So, I’ve officially decided to go in the direction of Gut Health Therapy in my practice and I couldn’t be more excited about it. When people think of the gut, they tend to focus solely on digestion and digestive complaints, however, the gut is home to a microbiome filled with trillions of bacteria that act as the control panel of the human body. What does this mean? It means that gut health isn’t just related to how you digest your food, but also influences and controls hundreds of processes within your body ranging from your mood to your hormones to skin health and beyond. The potential for healing your gut and getting back to feeling your best is limitless and I think that’s why I love it so much. I myself was able to come back from severe adrenal fatigue and hormonal imbalance through healing my gut and I love sharing this information with others who might be frustrated, confused and out of ideas. Anyway – that’s all for now, but with the gut in mind, I want to jump in to today’s topic: A Basic Look at Healthy Digestion.
Most people have a rough idea of what digestion entails. You eat your food, it goes to your stomach and fills you up, and then somewhere in the next 12-24 hours it makes its way out and that’s that. What most people DON’T know, however, is that digestion and all it’s processes affect way more than your satiety level and fat stores. In fact, your gut is the birthplace for almost every metabolic process in your body – which is a fancy term for everything that makes you YOU! In order for us to extract and utilize nutrients from our food, a certain cascade of events must take place. Without proper nutrient utilization, every cell in our body is subject to compromise. Digestion has several steps but it all begins with one simple little thought. Most of us assume that digestion begins once we swallow our food, but in fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Once you have the thought “I’m hungry,” you set off a chain of command that begins with your salivary glands. As you prepare your food, wait for it to cook or heat up, and continue thinking about your meal, your body gets itself ready by producing digestive enzymes and juices that will aide the breakdown of carbs, fats and proteins. This is why, when we bust through the drive through, talking on the phone, and scarf our meal in the car on our way back to work, we end up with bloating at best or terrible reflux and indigestion in worse cases. We never even had time to think about our food, let alone prepare our body to receive it. Most people think of cooking or prepping your foods as a chore, but in reality, cooking our food is the closest thing we have to our ancestrally honoring our body to assimilate nutrients.
Moving on … as you are chewing, your salivary glands trigger enzymes that begin to break down carbohydrates, to be used for immediate energy needs. In a society that eats quickly and efficiently, we have forgotten that chewing is the first mechanical step of food breakdown that occurs. Our teeth are meant to aide the process of digestion so that we aren’t having to overuse and overwork our secretory glands and gastric juices. Often, if people are experiencing gas, bloating or indigestion, the simple act of chewing their food better can relieve symptoms and reduce the burden on their body. Once food has been turned to mush (bolus) in the mouth, we swallow and it makes its way down the esophagus and into our stomach.
Your stomach is an AMAZING organ that protects both itself and our body from the intense chemical reactions taking place inside. Hydrochloric acid (Hcl), or stomach acid, has a pH strong enough to eat through metal, yet the cells in the lining of your stomach produce mucus to ensure its survival. Brilliant! Anyway, once bolus reaches your stomach, several hormones and actions are stimulated to continue the process, including the release of pepsin to breakdown proteins into amino acids and polypeptides. Your stomach will continue to secrete Hcl and mechanically churn your food until it reaches a highly acidic pH of 1-3 and is soupy in consistency. This mixture is called chyme. Once this pH has been reached, your pyloric sphincter will open up and allow these contents to flow into your duodenum, or the first part of the small intestine, where bicarbonate will flow in to to calm down the acidity of the chyme. At this point, bile is also released from the gallbladder, when dietary fat is detected, to break it down into fatty acids. As chyme moves along the rest of the small intestine, all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals are absorbed through the intestinal wall and into your bloodstream, to the liver where they are distributed to your various cells, tissues and, ultimately, organs. I’ll say it again, literally EVERY CELL, OF EVERY TISSUE, THAT MAKES UP EVERY ORGAN, IS AFFECTED BY DIGESTION! Still think your food doesn’t matter?
I’ll finish up quickly. Once your leftover fiber, water and waste leaves the small intestine and enters the colon (large intestine) there is a lot of probiotic activity that takes place to eat up extra waste in your intestinal wall and manufacture vitamins and nutrients. You also reabsorb compounds like water, hormones, bile back into your body, assuming they don’t make it out quickly enough. We could cover an entire blog post just about colon activity but I’ll save it for another time. Knowledge is power my friends. When you understand HOW the digestive system and processes work, you are in a position to make sure that everything stays on track and that you are giving your body the support it needs to do its job well. In another post, we will talk about dysfunction, but having an understanding of FUNCTION first is critical to gaining a foothold on the complaints and issues you may be experiencing. To put it lightly, without proper digestion, our whole body goes to shit! So, with that in mind, here are 5 tips to get you back in shape!
1. Chew your food! At this risk of sounding like your mother… You have teeth for a reason: Use them.
2. Try adding in foods like apple cider vinegar, ginger and lemon water before your meals to stimulate your own natural Hcl production. Stomach acid is king!
3. Sit down and enjoy your meal. Eating is not a chore, nor something to cross off your to-do list. Your nervous system MUST be in a rest and digest mode to properly assimilate your food. To put it bluntly, maybe its time to reevaluate your priorities if life in the fast lane is your jam.
4. Don’t skimp on fat. Fat is necessary for so many reasons, but one of them is to maintain and healthy liver and gallbladder. Without dietary fat, you risk biliary stasis and build up – ie. Gallstones and the inability to tolerate fats in your diet. Trust me, it’s nasty. Shoot for small amounts at first if you are coming off a low or no-fat diet, and aim for healthy, stable fats like coconut oil, butter, avocado, nuts/seeds, and properly prepared olive oils.
5. If you are having trouble digesting food, you may want to consider adding a digestive enzyme or HCL supplement to your meals. I would suggest working with a practitioner on this, but you can also test for stomach acid production at home.
Till next time!