Let’s talk digestion. I think it’s safe to say that everyone has experienced some form of indigestion at some point in his or her life. Unfortunately, it probably wasn’t just a one-time occurrence and the repeated episodes of reflux, gas, bloating, diarrhea, nausea and constipation, just to name a few, seem to occur on an all too regular basis. If this is sounding all to familiar lets dig in to the purpose of digestion while exploring common root causes behind some of the issues you may experience. We’ll discuss how you can get a handle on your digestion allowing you to feel better have more energy and ultimately regain your health.
Digestion is a pretty major deal, as most of you are already aware I’m sure. In a nutshell proper digestion allows our bodies to function day in and day out. Have you ever felt that groggy, fatigued feeling in the morning or the afternoon slump that leaves you wishing for more energy to get thru the day? Well guess what, these feelings can be directly related to how well your body is or isn’t digesting the fuel you provide in the form of food and drinks. In addition to the indigestion issues I mentioned earlier, all day energy is the next best indicator of great digestion. So if you’re reading this and thinking, “hmm…I haven’t thought too much about how I fuel my body and the direct impact that has on my energy”, then let me explain this a little more in detail.
Be Mindful When You’re Eating
The food we choose to nourish ourselves with is an entirely separate blog topic, but intimately related to proper digestion as well. I will get into this topic in the next post, but for now let’s just break down the different functions of digestion. To start, let me explain how digestion begins with our senses. We see food and smell food before we ever eat it, right? In most cases this should be the case! I know I’m guilty of inhaling food at times so I can honestly say that I may not have seen or smelled it before I gobbled it up. This is one of the first issues that impairs digestion believe it or not. We all need to slow down and engage in our senses to do something that is called “Mindful Eating.” “Mindful” is a term that has been thrown around a lot in many different arenas recently, like in meditation, yoga and now eating. So what do I mean when I say “being mindful?” It’s really quite simple, basically slowing down so that we can see and smell the food we are about to eat. We want to do this because it actually starts the body’s digestive process. Think of it like using a car starter in the middle of a cold Northeast winter when its 16 degrees out. If you start your car and let the engine warm up the car just feels better and it’s hopefully warm when you get in. Our bodies are similar in that if we choose not to take a few minutes to smell and see the food we are about to eat the digestive juices won’t be warmed up and ready when we begin eating, resulting in a delayed reaction to digestion. Now that you see how our senses start turning on the process we can dive into the next step. Before I talk about the next physical step of digestion which is chewing I want to also mention that the practice of mindfulness also allows our body to shift from a sympathetic (fight or flight mode) to the more appropriate parasympathetic state, also know as the rest and digest stage. If you have ever eaten a meal really quickly while on the go or while yelling at your kids (no judgment here) I’m sure you can relate to the less than satisfied feeling or even the immediate indigestion feeling that followed. The parasympathetic stage is a huge player when it comes to digestion. If we can’t accomplish this, digestion will always be impaired.
Well that’s easy enough, right? Just look at my food smell my food and relax before I eat and I’ll be a lean mean digesting fool! Not quite, there are a few more fundamental steps to the process. Who would have thought digestion was such a process, I don’t want to think about all this I just want to eat. I hear you, believe me I do. I also want you to improve your digestion and overall health so please read on and find out a few more important steps so we can put it all together and have some improved outcomes.
Chew, Chew, and Chew Some More
The next step is something I’m certain you have heard before, but maybe the reasoning behind it wasn’t ever explained well. CHEW, CHEW and CHEW some more. Chewing starts the physical breakdown of the food and it also releases the digestive enzymes amylase and lipase. These enzymes are excreted from the salivary glands and get incorporated into the food while it’s in your mouth. Have you ever said the following to your kids “chew your food so they don’t choke, slow down and eat?” This is a great recommendation because nothing ruins a meal faster than a choking kid, and its immediate indigestion for the adults! Kidding aside, this recommendation is two fold though, in addition to lessening the chances of choking it also allows for the food to properly mix with the enzymes previously mentioned and it acts as a built in delay system. Why do we need a delay? After the food is adequately chewed (think 20-30 times per fork full) it‘s swallowed and travels to the esophagus and into the stomach. The stomach is the next location where the action takes place. Hydrochloric acid is found in the stomach and it’s responsible for the next step of digestion, which is breaking down food and turning it into a form that our bodies can more easily extract nutrients from. Getting back to the delay, once food begins to enter the stomach there is a physical interaction in that the stomach begins to expand. It’s this expansion that then causes the HCL to become active lowering the pH of the stomach from the normal 5-7 to a more acidic environment pH of 3-5. Trypsin, another digestive enzyme is also released in the stomach that assists in breaking down proteins. With inadequate HCL production our food will not be properly broken down. This means that our bodies won’t extract the nutrition from what we’re eating. This all goes back to having energy slumps among many other nutritional deficiency symptoms, which can be expanded on in a future discussion. What about all those antacid and PPI’s that are so widely recommended by the Health Care industry to reduce HCL? Again, this is a topic for another discussion where we can go more in depth with the details, but for the purpose of this discussion when you take an acid blocker you are not only compromising your digestion, but you are opening the door for pathogen and parasite infestation. It’s our HCL and the acidic environment that results which kills organisms not allowing them to take up residence in our digestive tract. Pathogens and parasite infestations can be another cause for impaired digestions causing a lengthy list of issues on their own. Dr. Jonathan Wright breaks this down beautifully in his book, Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You; Natural Relief from Heartburn, Indigestion, Reflux and Gerd. I highly recommend reading this if you take PPI’s or antacids.
