Healthy Digestion and Our Digestive System
Healthy digestion and digestive issues run Americans thousands of dollars a year. But they don’t have to. Absorption of nutrients, and elimination of wastes are essential requirements for healthy digestion. The gastrointestinal tract which regulates all of these functions is considered to be the “seat of health.” The goal of any nutritional approach is to maximize the health of this important system.
The gastrointestinal tract begins at the mouth and ends at the rectum. It comprises the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. The liver, pancreas, and gallbladder also play important roles in digestion.
What Goes In Must Come Out
We all know that what goes in at the top comes out in a different form at the bottom. But, what happens in between? And why is it important that all the different components of the digestive system are working properly?
Healthy Digestion; Where Does it Start?
It all starts in the brain when you begin to think of food and then becomes more potent when that first delicious aroma of your favorite food hits your nostrils. Powerful chemical messages are set in motion to get you ready to digest and assimilate food. Now, as soon as the food hits your mouth, when you actually begin to taste and eat the food, enzymes, such as amylase, are produced to help you begin the process of digestion.
Chew your food. It is particularly important as it activates the enzymes and prepares your stomach for producing gastric juices, such as pepsin and hydrochloric acid, to break down proteins. This is the first step to healthy digestion.
Churn Your Stomach
As the food is passed into the stomach, it is mixed with hydrochloric acid and pepsin. Far from being a bad thing, stomach acid is crucial for proper digestion. This is why using antacids for prolonged periods of time, which inhibit hydrochloric acid production, can be detrimental to our health.
Hydrochloric acid not only assists in protein digestion, but also helps to prevent bacterial and fungal overgrowth of the small intestine. In addition, it stimulates the production of digestive enzymes, stimulates peristalsis, and facilitates the absorption of minerals. As we age, you produce less and less hydrochloric acid and pepsin.
Many times when you suffer acid indigestion, it isn’t because you have too much acid. It is more than likely that you are low on stomach acid. This leaves undigested food in the stomach which can cause a resurgence of acid. Taking “antacids” may help for the time being, but they not only suppress the production of hydrochloric acid, but the production of digestive enzymes as well.
Some of the symptoms of not having enough hydrochloric acid are:
- Gas and bloating • Asthma
- Feeling of fullness up to two hours after meals • Foul breath
- Acid indigestion • Sores in mouth
- Stomachaches • Fullness with meals
- No taste for meat • Belching
Here are some ways you can increase hydrochloric acid:
- Apple cider vinegar (½ tsp. in water before meals)
- Hydrochloric acid capsules
- Herbal bitters (1 tsp. before each meal)
- Don’t drink liquids at meals or just drink small sips of water.
- Relax at meal times (stress shuts down digestion)
Healthy Digestion Takes Guts
Once your stomach has churned all that food into a liquid soup called chyme, it is passed to the next phase of the processing machine, your small intestine – which is anything but small. The surface area, if it is unfolded, covers the size of a tennis court. Your food is fully digested and absorbed here.
Once your food enters the small intestine, the pancreas is activated to send in the digestive enzymes to break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and to neutralize stomach acid. If you are low on enzymes or your pancreas doesn’t have enough available minerals, then you may have symptoms such as:
- Pain in middle part of abdomen
Here are some ideas for increasing enzymes:
- Eat whole, fresh organic foods
- Take digestive enzymes: protease, amylase, lipase
- Eat fermented foods: yogurt, cabbage juice, pickled cabbage, or ginger
- Eat one type of protein at a meal
Healthy Digestion and Your Liver.
Your liver has the hardest job of all. It helps to emulsify fats and it breaks down hormones, including cholesterol. It also helps to break down synthetic chemicals, such as food additives and pesticides, so that the body can excrete them. The liver makes cholesterol and distributes fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K to the tissues.
The liver produces bile, which is stored in the gallbladder. Bile contains bile salts to emulsify and break down fats, making them easier to digest. As we eat, the gallbladder and liver release bile into the duct that connects the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas to the small intestine.
If you have had your gallbladder removed, the bile and bile salts have to be secreted into the small intestine where there is no repository for storing bile. Thus, digestion may be problematic. Taking some ox bile or other liver nutrients may be needed to support digestion of fats. An easy way to help your gallbladder emulsify fat is to add lecithin to your diet: egg yolks, soy lecithin.
You have got to keep your liver in tip top shape or you will over produce cholesterol, have problems digesting fat, be unable to break down excess hormones and be inefficient at breaking down chemicals. If these substances are not broken down and excreted, they will re-circulate and begin to poison your cells. If you have experienced brain fog, then you know what it is like to have toxins re-circulate in your body. Drinking alcohol also makes your liver work harder than it should.
