It all starts here.
Your digestive system – from your mouth to well, you know – is the incredible system that takes in your food, breaks it down into usable parts, absorbs those parts - those building blocks used for so many important functions in our body, and eliminates the wastes. So many of us struggle here and don't even really think about it. Ya, I feel bloated and gassy, but doesn't everyone? Maybe, but should they? No.
If you are not able to utilize the nutrients from what you are consuming, you could be eating the best, most wholesome diet and taking high quality supplements and it wouldn't matter. So, it really all needs to start here!
What do our digestive system do anyway?
Digestion in simplistic terms; we eat, we process our food, we eliminate our waste. But it is so much more complex than that and honestly, pretty cool to fully comprehend what our bodies can do.
Digestion begins in the mouth. You should be chewing your food well, I mean really well, 30 times in fact – how aware are you about how many times you chew your food? When you sit down to your next meal, take note. Is it close to 30 or is it closer to 3? Through the mechanical process of chewing, the food mixes with saliva and the salivary enzyme amylase which breaks down starch molecules into smaller sugars. Chewing also signals other components of the digestive system to get ready.
The food then moves down the esophagus and empties into the stomach where it is broken down both by churning and the mixing the food with hydrochloric acid (HCL). This important stomach acid converts the enzyme pepsinogen to pepsin and breaks down proteins into its building blocks - amino acids. This step is key as the HCL also lowers the pH of the food mass which is really important for the next step (the acid trigger). HCL will also provide protection against some forms of food poisoning and will help control intestinal flora – not enough HCL will fail to prevent the bad bacteria from growing in the digestive tract. For more on our good and bad gut flora you can read the Blog Post – Nutrient News - Probiotics (restoredvitality.ca)
Insufficient production of HCL (hypochlorhydria) is a very common issue for many of us and is often a main cause of poor digestion.
A few examples (but not all) of why your HCL may be insufficient
Consuming a diet high in meat and dairy and refined, processed and fatty foods
Not consuming enough water or surprisingly not enough salt, both needed to make HCL
Use of antacids. Many people believe that it is too much acid that this the problem and try to relieve it with antacids which can actually exacerbate the problem
Coffee – yup, coffee is not a friend to our digestive system, sorry.
Stress and Age – one we can control and one we can’t. After the age of 40 our natural production of stomach acids declines and more on stress below
Some of the effects (but not all) of low stomach acid – those tell-tale symptoms to watch for letting us know that we are out of balance
Gas and bloating and stinky toots (as my 7 year old would call them)
Heavy, tired feeling after you eat
Constipation, heartburn and bad breath, oh my!
Low HCL, and poor digestion in general, can also be a contributor (a root cause) of allergies, hormone issues and a weakened immune system. If we can’t break down our proteins or fats, we can’t absorb the building blocks to make enzymes and hormones. So, you can see what a serious problem this could be.
The Digestive Process continued...
The acidic food (it is called chyme after it leaves the stomach for those of you who want the details) entering the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum) triggers the pancreas to secrete a neutralizing alkaline fluid containing digestive enzymes and causes the gall bladder to contract and release bile (made by the liver) - these substances are essential for digestion. It promotes the secretion of insulin in the blood and stimulates the release of pancreatic enzymes and pancreatic fluid. The more acidic the food the more digestive enzymes are released. All the nutrients (aside from alcohol which I wouldn’t put in the ‘nutrient’ category) are absorbed here too. So, you can see why HCL is so important.
Once the mass (now mainly waste) passes into the large intestine or colon, good bacteria that usually inhabit the colon feed on undigested materials and produces vitamin K and biotin (which are absorbed through the colon wall). Excess water is reabsorbed back into the body to prevent dehydration and then fiber fills out the colon and allows waste to be passed out of the body effectively.
The importance of fiber
A high-fiber diet- full of fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts and seeds -
increases the frequency of and quality of bowel movements, decreases the transit time of stool (you should be going poo every 12 to 24 hours – in fact 1-3 times per day is ideal and anything less is considered constipation). It also decreases the absorption of any toxins from the stool and can play a big role in the prevention of several diseases.
Digestion is quite a complex process - the above is just the Cole's notes - but balance and health of the all the digestive players - stomach, liver, pancreas, gall bladder, intestines large and small, digestive enzymes, saliva etc. - is vital to good health.
If this system isn’t working properly – at any stage – you just can't get the good stuff from what you are eating and that is a big problem. A problem that will just get worse over time.
Signs (symptoms) that your digestive system might need some support:
Bloating, belching and burning sensation as well as gas immediately after meals
Indigestion, diarrhea or constipation
Multiple food allergies
Passing of undigested food in the stool (sorry, but it happens)
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
Heavy, tired, lethargic feeling after eating
Getting the support you need
If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, it might be worthwhile to speak to a holistic nutrition practitioner or other holistic health professional who specializes in nutrition to get you back on track and digesting your food optimally.
Having a well-balanced, optimally functioning digestive system is really key to good health and where most holistic practitioners will start. I work with clients who struggle with hormonal imbalances (adrenal fatigue and digestive issues often go hand in hand) or have allergies that they desperately want to get under control. Some clients are deficient in many vitamins and minerals but are confused as they are also eating well and some have classic digestive imbalance symptoms.
We start by looking at supporting their digestive system so that all the great, nutrient dense food and beneficial supplements they are taking can be absorbed and utilized by their body and by healing the gut.
I recommend tailored diet and lifestyle changes that you can make as well as adding a supportive supplement plan - specific to your particular needs. These steps are all essential to getting you back on track. I offer a 2 month one on one Nutritional Consultation package that focuses on your digestive and gut health. Click below for more details.
Some supplements I find very helpful and often recommend to my clients include digestive enzymes and probiotics. See below for 2 of my favourites.
Factors that can affect proper digestion
Stress is a big one! Stress and other negative emotions - like if we are angry, overtired or upset - affects every aspect of the digestive process, from the flow of enzymes to the quality of the bacteria that grow in our gut to the elimination of wastes. We need to take steps to help us relax and feel less stress and tension to allow things to move smoothly (literally).
Low HCL, as we have discussed.
Insufficient good bacteria in the gut.
A liver or gall bladder in need of support.
A diet low in fiber and water and high in meat, dairy, processed foods and coffee/tea
Other things that affect digestion include spices, coffee and tea - they will increase the emptying of the stomach (too soon – the stomach won’t have time to do its thing!)
Some meal time tips to help support your digestion:
Make sure to eat your meals feeling calm and relaxed (okay moms, stop laughing).
If you are in an agitated, rushed or angry state you are not doing your digestive system any favours. Sit down and take 3 deep breaths (or more if you can!) before eating. This will relax your body and allow it to do its job properly.
Start with a few bites of protein to get those enzymes that break down protein working and then carbohydrates and then any acidic foods.
And chew your food. I said it before and I'll say it again. 30 times or at least closer to 30. Get those enzymes working and that digestive process started!
Don't drink large amounts with meals. Small sips of room temperature water is okay.
Don't mix refined sugars with starches at a meal. If you want to have some fruit, save it until the end.
Poor digestion is a common problem in our world today and can cause some pretty unpleasant symptoms. But, there is hope. With a few tweaks to your current habits (what you eat and how you eat it) and a solid supplement plan to help heal your gut and support your digestive system - you can support and train your body to digest like it is supposed to!