Supplements to improve DIGESTION

Supplements to improve DIGESTION

The old adage “you are what you eat” is really only partly correct. It would be more accurate to say “you are what you absorb from what you eat”. In an effort to take their physiques and performance to new limits elite athletes are focusing more on general health. Sounds simple but it has been a little bit over-looked in the past. This article is going to focus on Protein powder and 4 ingredients that some manufacturers are adding to their products to assist in digestive health and a better utilisation of all ingested nutrients. We’ll start at looking at the protein powders themselves and how different refining processes can alter the way it will affect your digestive tract.

 Protein powders

The most popular protein powders are derived from milk. There are several different processes that are performed to remove the fat and lactose that can alter the structure of the proteins or the percentage of various protein fractions that the final protein powder contains. All the fractions eventually get broken down in the intestine into smaller di and tri peptides, but before that they are in a structure that can benefit your health. Protein fractions such as Lactoferrin and the various Immunoglobulin’s have been shown to support the immune system.

On the whole cow’s milk is usually well tolerated by most people (various ethnic groups rate differently), it is true that protein from cow’s milk does have a different protein fraction ratio than human milk. Most noticeably human milk has higher ratios of the Alpha-lactalbumin fraction while cow’s milk protein has more Beta-lacto globulin. Human milk also has a little less Casein in it. Caseins are usually not an issue but some people do have problems digesting higher level of the Beta-lacto globulin fraction in it.

 Stressed out people often will attribute poor digestion on Diary products, claiming it bloats. The reality is the high cortisol levels eventually create a false immune response in the gut, causing the body to attack a variety of foods. Bottom line,


“stop stressing and your digestive tract will be able to process all foods”.


The often mentioned argument that agriculture has only been with man for 8000 years and hasn’t allowed enough time to “evolve” to digest cow’s milk points to 2 main misunderstandings on evolution and genetics. Firstly 8000 years is plenty of time for natural selection to weave its magic and secondly all your cells have the mechanisms available to write new genetic code if the existing sequences are not sufficient to deal with a new stimuli or environment. You can activate dormant genes or re-write parts of them when necessary. You are walking around in an extremely intelligent piece of machinery but we don’t always use it to its full potential.

 Back to the protein processing, the most beneficial form of processing to keep the healthy fraction intact are cold temperature processing and membrane filtering. While some high temperature or acid treatments do remove slightly more lactose and fat than the cold temperature processes they do tend to de-nature the healthy protein fractions, rendering them neutral in terms of digestion. Some High temperature processed WPI’s tend also to have higher quantities of Beta-lactoglobulin, again only a problem for some people.


Digestive Enzymes

The most common problem with protein powder digestion is lactose intolerance. Most lactose will have already been removed from a quality protein powder however several manufacturers have added digestive enzymes such as Lactase, Protease and Lipase to make up for any lack of natural enzyme production. A good quality Hydrolysed WPI or a whey blend with added enzymes are suitable for those that are lactose Intolerant. Time to get on my high horse, the percentage of northern Europeans that are actually lactose intolerant is about 3%. The percentage of northern Europeans with overly worrying (or worse hypochondriac) mothers is considerably higher! You may have a digestive problem but it probably isn’t from lactose. Harder to fix but the most common cause is STRESS, will write an article on stress, neurotransmitters and digestive health down the track, until then chill and stay in the present moment!



Glutamine plays a role in a variety of functions including protein synthesis (includes muscle repair), regulation of acid-base balance in the kidneys, energy source if glucose is low, nontoxic transporter of ammonia in the blood. Most athletes use glutamine for recovery and its ability to neutralize waste products such as ammonia. Of interest however is the fact that the cells of the intestine are the largest consumer of the glutamine you ingest.

 Personally I have had great results with glutamine. Several years back I was having trouble finding a protein powder that would stay in my body for longer than 2 hours (run to the toilet J). While I was experimenting with different brands of protein powder and various whey, albumins and caseins I stumbled across an article on glutamine and the digestive tract. I then speculated that, over the years my growing muscles and digestive tract were competing for glutamine until it got to the point where there was not enough for both to function optimally. After only days of adding 20 grams of glutamine to my diet I went from not tolerating any whey and only small quantities of albumin and casein to being able to digest any type of protein powder. Gains in muscle mass began to return as well. 

 While I had spent months thinking that the type of protein was my problem it was in fact a lack of glutamine that was responsible for my less than optimal digestive health. The daily doses of glutamine were not necessary for me long term, though the occasional top up is great if I feel that nutrient absorption is becoming a problem again. A smaller 10 grams per day dose would be sufficient for most people under 100 kg.



Colostrum has had an interesting existence in the supplement industry, initially being touted as a source of growth factors, but more recently its digestive supporting properties are being noticed. While Colostrum does contain several growth factors most of them get digested in an adult digestive tract, unlike in a newly born infant’s digestive tract where they get absorbed completely and contribute to healthy growth. Before Antibiotics were invented Colostrum was the main source of immunoglobulin used to combat infections. Now that antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogens are emerging attention is again focusing on colostrum.

 Colostrum is also a good source of the protein fraction Lactoferrin. Lactoferrin is naturally 3-4 times higher in human breast milk than cow milk, so I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it is important/beneficial to humans.

Approx. 15 years ago the staff at Planet Max Canberra (myself included) were using Lactoferrin powder to support our immune systems through winter. While taking Lactoferrin none of us got a cold while those around us were dropping like flies. This was only a small group of 4 people, hardly a scientific study, but it was interesting that some of us caught a cold not long after discontinuing the Lactoferrin supplementation. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any manufacturers that boost their protein powders with added Lactoferrin though you can buy it at good health food stores.



Probiotics are various strains of bacteria that have been shown to be beneficial in restoring the natural balance of healthy bacteria in your digestive tract. Anti-biotic drugs and preservatives in food are just two of the known substances that can destroy the bacteria that help us digest our food properly. My own personal experience is that the occasional top–up of probiotics allow me to easily digest large amounts of food with ease, no increase in appetite, just a flat, happy stomach.


Take Home Notes

  • Good Digestive health is essential for the health of your whole body and to ensure that you get the most out of your exercise program.
  • Cold processed proteins are good for digestive health. Brands that use cold processed proteins include GEN-TEC, Bulk Nutrients, and Next Generation 
  • Digestive Enzymes can help you process your protein, particularly if you are lactose intolerant. Brands that have added digestive enzymes include Gen Tec and Bulk Nutrients Matrix.
  • Colostrum is again becoming popular to aid with the immune system and digestive health. GEN-TEC adds colostrum to their Casein Custard
  • Glutamine is present in all protein sources and readily available as a 100% pure Glutamine powder. Usually 5-10 grams post training and again before bed is sufficient to improve both digestion and muscle recovery.
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