Back to Basics – Digestion: Repairing Your Plumbing
November 24, 2023
Looking closely at digestion and elimination is not the most popular dinner table conversation, but it is impossible to find long lasting health without it. According to the American Gastroenterological Association, as many as 60-70 million Americans are suffering from gastrointestinal (GI) diseases that create disruptions to daily life. That doesn’t include all the Americans experiencing uncomfortable digestive symptoms that don’t qualify as a disease, but severely decrease overall life happiness. Many of the digestive discomforts experienced by so many can be addressed with behavior adjustments and having a deep understanding of the full digestive process.
Starting in the brain and ending in the...well, you know, the digestive system is a complex orchestration of organs and cells that have the potential to work in complete harmony or entirely out of tune. Repairing your digestive system allows the body to utilize all the balanced nutrition you have begun to feed it (right?) and thrive.
To understand how to remedy a poor digestive system, you must understand how digestion looks in a healthy body. To summarize the digestive process, it is easiest to think of it as a north to south process. Correcting an issue found in the lower portion of the digestion system is always benefited by healing the northern most portion and working down.
Beginning in the brain, the body must be relaxed and in a parasympathetic state to digest food properly. Sitting down away from distractions, such as the computer, phone, or TV, allows the body to enter the correct state. When you prepare and think about your meal, salivary glands begin producing saliva, making the act of swallowing your food much easier. However, if you are not taking enough time to chew your food properly (~20-30 seconds), the brain does not get the message to trigger the proper digestive processes and food does not get broken down properly, putting strain on the stomach.
When you take your first bite, the mouth begins the mechanical breakdown of food and saliva enzymes begin the breakdown of carbohydrates. If you chew too fast, the enzyme is unable to break down starches completely, leaving undigested starch entering the colon which will feed unhealthy bacteria and create imbalance in the gut flora.
Once you swallow, the food enters the stomach. The extreme acidity breaks down proteins, but it also kills bacteria and parasites while disinfecting the stomach. Factors such as stress, allergies, excess carbohydrate consumption and alcohol can inhibit acid production. Approximately 90% of Americans produce too little stomach acid, rather than too much. Increasing your stomach acid is my number one recommendation to new clients as most experience some form of acid reflux and assume they have too much stomach acid when in fact they have too little. If this is you, try drinking a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with a squeeze of lemon in eight ounces of water before your meals to help aid the body in producing the necessary stomach acid. If that is not appealing or sounds too time consuming, you can supplement it with over-the-counter HCl until the body has recovered its natural rhythm.
Once the stomach breaks down the food further, it is released into the small intestine. The small intestine signals the pancreas to release pancreatic juice to complete the chemical breakdown of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and the gallbladder to release bile necessary to absorb fat. Dysfunction of the gallbladder is related to poor quality fats or low-fat diets as it does not trigger the release of bile, causing the bile to become viscous and old. The gallbladder is then unable to release the old bile, resulting in no fat absorption and deterioration of the gallbladder.
In the small intestine, millions of villi absorb the nutrient molecules into the bloodstream. However, if the system is poorly functioning, the lining becomes leaky, selectivity as to what passes into the bloodstream is lost, also known as 'Leaky Gut'. Inappropriate sized proteins and fats pass through the gut, overwhelming the immune system. What should be nourishing food is now another assault on the immune system, leading to food allergies, skin reactions, and frequent colds.
Finally, the remaining particles enter the large intestine where water is recycled, any lost nutrients available are captured, and feces are formed and expelled. Fun stuff, right?! If maldigested foods are degenerating in the colon, it causes an imbalance in gut flora which weakens the cells of the colon. This leaves the colon subject to inflammation, diverticula, and loss of tone, leading to severe issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn's Disease, colitis, and diarrhea or constipation.
Keeping your body's plumbing in good working order can begin with a few healthy steps. To start, sit down for all your meals away from distractions when you can, focusing only on your meal. Spend ~20-30 seconds chewing each bite, allowing the body to properly begin the breakdown of food. This step seems excessive and boring; however, preparing your digestion for food can alter your entire digestive experience. Try enhancing your stomach acid using the above-mentioned methods or sipping lemon water frequently throughout the day and reducing your consumption of caffeine and alcohol. Eat a diet of whole foods, including healthy fats, to stimulate healthy bile production and fat absorption.
Incorporating these habits will allow the digestive system to work as designed and remove the stress of poorly digested food on the lower portion of the system. Having a properly working digestive system means you are enjoying all the amazing health benefits of your whole foods-based diet. Happy pooping!