How Fat Digestion Works:
In my last post, I talked about how important fats are in your diet as well as which fats to include and which ones to avoid. So much of this process is about unlearning outdated, unscientific info while appreciating what our bodies are designed to do so that we can actually help ourselves get well.
Nothing could be more essential to that goal than understanding the digestive process. If you don’t water a plant, it dies. If we don’t eat the right foods, digest it well and absorb it well, we too will suffer.
Here’s a super quick intro into fat digestion. The organs below are the primary players:
- The stomach starts the initial process of breaking up fat molecules with the enzyme lipase and stomach acid.
- The liver produces bile to emulsify fats. Without emulsification (think of using soap to break up grease), the fats don’t dissolve and we can’t extract the nutrients from it.
- The liver sends bile to the gallbladder throughout the day for storage so that when we eat fat, instead of bile just trickling into the intestines, the gallbladder contracts and releases a healthy dose of bile into the intestines to get the job done. (*KEY STEP*)
- Lipase from the pancreas also assists in the digestion of fats in the intestines.
The liver and gallbladder are the real workhorses here. The lipase from the stomach and pancreas only help prepare the fat to be broken up by the bile. Bile is what makes this whole process work.
Diabetics (and Many Others) Need Extra Support for Fat Digestion
In order to properly digest and utilize fats, you need a healthy liver and gallbladder. The problem is that, while fat is healthy and quite advantageous for diabetics, most have poor pancreatic function and compromised liver and gallbladder function due to a long history of elevated blood sugars and poor diet, which leads to fatty liver. A fatty liver is not able to make healthy bile for storage in the gallbladder, compromises gall bladder function. So, if you’ve had your gallbladder removed, blame your liver. It’s not the gall bladder’s fault. Those without gallbladders needs digestive support for life, especially the recommendations I offer below.
Fatty liver is becoming so common that up to 25% of the population have it and don’t know it (1). Even if you don’t have a diagnosis of either fatty liver or diabetes, if you’re carrying excess abdominal weight, you may also be someone who has a “sluggish” liver. You can be any weight or even underweight and have liver/gallbladder problems as this is a very common side effect of our modern diet, stress, prescriptions and consuming large amounts of fructose or alcohol. Rapid weight loss also can lead to fatty liver, which is why it’s so important to avoid extreme weight loss diets or bariatric surgery.
People often feel that fats cause them indigestion or pain in the right side of their rib cage (back or front) or they experience unexplained nausea. Chronic constipation is also a sign of a liver and gallbladder that need support. Fatigue, low blood platelets, water retention or edema, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and jaundice (yellowing of skin and/or eyes) are all overt symptoms, but again 25% of people with fatty liver have no symptoms. Menstrual irregularities can also be an indication. And, you can have liver problems without having fatty liver. So, this is an organ that I like to support with the majority of my clients.
Refer to this previous post on how to support stomach digestion, which must be working for everything else downstream to work.
How to Support Your Liver and Gallbladder
The key here is to encourage healthy bile flow to support fat digestion. You also want to do this because healthy bile encourages healthy gut bacteria, keeps you regular, destroys pathogenic organisms, and is how your body rids itself of toxins.
Here are my top 5 Tools:
- Manage stress. Your entire body is harmed by stress, but the liver is very sensitive to it. Research points to increased stress being linked to liver disease and liver failure. (2) In Chinese medicine, anger has long been identified as the biggest emotional stressor to the liver. (3)
- Digestive bitters. Traditionally, we consumed more bitter foods and herbs with meals to help stimulate digestion and especially liver and gallbladder function, since they are integral to healthy digestion overall. Bitter foods also support pancreatic function and blood sugar levels. Herbal bitter formulas are available in healthfood stores (here’s one). Ginger and dandelion tea can also be helpful before or with a meal. I prefer to use a product from a company called Medi Herb, available through healthcare practitioners. It’s a tablet, which works well for people who don’t like liquids or who would like to avoid alcohol (liquid bitters are usually alcohol based). Digest Forte is the product and you can visit this website to find someone in your area who carries it. Green leafy vegetables are also bitter, so increase your vegetable consumption and seek out kale, collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, beet greens, arugula and your basic mixed greens salad.
- Bile salts. This is essentially the component of bile that emulsifies fats. Many people have poorly functioning livers that don’t make healthy bile or the bile is too thick to be squeezed from the gallbladder (this is what leads to stone formation), so they’re not getting enough bile salts into the intestines. This type of supplement provides more direct support for fat digestion and is usually critical in the short term to bring proper fat digestion online while you’re taking other steps to improve your overall digestive health and liver function. My favorite product is Cholacol, from the same company who makes Digest Forte. I use the two together for maximum results and a more comprehensive approach.
- General digestive support. Because there is so much going on within the digestive system and it easily gets compromised by poor diet, stress, poor sleep, antibiotic use, etc. and because all health starts with good digestion, we want to make sure we support the entire digestive process. Again, you can find products in health food stores that are a general digestive enzyme with bile salts and use a combo product like that for ease. My preference is using the two products already mentioned (Digest Forte, Cholacol), with the addition of the general digestive support of Multizyme. These three cover all the organs involved in digestion and are masterfully formulated and sourced. Still, get what is available to you and what works within your budget.
- Sleep. I wrote a whole article on this. Sleep is mandatory. Your liver runs on a 24hr circadian rhythm, which means that if you disrupt that rhythm, it can’t function well. Get to bed at 9:30 or 10 for optimal liver function. The nice thing is that getting enough sleep also helps everything else in life.
Seek Professional Guidance
I never recommend self-diagnosing and treating any symptom or condition, so you’ll want to seek out a health care practitioner that understands how to support digestion and liver function, whether that be a naturopath, functional nutritionist or functional medicine doctor or herbalist. All of these people generally have these tools at the ready. They can recommend the right products and the right dosages for you.
The other reason you’ll want to get a professional opinion is because when an organ needs support, you don’t just want to give it a crutch like bile salts and digestive enzymes and do nothing else in the long-term. Short term digestive support is critical, but you’ll also want a comprehensive, long-term strategy to help support both the liver and gallbladder and many other aspects of your health so that everything is being addressed properly and you eventually no longer need the crutch.
In the meantime, feel free to visit a health food store and get digestive bitters that can be taken right before meals. You can also start a meal with a shot of diluted apple cider vinegar or lemon juice and drink lemon water throughout the day. A salad that contains bitter greens like arugula or mixed greens is also helpful to stimulate fat digestion by priming the release of bile. These are basic helpful strategies that anyone can do.
Now I’d love to hear from you: have you ever experimented with any of these or other tools to help improve digestion? What have you found works for you? Share so that others may benefit and feel free to leave other questions and comments below or reach me directly.