Ever feel like your food is just sitting in your stomach after a meal? Sluggish or slow gut motility may be the issue. Whether or not you have a diagnosis for Gastroparesis (delayed gastric emptying), stagnant digestion shouldn’t be taken lightly!
Hippocrates (accurately) identified that all disease begins in the gut. If you aren’t breaking down and absorbing your nutrients well, your body won’t have the raw materials it needs to grow and repair. If you’re experiencing any digestive symptoms, it’s worth taking the time to figure out what’s going on!
Common Symptoms of Gastroparesis:
- Loss of appetite
- Bloating (SIBO)
- Stomach pain
What Causes Gastroparesis?
The most common cause of delayed gastric emptying is a weak/damaged vagus nerve—that’s the nerve that’s responsible for the movement of our digestive organs (peristalsis).
The vagus nerve can be damaged by chronically elevated blood sugar levels (diabetes). It can also be over-stimulated by addictive behaviors over time.
The body must be in a relaxed, parasympathetic state for the vagus nerve to do its job—so stress is a big component of gut motility issues. When we are under stress, digestion is put on hold until we are relaxed again. Those with chronic stress don’t spend enough time in the parasympathetic state, so digestion slows to a halt.
MTHFR mutations can also contribute to gastroparesis because of their affect on muscle contraction. It’s important to get sufficient nutrients, especially B vitamins like folate, to compensate for the impaired MTHFR pathway. Mineral imbalances (especially zinc and magnesium) can also cause problems with peristalsis.
All of these causes are multifaceted, and what works for your friend may not work for you! I strongly believe in bio-individuality. It’s important to listen to your body and work with a health practitioner to figure out what YOU need. Having said that, here are a few things you might consider doing to improve your situation.
How to balance the digestive system and restore proper gut motility:
1. Get your body into a parasympathetic state.
That’s also known as the “rest and digest” state (as opposed to the sympathetic “fight or flight” state.) Here are a few ways to do that:
- Deep breathing exercises. Deep breathing has been shown to reduce stress, lower cortisol levels, and switch the body into a parasympathetic state.
- Keep a journal. Do a brain dump at night, and list at least 3 gratitudes each morning. This is profoundly helpful for reducing your stress throughout the day.
- Spend more time in coherence with HeartMath… Biofeedback used to be something you had to pay a trained practitioner to use, but now it’s available to everyone at a pretty low cost. If you have a smart phone, just get the Inner Balance app (for free) and purchase the sensor to plug into your phone.
Do a short session a couple times a day. As you spend more time in coherence, you’ll be teaching your body how to switch into a parasympathetic state, and you’ll spend more time in that state throughout the day. This is the BEST tool that I know of for reducing stress long-term.
2. Remove Dietary Stressors
- For a full reboot of the digestive system, I recommend spending some time on the GAPS diet. You can read more about it in this book.
- Remove gluten. I know some people think it’s just a fad, but gluten-containing grains are incredibly inflammatory. Completely remove gluten from your diet for at least 3 weeks, and see how you feel. It might be hard at first, but I promise it will get easier.
- Swap out dairy for less inflammatory alternatives. Dairy is quite inflammatory for most people—and it’s not just the lactose that’s causing the problem. Most of us react to some of the proteins in the milk (casein) that cause low-grade inflammation and mucus formation. If you’re having digestive trouble, try using coconut milk, almond milk, cashew milk, hazelnut milk, or hemp milk as a replacement for cow’s milk.
- Get off the sauce. Alcohol wasn’t doing you any favors, promise. In social situations where you would normally drink, stick to sparkling water with a little squeeze of lemon and lime. It won’t make you feel as social as alcohol does, but it will treat your body much better.
- Quit Sugar. If you’re in a relationship with sugar, get out now. Sugar is a sweet-talker. He’ll make you feel really good at first, but underneath it all he’s an abusive jerk and he’ll leave you sad and lonely… And overweight. And diabetic. And deficient in important nutrients. You deserve better.
- Only eat what you can handle. Start with smaller, more frequent meals. Listen to your body. As your digestion improves, you can increase the quantity of food in each meal until you’re back on track.
3. Support your digestive juices
- Stomach acid is usually in low-supply in those with delayed gastric emptying—and stomach acid is absolutely necessary to break down and absorb the nutrients in our food! Most people with low stomach acid can supplement with HCl, but for those with severe gastroparesis, it’s best to start with a more gentle approach.
- Swedish bitters (non-alcoholic base)
Bitters have been used for centuries to stimulate production of stomach acid and treat digestive troubles. The only caveat is that they usually come in an alcohol base, which isn’t recommended for those with gastroparesis. This brand of bitters is a water-based herbal extraction. Start slowly (5 drops a few minutes before meals) and increase your dose to a teaspoon. Some of the herbs in this tonic can have a bit of a laxative effect, so go slowly!
- Apple Cider Vinegar
Much like bitters, apple cider vinegar is effective for stimulating stomach acid production. I prefer Bragg’s, because it’s naturally fermented and contains live beneficial cultures. Drink a shot of it 10 minutes before meals to support the production of your digestive juices. Keep a glass of water nearby to chase it with, because it’s a pretty strong flavor!
- Ginger Tea
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, ginger is thought to increase digestive fire. When digestion has slowed to a halt, ginger can be quite effective at reviving it. It’s stimulates secretion of digestive juices the organs, relieves nausea, and is a powerful anti-inflammatory.
- Digestive Enzymes
When your body isn’t making enough enzymes on its own, you can supplement with digestive enzymes. This will take some of the burden off of your body while it heals.
- Bile Salts
The gallbladder is responsible for secreting bile, which breaks down fats and stimulates peristalsis, but sometimes it gets a bit sluggish. We can temporarily support our gallbladder with Ox-Bile and beets! Try juicing beets along with beet tops to encourage the gallbladder to release more bile. (but go slowly—this can cause a powerful.. erm.. cleanse.)
- Other healing nutrients
Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), marshmallow root, slippery elm, okra, asian plantain (the herb, not the fruit), and aloe vera juice all have a powerful healing effect on the intestines. Some supplements and teas contain various combinations of these soothing herbs, like HCL-Ease from Biotics Research.
4. Physical Manipulation
- Sometimes the cause of gastroparesis is physical in nature. For example, if there is a subluxation in the spine that is affecting the nerves that go to the intestines, you may have some problems digesting. A trained chiropractor should be able to evaluate and treat any spinal subluxations.
- Visceral massage can also be incredibly helpful in getting things moving. If there are any blockages in the soft tissue, a good massage therapist should be able to help get things moving again.
- Rule out a hiatal hernia. Sometimes the valve that separates the esophagus from gets pulled up through the diaphragm, and/or it gets stuck open. Both of these conditions can cause a major disruption in digestion, and the are both very fixable. Find a bodyworker who is familiar with a hiatal hernia adjustment—most chiropractors and applied kinesiologists should be able to help with this.
- Acupuncture works with the energetic meridians in the body to bring balance to all of the body systems. It may seem a little intimidating, but it’s painless and really quite relaxing!
As always, be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any new therapies. This is especially true if you are taking any prescription medications.
As I mentioned before, bio-individuality plays a huge role here. If your digestive problems are persistent, I recommend finding a certified nutritional therapy practitioner who can perform a functional evaluation to identify what your body needs most!
Have you ever struggled with gastroparesis? Was there anything in particular that you found helpful?