The Importance of Quality Digestion!

Quality digestion absolutely cannot be overlooked but unfortunately it often is when we talk about a healthy way of eating.  As i am sure you have heard before….you are not what you eat but rather what you absorb and don’t poop out!  There are plenty of important reasons as to why there are nutrients in the foods we eat…because our body needs them to function optimally and if we aren’t absorbing them properly then we are not functionally optimally. 

We need to eat foods that serve us well, make us feel alive but if digestion is off…its really doens’t matter as much what we eat….and who wants to waste money on quality foods that we are not getting the most from?!  Improper digestion and thus less than optimal digestion can lend a hand to us ‘starving’ at a cellular level and thus the ripple effect of less than optimal health and dis-ease.

What follows is a brief (b/c this is a huge topic!) sum up of some of the key factors that go into proper digestion.  There is so much to consider and so many reasons why someone may not be functioning at their best but this will review will be a good starting point….consult a nutrition consultant for more individualized info.

When we eat and digest food, various biochemical components of the food trigger a slew of hormonal responses in the body.  These hormonal responses control the use, storage and availabilty of the nutrients ingested, where they go to in the body and when they actually get there.  “Different nutrients cause different hormonal responses but all of those responses are intended to correct the shift in balance of our biochemistry by the influx of digested food”.

As you can see… every part of the body and mind depends to the extreme on proper digestion to supply it with nutrients for proper functioning!

Poor digestion is an epidemic in and of itself and it has major implications.  The rise in the sale of Tums and proton pump inhibitors (protonix, prilosec, nexium, prevacid etc) is thru the roof as are the incidence of IBS, colitis, diverticulitis, crohn’s disease, and gallbladder and appendix surgeries.  And unfortunately these meds are often just the thing that contributes to the decline of optimal digestion…yes they may help in the relief of acute discomfort but they were never meant to be used long term although that is precisely what is happening. 

Theere are soooo very many components involved in the digestive process.  We will look mostly at the stomach, the small intestine and the large intestine….and really only skim the surface but attempt to give you a great place to start.  And we will focus on 3 of the key players in the health of your digestive system.  Those three areas are the amount of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, inflammation and good gut bacteria.

We must first remember that the process of digestion actualy starts in the brain and is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system….this is the nervous system related to “feed and bred” or sometimes called “rest and relax” vs the  “fight or flight” mode of the sympathetic nervous system.  So what does that tell us…that you need to be relaxed in order to digest properly! This is the first step… be sure to eat in a relaxed manner, in a relaxed setting and one in which you can take adequate time to eat slowly, comfortably and while enjoying it!  Eating while stressed, rushed or preoccupied sets the initial stage for improper digestion and therefore a decrease in necessary secretions along the way…creating a great set up for reflux, indigestion and poor absorption…as well as other issues down the tract…

Taking time to thoroughly chew our food is also key…just like mama said!…this starts the process of proper carb digestion and improperly chewed food means that it will take more of the important hydrochloirc acid (HCL acid) to do the same job than had you chewed that food up better….thus using up your stores of the all important HCL acid, which as you will soon learn has implications further down in the digestive process.

As the properly chewed food moves down into the stomach, it is hoping for a nice acidic environment in the gut.  In order for proteins to begin to be properly broken down, the pH of the gut needs to be nice and low….and in order for the rest of the digestive process to work…this pH needs to be nice and low!

A healthy low pH signals to the pyloric valve (the valve b/w the stomach and the small intestine), to open and move food to the small intestine.  If the pH is off (not enough acid or too high), then this emptying is delayed, sometimes for hours…leading to bloating, indigestion and fermentation…setting the perfect stage for reflux and heartburn!  These are almost always issues of too poor HCL acid vs too much….if may feel like too much b/c that fermented food creepes back up to where it shouldn’t be.  So, trying to “neutralize” that acid with tums or other meds is actually making the overall situation worse in the long run.

A healthy amount of HCL acid, providing a nice low pH in the gut is essential for protein digestion and at least 14 different minerals as well as vitamin B12.  It is also essential for the proper flow of the rest of digestion!

Some common signs and symptms of potentially low level of HCL acid:

  • Indigestion/bloating/sense of heaviness after meals
  • Gas and belching
  • Acid reflux/heartburn
  • weak brittle nails and hair loss

Implications of a low level of HCL acid: (besides those mentioned above):

  • Poor digestion and absorption of proteins and amino acids which are necessary for sooo much…such as: neurotransmitter production (regulation of mood); maintenance and repair of cells, organs, bone and tissue…sounds like alot eh?!
  • Poor absorption of key minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, boron, iron and zinc, as well as vitamin B12.
  • A poorly digested mass of food (from not enough HCL acid) traveling to the small intestine contributes to inflammation within the small intestine which contributes to what is known as “leaky gut syndrome” or increased and inappropriate intestinal permeability (which is a topic for a whole separate blog post!).  In simple terms, this is when food stuff gets thru the lining of the small intestine and into the bloodstream too quickly thus creating an immune system response and a whole slew of issues from that! (think food allergies, food sensitivities, and autoimmune issues, amongst others).

