As a digestive health specialist, my job is to educate you about why and how to take care of your gut so you’ll be healthier. After all, robust digestion is the cornerstone of health, and a healthy gut allows you to absorb all the wonderful nutrients from the delicious foods you’re eating. In the quest for good health you’ve likely encountered advice, much of it passed down from parents or even your doctor. But many commonly repeated and passed down bits of health information are just plain untrue. Here are some of the most common digestion myths.
Seven Common Digestion Myths
1. I’d like to start with my favorite: Meat rots in your gut. Now, you’ll often see this one via ads online trying to get you to buy colon cleanse kits (more on that one in a bit) to sweep out your insides and detox you from all that meat sitting around rotting in your colon. Sadly, marketers capitalize on nutrition myths to market you needless supplements.
It is biologically impossible for food to rot inside your digestive tract. The reason is that as soon as your swallow, food hits your stomach after traveling down your esophagus. Your stomach produces acid at a pH of about 2 (VERY acidic) to break down food and kill pathogens that may hitchhike in on your food. The acid turns your food to a liquid pulp called chyme that then passes into the small intestine where enzymes are released to further break down proteins, fats, and carbs. The good stuff is then absorbed into your bloodstream and the resulting waste travels to your large intestine (colon) where bacteria ferment some of the starches and the rest comes out as poop.
Meat may take longer to digest than vegetables or simple carbohydrates, but it does not stick around and rot in your gut.
2. Moving along, let’s talk about colon cleanses/detoxes, another of my favorites. People are drawn to colon cleanses for similar reasons to our above myth: They believe that waste sticks to the colon wall and builds up in there, causing fatigue, bloating, and gas. In fact, some popular colon cleanses claim that you can have up to 40 pounds of toxic waste stuck to your colon walls, a repulsive sludge that is the result of an improper diet. The claims go on to say this putrid goo sticks to the wall of the colon, causing weight gain and releasing its foul contents into our blood, poisoning your system. The toxins are causing, we are told, ailments like asthma, allergies, cancer, heart disease, and more.
Enter the colon cleanse: These kits promise that you will lose weight and detoxify your system of this toxic sludge. Most colon cleanse kits contain powerful laxative herbs like senna and cascara sagrada. These herbs don’t detox anything, but they will certainly clean you out and may cause diarrhea and prevent absorption of nutrients as food moves too quickly through the digestive tract. That can result in weight loss.
That’s why people think they work: If you are chronically constipated (not pooping once daily) then you likely will feel bloated and sluggish because waste is sitting in your colon (but it doesn’t stick to the walls and stay there). Your stool binds up toxins, cholesterol, and even excess hormones that need to be excreted, and these substances can be reabsorbed into your bloodstream and make you feel toxic if you’re not moving your bowels resgularly..
Colon cleanses and colonics (colon hydrotherapy) will certainly clean you out, and that can be a relief for people with constipation and sluggish bowels, as waste is moving too slowly through your colon. BUT poop does not stick to your colon walls or cover your large intestine with sludge.
If you are chronically constipated, it’s best to uncover the underlying reason, and there are several potential causes. Read this post for more. That said, want to know the best way to cleanse your colon? Poop every day. Read this post on how to best achieve that. Also, eat enough fiber-rich foods that actually do help scrub your colon walls and keep your colon free of waste. Examples of colon-scrubbing foods include psyllium, oatmeal, chia & flax seeds, raspberries, lentils, broccoli.
3. Salad is good for everyone: Eat more vegetables is a widespread health axiom. And while many of us can benefit from adding more plants to our diets, this is definitely not true for everyone (more on that below). Salad is a great way to get a bunch of veggies and is typically served as a large bowl of raw, cold greens and chopped vegetables. For people with inflammatory digestive issues like IBS and IBD, cold, raw foods can trigger diarrhea, gas, bloating, or GI discomfort. Cold foods can slow digestion, and raw veggies are more difficult to digest in some cases and may therefore cause gas and bloating in those with compromised digestion. If you have IBS or IBD, I recommend cooked, warming vegetables like squashes and braised greens until your digestive tract heals.
4. On that note, the more fiber, the better is not true for everyone. Again, if you have IBS, IBD, or even SIBO, adding more fiber to your diet can cause severe bloating, stomach pain, constipation, or any number of unpleasant symptoms. In the case of SIBO, bacteria trapped in your small intestine ferment fibers as carbohydrates hit your small intestine, and the gas that results from this fermentation can cause painful bloating, gas, constipation, and/or diarrhea. These folks, and people with IBS, need to limit fiber until the gut is healed.
5. Kombucha is good for everyone: Kombucha is a fermented tea that does offer probiotics and enzymes and has certainly caused a revolution. Fermented foods are wonderful for repopulating your gut with good bacteria that help you digest and keep your immune system strong. But kombucha is brewed with wild yeasts and bacteria–similarly to beer & wine–and some strains of these yeasts can aggravate people who have candida overgrowth. It’s also not ideal for people with histamine sensitivity. You’ll know this is you if it causes any GI symptoms or makes you feel funny or flushed.
6. Speaking of probiotics, another myth is that probiotics are good for everyone, and you should take them by the handful. Not so. If you have SIBO, for example, probiotics can worsen your symptoms. Also note that certain brands of probiotics are sub-par and just plain don’t work due to poor manufacturing processes. A final note of caution is one should not take the same probiotic supplement indefinitely. Read my guide to probiotics here.
7 Heartburn is caused by too much stomach acid. I really enjoy debunking this one, and it’s very important. If you struggle with heartburn, your doctor will recommend an antacid or a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), typically without asking you about your diet. The assumption is that you are producing too much stomach acid that is traveling up your esophagus and causing reflux and burning. It’s actually quite rare to produce too much stomach acid, believe it or not.
In the majority of cases, heartburn is caused by stomach acid that is too alkaline, NOT too acidic, and there is not enough acid produced to break down your food rather than too much. The result is that food ferments and does not break down properly, and the gases from the fermentation cause burning. Taking antacids relives this burning but makes the problem much worse in the long run, and depending on the type you’re taking, acid blockers or PPIs can have serious long term side effects. It’s a reminder that symptoms are our body’s way of telling us that something needs attention, and simply covering up the issue with a pill doesn’t address the underlying cause of the issue. Heartburn is often caused by a bacterium called h pylori (read about that here).
Now I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a comment below and let me know if you want any digestion myths dispelled!
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.