Hormones released during stressful times could affect the contractions of the digestive muscles and decrease enzyme secretions needed for digestion. Chronic stress disrupts the digestive system and interrupts the production of enzymes -- crucial for healthy digestion. Stress also reduces the effectiveness of digestive enzymes and probiotic stores, leading to reduced nutrient assimilation. This also can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Supplementation with enzymes is based on the premise that the enzymes help pre-digest food; the rest of the digestive system can more easily extract nutrients from pre-digested food. Inadequate enzyme secretion is the root of the problem for those who cannot digest dairy, or cereals or fats.
Although supplements have long been the remedy of choice, raw foods are appearing as a source of viable enzymes. Brad’s Raw Foods LLC grinds kale along with carrots, red bell pepper, buckwheat groats and flax. In a simple process, the mixture is formed into sheets and the resulting dough cut, then dehydrated at 115°F, so as to not inactivate the enzymes. The raw vegetable chips and crackers are a perfect way to get more gut-healthy greens, digestion-friendly lignans and hemicelluloses, plus viable enzymes, into the diet. 
The nutrient-dense functional ingredients selected for Navitas Naturals Inc.’s products -- cacao, maca, chia and camu-camu, along with date paste, sesame seeds and raisins -- work not only to provide taste and wholesome nutrition, but also assist the functionality of digestive health. The ingredients are all raw and contain viable enzymes. They’re bolstered by the natural shelflife-extending antioxidants in sesame, raisins and date paste, and provide dietary fiber and prebiotics for digestive comfort.
Celiac disease, an inflammatory response in the small intestinal mucosa, is exacerbated by dietary gluten -- specifically by one of its key “toxic” peptides resistant to human digestive enzymes. It is, however, degraded by bacterial prolyl endopeptidases. Products combining both endopeptidases and exopeptidases, which work quickly to break down not only the gluten proteins (from the middle of the molecule in the case of the former, and from each end in the case of the latter), but also the offending fractions. Reducing them down to their amino acid building blocks prevents the proteins from causing the adverse reactions.
Some forms of these combined peptidase compounds are also formulated with lactase to break down the milk sugar lactose (to which some half of people worldwide have an insensitivity, if not an outright intolerance) and a unique protease enzyme blend to help degrade protein. These formulations are designed for those who cannot digest dairy products without gastric distress and who often assume they are lactose-intolerant, but get little relief from traditional lactase-enzyme supplements.

Pro Probiotics

Compromising digestive health negatively affects the probiotic status of one’s gut, which in turn compromises immune health. The advantage of a squeaky-clean environment lately has been discovered to carry stark disadvantages in maintaining healthy balances and levels of microflora, leading to an associated steady increase in digestive ailments during the last two decades. In fact, there now is some evidence to suggest this, in part, also is responsible for the sharp rise in auto-immune diseases and dysfunctions in the past generation.
The NDDIC’s assessment is that 60-70 million Americans struggle with gastrointestinal distress, digestive diseases or conditions that affect the digestive system. These include constipation; heartburn; hemorrhoids; irritable bowel syndrome; celiac disease; gallstones; ulcers; and inflammatory bowel diseases (including Crohn’s). 
It is no wonder that development, production and sales of foods and beverages for digestive health and digestive remedies are soaring in the targeted health and wellness foods industry. In fact, digestive health is the top trend in the health and nutrition segment for the fourth consecutive year, according to Ewa Hudson, global head of Health and Wellness Research at Euromonitor International, London.
A systematic review published in The Cochrane Library suggests prebiotic supplements in infant formula could not only help with digestion, but also help prevent allergies. The bacteria lining the gut apparently influence sensitivities to certain foods and allergens in infants and children and, thereby, regulate immune responses and govern how they will react to the same substances in later life. Prebiotics -- the indigestible components of carbohydrates, specifically in fruits, whole grains and vegetables (and in breast milk) -- stimulate the growth and activity of healthy bacteria in the gut.
Some, like resistant starch, have been shown to have a multilevel effect on digestive health, functioning like fiber, while triggering chemical cascades in the GI tract that stimulate probiotic growth and balance -- plus production of branched-chain amino acids. These also boost satiety, especially over long periods, allowing for more regulated intake of food and better digestion.
The FDA recently paved the way for prebiotics in infant formula by approving GRAS status for chicory root-derived oligofructose fiber for the infant formula sector. Oligofructose fibers, at a maximum level of 3g/L in milk-based term infant formula, offer digestive benefits as a prebiotic, feeding the growth of healthy gut microflora, and as a fiber, to help improve stool consistency. This is an important step forward for the sensitive infant population and has the potential to enhance the immune system of formula-fed children worldwide.
Meanwhile, last year, researchers from Vall d’Hebron Research Institute, Barcelona, Spain, conducted studies on d-fagomine, a non-digestible glucose analog naturally present in buckwheat grain and buckwheat-based traditional foods, for maintaining a healthy gut system. The study showed that d-fagomine inhibits adhesion of the toxic Esherichia coli bacteria, and other preliminary studies also show the glucose mimetic helps the body respond to pathogenic bacteria.
High levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and high serum cholesterol levels are believed to be risk factors for coronary heart disease, a leading cause of death in industrialized countries. LDL cholesterol and serum cholesterol levels can significantly be reduced through the regular intake of beta glucan-rich foods. 
Oats and barley -- primary dietary beta-glucan sources -- have been touted mostly for their coronary heart-health benefits, but now are being recognized for their positive effects on digestive health. Beta-glucans, in addition to moderating the glycemic response to the intake of high-glycemic foods, are also a source of soluble fiber. 
Humans do not produce beta glucan-degrading enzymes. Beta-glucan is not hydrolyzed in the small intestines and, instead, is digested by microbial fermentation in the large intestines. This process produces short-chain fatty acids, such as butyric acid, which seems to help guard against colorectal cancer, depending on where the degradation occurs.
The list of nutritional ingredients that support a healthy digestive tract does not only consist of probiotics, enzymes and fiber. With the growing comprehension of the gut-brain connection, it is increasingly apparent that foods and supplements can not only help defray the effects of stress and emotions on the gastrointestinal system, but can also enhance mood, attention and performance by resolving digestive issues. 

tin of cookiesStrong Resistance

Although few consumers can correctly explain prebiotics, they know the digestive benefits of fibers. Not all fibers are prebiotics; prebiotics, by definition, are a non-digestible food ingredient—commonly called dietary fiber—that benefits the host by selectively stimulating the growth and /or activity or one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon and thus improves host health. Food formulators should note that food ingredients may be classified as prebiotic on the basis of three criteria: They resist digestion in the upper GI tract; are fermented by the intestinal microflora; and selectively stimulate the growth and/or activity of intestinal bacteria associated with health and well-being.

activia bottleDites “Oui” à Pruneaux!

The California Prune Board invested in five years of scientific research before last summer’s European Food Safety Authority’s approval of a health claim for prunes/dried plums and healthy digestive function. The claim is based on the daily consumption of 100g of dried plums (prunes). While prunes have always had the reputation for improving digestion, the key to claim-making was the support of increased scientific backing. Human intervention studies suggest prune components, specifically the fiber content, can increase fecal weight, induce a laxative effect and improve stool consistency. The claim opens up opportunities for the addition of prune-based ingredients (at least 100g) as a substitute for fat in sweet baked goods.