Some of the symptoms you might experience if you become toxic from a sluggish liver are:
Aching all over Lack of concentration
Feeling sleepy throughout the day Allergies
Some good tonics for healthy digestion are:
Milk thistle Dandelion root Beets Broccoli and
Lemon juice Globe artichoke Burdock root cabbage
Healthy Digestion makes A Healthy Bowel
The last bit of digestion happens when whatever is left of your food – mainly water, bacteria, and fiber – enters the large intestine. About 2.5 gallons of water pass through the large intestine daily, two-thirds from body fluids alone. The large intestine or colon is where your friendly bacteria live. These bacteria help produce enzymes, manufacture B vitamins, keep us resistant to food poisoning, and keep bad bugs from taking up residence in our gastrointestinal tract. It is really important to have a healthy amount of good bacteria populating the colon.
You can keep them happy and proliferating by consuming fermented foods such as yogurt, cottage cheese, sauerkraut, miso, natto (fermented soy), and fiber. The yogurt should contain live organisms and not contain extra sugar or starch. Taking probiotic supplements (lactobaccilus, bifidus, etc.) is also a way to increase these friendly bacteria in your gut and provides a great environment for healthy digestion. Each probiotic capsule may contain the equivalent of fifteen small tubs of yogurt.
Constipation and diarrhea are two health issues that you may experience if the colon is not working efficiently. Constipation may occur if there isn’t enough water in the bowel. This may happen when digestion is slowed down, lack of fiber, or if peristalsis is sluggish. Diarrhea can occur if there is too much water in the bowel. This may happen when food isn’t digested well. It will move through the digestive system too quickly and have not used up enough water during the digestive process. A low fiber diet can create either bowel issue.
Here are some ways you can improve bowel health:
- Increase fiber by eating more fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains.
- Take fiber supplements or powders. Don’t take psyllium fiber long term as it is very harsh on the bowel. Consume oat bran, wheat bran (unless gluten sensitive), rice bran, apple pectin, prunes.
- If have constipation, take extra magnesium. This will increase smooth muscle relaxation which improves peristalsis. Magnesium also re-hydrates the bowel. You will know if you have taken too much magnesium, as your bowels will become loose or runny. Take only as much as you need to have two “good” bowel movements per day.
- Don’t strain when going to the bathroom. You have a greater chance of developing hemorrhoids and of weakening the sphincter muscles which assist in peristalsis.
- Control your levels of stress, as the stress response will shut down digestion.
This is a condition that is considered to be very common. It is characterized by an erosion of the gut membrane that keeps out unwanted foods and pathogens. When this protective layer becomes damaged, it becomes more porous and allows undigested particles of foods, bacteria fungus, parasites, and other pathogens to move through the porous membranes and into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the immune system goes on attack and causes constant inflammation and increased immune system activity. It can also cause malabsorption and a depletion of nutrients. If left untreated for some time, other health issues are likely to occur: GERD, IBS, allergies, neurological diseases, skin eruptions, chronic fatigue, arthritis, autoimmune conditions, and even cancer.
Some of the things that cause a leaky gut are:
- Eating too many refined foods • Sugar
- Sodas • Prolonged states of stress
- Alcohol • Unresolved food intolerances
- NSAIDS (Tylenol, aspirin, etc.) • Vaccinations
- Antibiotics • SAD diet
- Chemotherapy and radiation • Infections
Having a leaky gut can lead to food intolerances. The immune system begins to think of foods as the enemy. Commonly eaten foods such as gluten found in grains (wheat, oats, rye, barley, spelt, kamut), as well as milk products are common allergens. When you have sensitivities to foods, you will have a host of symptoms that could create more serious health issues.
Food reactions can occur immediately or up to 72 hours after ingestion. If you suspect that foods are causing any problems, then try an elimination diet. Eat only vegetables, fruits, and light protein for at least three weeks and then introduce food groups one at a time every four days and notice any symptoms – gas, bloating, brain fog, aches, skin rashes, etc.
To repair the lining of the gut demands a change of diet and lifestyle. Reducing stress and eating a wholesome diet go a long way towards restoring health to the gastrointestinal tract.
Some of the ways to repair the gut are:
- Taking an amino acid called L-glutamine can help to repair the gut lining.
- Eating slowly and in a calm setting.
- Drinking herbal teas such as slippery elm and marshmallow root.
- Aloe Vera juice soothes and repairs the gut.
- Berkson, L. Healthy Digestion the Natural Way, 2000:John Wiley & Sons, N.Y.
- Lipski, L. Digestive Wellness, 2000:Keats Publishing, Lincolnwood, Il.