The Digestion Path
So at this point I hope you are seeing the connection to how digestion is not a simple process but a very intimately linked step-by-step process that builds off the previous step. So if you don’t take the time to properly chew your food not only will stomach acid production be delayed leaving you with a heavy feeling in the stomach, but also the pre-digestion that the enzymes contribute will also be compromised. There is a good side to this however, it’s that you have control over these factors making them easy areas to address. It’s important to control what you can because the following cascade of events takes place with very little to no input from you. There are some issues to consider for that could impact the next several steps like gallbladder disease or pancreatic insufficiency or even bacterial or yeast overgrowths. Again, these are one off topics and would be addressed better in another talk. Assuming all is ok in these areas the next step is for the Chyme (what food is turned into as a result of chewing, enzyme action and stomach acid contribution) to move from the stomach and make its way into the small intestines. On its way to the small intestines it continues to be mixed with secretions like bile acid from the gallbladder and additional enzymes that further assist in the breakdown and liberation of amino acids from proteins and free fatty acids from fats. The small intestines are the site where most of the nutrient extraction and assimilation takes place as well as where the carbohydrates are completely broken down into simple one-chain sugars for absorption. Our small intestines are 20 feet in length and they are amplified some 25x by small fingerlike projections called microvilli. These enhance nutrient absorption making sure we get everything necessary out of our food. These microvilli also contain enzymes, lactose and maltase to name a couple, which are released to further digest the sugar molecules that comprise the carbohydrates we eat. If there are any issues in the small intestine that affect the microvilli (there are 10 billion of in one square inch of the small intestine) then there’s going to be a problem with digestion and assimilation. We’ll talk more about this in a little while. From the small intestine, insoluble fiber and waste continue thru into the large intestine where fermentation occurs and short chain fatty acids are produced. These Fatty Acids are another source of fuel and a major function of the GI tract. After this process is complete digestion continues in the form of waste being removed from the body via a Bowel Movement.
I’m assuming this is a new way of looking at digestion for some of you. I know I personally never gave it any thought until I found out that I had H.pylori and later went on to find out I had SIBO. Then I dove into finding out how I can improve my own digestion, so I could regain my health, while helping other people understand what might be happening for them.
As a take away I want you to use this as a tool to assess your current digestion and eating hygiene if you will. If you currently suffer from indigestion in any form or poor nutrient absorption, and low energy then it’s time to take a look at the steps you can control:
2. Smelling and seeing the food
3. Chew and chew some more
4. Take enough time for the food to register, not only for satiety, but also for proper HCL production
5. Take some nice deep breaths during your meal and relax in light conversation or complete silence. Whatever works for you? I do suggest putting away the phone and other electronics; this is not the time for them. You need to focus on eating to have the best results.
If implementing these simple steps for 1-2 weeks has no impact on your symptoms then a further investigation is warranted. This is where a FDN-P, like myself, or other health practitioner can help you assess the functions that you can’t assess with the steps above. This would be inclusive of HCL production, presence of H.pylori, current stomach flora profile, and presence of pathogens. Looking at the terrain and function of your small intestine, as well as the presence of bacterial infections in the small intestine is important when addressing digestive health.
There are also simple supplements that can help improve digestion once an assessment is made to determine their need. Supplements like digestive enzymes, bitters, HCL (where it’s not contraindicated), and probiotics can make great improvements in the right situation.