Nutraceuticals that support gastrointestinal (GI) health are among the most recommended and consumed of all supplemental nutrients. Given the fact that the gut is, in many ways, the heart of health, it is no surprise that the focus on healing should so often begin in the gut. However, as it is exposed to numerous environmental and dietary inputs throughout the day, the environment within the gut is highly susceptible to radical changes in composition, pH, solubility, and reactivity. These elements impact the tolerability, solubility, and efficacy of many nutraceuticals. Therefore, many supplements designed to support the GI tract may need to be strategically taken to maximize their potential.
Meal times prompt the production and secretion of various digestive enzymes and mucus, filling the stomach with acidic hydrochloric acid that’s prepared to tackle the tough proteins, and flooding the intestines with pancreatic enzymes and bile. Peristatic movements push the food bolus along much like a car passing through a car wash. The changes in acidity and movement are vital for the roles the GI tract must play during and shortly after a meal; however, a few hours after a meal or while we sleep at night, the system “rests.” The pH of the stomach is actually lower (more acidic) during times of rest with the stomach averaging a pH of less than 1.0. During a meal, the more neutral pH of the food raises the pH of the stomach to a pH of 3.0-4.0, depending on the contents of the food. Changes in pH, motility, enzymes, and mucus levels all affect the efficacy of supplements.
Probiotics are so crucial for gastrointestinal health that they can almost be universally recommended to combat the modern insults of our “westernized” lifestyles. However, these microorganisms, though powerfully healing, are also notoriously sensitive to their environment. Advancements in technology have made it possible to overcome many of the obstacles probiotics face as they pass through the harsh environment of the GI tract, but their efficacy can be boosted by simply taking them at an appropriate time.
One goal of taking probiotics is to recolonize the intestinal tract with therapeutic bacterial strains. To achieve this goal, the probiotics must reach the intestines alive. Acid-resistant capsule technology has improved the viability of probiotics, but using specific strains with acid-resistance is even better. The gastric pH is lowest between meals, hovering around 2.0, but when the pH of food is combined with the gastric juices, the pH is raised. Therefore, taking probiotics with meals may help ensure their viability as they pass through the gastric juices. Additionally, probiotics are naturally found in fermented foods, so taking them with a meal may emulate their most natural mode of delivery.
Digestive Enzymes & Bitters
Digestive enzymes (including Betaine HCl) function to break down food, so they are best taken right before meals. Naturally, these enzymes are produced in response to hormonal and environmental cues. Likewise, bitters such as gentian and wormwood are botanicals that stimulate the activity of the upper digestive system by triggering a vagal reflex, increasing the secretion of digestive enzymes, and improving blood circulation to digestive organs. Therefore, bitters are also best taken 5 to 10 minutes before meals to support digestion.
Glutamine is another common GI supportive nutraceutical, functioning to provide adequate energy substrates to villi to encourage their repair and growth. It is a “gold standard” for addressing leaky gut and improving GI permeability. Since glutamine is an amino acid, it may compete with other amino acids for a binding site; therefore, to maximize its effectiveness, it is best taken between meals.
Dysbiosis is a common GI condition necessitating the use of antimicrobials to rebalance the microbiome. These nutraceuticals include berberines, black walnut, sweet wormwood, oregano oil, and other agents that have antimicrobial actions. Their contact with the microbiome is essential for their effectiveness, so taking them apart from meals is most ideal. However, these nutraceuticals may not be tolerated well on an empty stomach in some individuals, in which case, taking them with a meal is more effective than not taking them at all. As a note of caution, though, antimicrobials should not be taken with probiotics since, by nature, their function is to kill microorganisms. Most are selective to the pathogenic strains, while leaving the healthful strains alone, but to prevent any mistakes, it’s best not to combine them.
With the dynamic nature of the GI tract, timing supplements can be difficult but is necessary for maximizing their efficacy and ensuring consumers see the results. There are a variety of GI supportive supplements, but considering the function of the nutraceutical can help in deciding when it should best be taken.