Poor Protein Digestion: Causes, Symptoms & Support
Digestion begins in the mouth. Properly chewing food is a big first step. All protein needs to be chewed thoroughly to break up the food. Next, the food reaches the stomach where adequate amounts of stomach acid (hydrochloric acid or HCL) are needed to trigger digestive enzymes and kill bacteria, yeast, and other pathogens. Stomach acid is also essential for nutrient absorption like B12 and iron. So what happens when this process fails to work? Well, poor protein digestion occurs, causing a host of health issues.
Once in the small intestine, digestive enzymes break the proteins up into amino acids. These are absorbed in the small intestine. ALL of these steps are essential for proper protein digestion and absorption. Unfortunately, many factors disrupt this process.
Please remember, MANY food and lifestyle factors contribute to gut health. The recommendations below are just another tool in your toolbox. They may or may not be what YOU need.
Long-Term Concerns with Poor Protein Digestion
- Increased acidity in the gut.
- Slowed gut motility, increasing risk for constipation, SIBO, candida, or other bacterial overgrowth.
- Poor hormone function. We need adequate dietary protein absorption to build the carrier proteins for hormone movement throughout the body.
Reasons for Poor Protein Digestion
- Low stomach acid (this is the most common reason; see details below).
- Current or long history of antacids (lowers stomach acid).
- Low sodium intake (lowers stomach acid).
- History or current eating disorder (lowers stomach acid).
- With age, natural production of stomach acid declines and the pH increases (becoming less acidic).
- Drinking lots of water before or during a meal (dilutes stomach acid).
- Very low protein diet.
Common Symptoms of Low Stomach Acid
- Bloating, belching, burning, or gas immediately after eating
- Nausea after taking supplements
- A sense of fullness after eating
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Hair loss
- Brittle nails
- Iron deficiency
- Undigested food in stool
- Chronic yeast infections
- Itching around rectum
How to Support Protein Digestion
- Reduce the amount of animal protein consumed.
- Chew your food well and take your time eating. A meal should last at least 20 minutes.
- Avoid large quantities of fluids before or during meals.
- Ensure you consume sodium in foods. Or, add Himalayan salt to your meals. (If you’re eating a whole foods diet, it’s healthy to add salt).
- Consider testing different types of protein and monitor how you feel (eggs vs. chicken vs. beef).
- Ginger tea can stimulate gastric juices (1). Drink before or during a meal.
Advanced Protein Digestion Support
These are a last resort and ideally, are not necessary long-term. However, they can be helpful to boost protein digestion or be used when you have a social event and want to eat without discomfort. You must experiment. But we’ve provided initial guidance.
- Stomach Acid (HCL)
- Start with smallest dose and slowly increase as necessary.
- If you trigger heartburn, reduce 1 cap for your dose.
- Brand Examples: Seeking Health, Designs for Health, Xymogen, Pure Encapsulations
- Digestive Enzymes
- Start with smallest dose and increase as necessary.
- Too much may trigger loose stools.
- Brand examples: Designs for Health, Xymogen, Pure Encapsulations
- Bitters (also called “Swedish Bitters” or “Digestive Bitters”)
- Consume 20-30 minutes before a meal.
- Brand Examples: Vitanica, Urban Moonshine
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Consume before one, or every meal, as needed. Can mix with lemon juice or water. Starting dose 1-2 teaspoons.
- Choose brand that says “with the mother” like Bragg.
- Follow instructions on the bottle.
- Do not take HCL while using corticosteroids or anti-inflammatory medications. (Advil, Tylenol, Ibuprofen, etc).
- Don’t take HCL or digestive enzymes if you have an ulcer.
- Do not break HCL capsules to consume. They can irritate tissues, gums, and teeth.
- Always check with your medical provider if you have concerns.