You see, your small intestine can be described as a case of “inside/outside”.  This is the way the authors of “It Starts With Food” so clearly describe it…..if something is still inside the small intestine it is technically still outside the body.  That food stuff and those nutrients have not yet reached the bloodstream and thus the cells inside the body.  Your small intestine is very much like the skin, keeping you protected from the outside world.  When is it ever a good idea to have skin breakdown or an open wound??…Never!  The lining of your gut is the physical barrier between your insides and the outside world and thus it is very important to protect tht lining!! 

It is super important to consider that >70% of your immune system resides in the gut…to protect us on the front lines from the nastiness that may be coming in.  This is the area of the first line of defense!  When our immune system flares, so too does inflammtion and thus the cascade of often detrimental events.

Our immune system has made a vital alliance with some good gut bacteria or healthy intestinal flora.  They are super important “back up” as well as front line defense to help with: proper digestion on all levels, protection of the small intestinal lining, they help with detoxification pathways and help our body in the production of vital nutrients that effect mood, nutrient absorption, energy levels….everything! …. quite a few important jobs!

So keeping up a healthy level of beneficial gut bacteria is paramount for multiple reasons.

So, let’s look at the ways that disruption of this all important digestive process can occur in 3 of the important areas:

Poor Hydrochloric Acid Levels:

  • Eating foods/meals in a rushed or stressed setting
  • Not chewing your foods properly
  • Eating too many carbs (whther complex or simple) as HCL acid production is inhibited in the presence of sugar/glucose an starches
  • Not eating enough overall proteins from a variety of sources as HCL acid can only be produced in the presence of protein
  • Eating too much protein all at once…we really do not need that 12 oz hunck of meat
  • Avoid unfermented soy (tofu, soy protein, soy milk etc) as it contains enzymes inhibitors that inhibit your ability to absorb various nutrients
  • Chronic stress and anxiety…keeping us in an elevated “fight or flight” mode and not so easily transitioning to the “feed and breed” mode we need to be in for proper digestion
  • Increased, excessive or chronic alcohol consumption
  • Vegan or vegetarian for an extended amount of time without adequate protein or fat soluble vitamin intake
  • Thyroid hypofunction
  • Nutrient deficiences….which becomes a viscious cycle as poor digestion lends to nutrient deficiences which then contributes to poor HCL acid production and then poor digestion!

Inflammation:

  • Not enough HCL acid contributing to leaky gut (which has been implicated in an increase risk of heart disease, stoke, diabetes and high blood pressure, as well a contributing factor to IBS, Chron’s disease, ulcerative colitis and autoimmune disorders)
  • Chronic stress…continuously elevated cortisol levles can do damage in many areas
  • a deficiency or decreased intake of fat soluble vitamins
  • Excess abdominal fat…literally “inflammed” adipose tissue rubbing against the lining of the gut
  • Chronic immune response or overactive immune system (often from chronic or systemic inflammation..again a viscious circle)
  • Various foods and their components…dairy and gluten are two of the biggies…creating an immune system response

Managing Inflammation is key and profoundly impacts your quality of life!

A Decrease in Good Gut Bacteria:

  • Stems from all of the above!…the ripple effect!
  • When thay have to work all the time…you use them up = decreased
  • Antibiotic use

Soooo, when you think about how you personally can take steps to create an optimally functioning digestive system for overall optimal health…think of the measures that would support all of the above….

  • Eat in a relaxed manner
  • Chew, chew, chew
  • Eat a lower carb, higher healthy fat and moderate protein diet
  • Decrease overall: simple and complex carb intake…speak to your nutrition consultant about what appropriate amounts are for you personally
  • Avoid unfermented soy
  • Do not overeat at meals
  • Avoid liquids within 30 mins of a meal (rushes food through too quickly, altering the pH and not allowing for enough time for porper nutrient absorption for all of the body’s important processes)
  • Avoid fruit with meals
  • Eat probiotic rich foods regularly…like kimchi, coconut kefir, kombucha etc
  • Minimize gluten and some dairy and monitor for gluten and dairy sensitivities
  • Soak and properly prepare grains if you eat them and nuts
  • Have your thyroid levels checked (and remind your Dr that the parameters for TSH have changed!)
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Stess Management
  • Weight Managment
  • Supplement with appropriate supplements as needed….talk to your nutrition consultant about this
  • And enjoy life…make time for play and activity daily!!
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