Digestion & GI Wellness
Digestion is something that takes place every day in almost every living thing. This process is how you break down foods into smaller units. Every food you eat is a collection of molecules that have to break apart and be absorbed into your body. Some molecules in your food are nutrients that you need to survive.
Your digestive system breaks these nutrients down into smaller units so they can travel through your bloodstream to every organ and cell. Nutrients include proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins, and minerals. Proteins break down to amino acids, fats break into fatty acids and glycerol, and carbohydrates break down into simple sugars.
Your digestive system is essentially one long tube that starts at your mouth and ends at your anus. The steps of food digestion follow this order:
- Chewing (mouth)
- Swallowing (throat and esophagus)
- Stomach (digestion)
- Small intestine (digestion)
- Small intestines and large intestines (absorption)
- Colon and rectum (elimination)
There are also many organs involved in this process. These include your tongue, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and the anus/rectum. Each organ plays a critical role in this system. Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is the largest organ in your body.
Your mouth is a series of working parts that starts the process of digestion. The beginning of digestion is your mouth with your teeth, tongue, and salivary glands. Your teeth grind and masticate your food. Your tongue assists in swallowing and moving the food around. The most important part of your mouth is the salivary glands. Saliva moistens and softens your food and with the help of your teeth, the food is transformed into a smooth mixture that can easily travel through the rest of your gastrointestinal tract. After you swallow, the food then travels down the esophagus into your stomach.
Your stomach is a major organ in your body and digestive system. Your stomach breaks down the food into separate nutrients that will begin to absorb into your bloodstream. Once the nutrients are in your bloodstream, they travel to other organs. One of the most important contents of the stomach is gastric acid.
This acid is made of hydrochloric acid and sodium chloride. Your stomach should be the most acidic part of your body. Your stomach has a lining that is constantly secreting mucus which protects the actual stomach tissue. The two main muscles in your stomach work together. First, the upper muscle relaxes to allow food to enter. Next, the lower muscle works to mix your bile and other digestive juices to breaks down your food. Your stomach is capable of holding up to one liter of food and very little absorption occurs there.
Your small intestine is the next step in the GI tract. Here is where about 95% of the nutrients are absorbed. The three sections of your small intestines are the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum. Your small intestines use rhythmic muscle movement called peristalsis. This function moves food and liquid through your entire digestive tract. Peristalsis starts about an hour after you eat. Good bacteria (probiotics) and enzymes (from your pancreas) are vital players in your small intestines. You can't absorb all the nutrients from your meal without good bacteria and enzymes.
Your large intestine is the final stage of digestion. The large intestine includes the appendix, the cecum, the colon, and the rectum. This part of the digestive system is the slowest part of the whole process. It takes between 12 and 50 hours for the remnants of the food to completely leave. A healthy transit time is 12 hours. If your last meal is eliminated in less than 12 hours then it is likely you are not absorbing all the nutrients. If it takes longer than 18 hours to eliminate, you may be suffering from constipation. When your elimination is too slow you run the risk of absorbing toxins from your waste. Constipation is often a sign of food allergies, hormone imbalances, and dehydration.
Your colon is rich with bacteria both good and bad. These bacteria ferment fiber to produce nutrients for your health. The rectum is the end of the large intestine and is the holding area for waste before it is eliminated.
How do I improve my digestion and GI health?
Proper digestion is critical for optimal health. If you are not digesting and absorbing the nutrients you eat, your cells will not thrive. The first step to improved digestion is your diet. Don’t eat sugar, chemicals, or processed foods. A clean healthy diet will improve your digestion more than any supplement will.
Processed foods may be tasty but this is due to artificial sweeteners, flavors, and damaged fats. These ingredients have negative consequences for your digestive tract and overall wellness. The goal of eating and digesting is to supply your body with nutrients for health. But when your body digests processed foods it takes energy and you won't receive the nutrients. Processed foods also cause autoimmune reactions and Leaky Gut.
Here are my top tips for improving and maintaining healthy digestion and GI health:
Experts recommend chewing every mouthful around 30 times before swallowing. While eating, you must stay relaxed. Don’t participate in other activities like talking on the phone, driving, or watching TV. By chewing your food thoroughly, you allow your stomach to release needed gastric juices.
Stomach Acid Levels
Once you get past what you put into your body and how you chew it, it may seem like there is nothing else that you can do to improve digestion. There are actually a variety of ways you can further aid digestion once the food enters your stomach.
If your stomach doesn’t make enough stomach acid, you will suffer from regurgitation, otherwise known as reflux or GERD. More often than not, reflux is caused by too little stomach acid, not too much stomach acid. Low stomach acid can also be caused by h pylori, the bacteria known to cause stomach ulcers. You can increase stomach acid release by drinking apple cider vinegar or lemon water before eating. I recommend a stomach acid supplement or a digestive enzyme/stomach acid combination before each meal.
Check your Vitamin B12 levels or take a B12 supplement. If you are low in stomach acid you are not able to extract Vitamin B12 from the foods you eat. Intrinsic factor is released in your stomach only when you have adequate acid. Without intrinsic factor, you do not absorb Vitamin B12. Low Vitamin B12 levels can cause nausea and vomiting, weight loss, fatigue, mental confusion, headaches, and/or impulse control.
Good Bacteria (probiotics)
Your intestine is alive with bacteria both good and bad. These bacteria assists in the breakdown of your food. They also affect your immune cells that live in your small intestines. Over 80% of your immune cells live in your small intestines. If you eat a diet loaded with sugar, processed foods, and damaged fats, your good bacteria will have a difficult time surviving.
You can end up with an overgrowth of bad bacteria. Some symptoms may include migraines, PMS, weight gain, food allergies, or irritable bowel syndrome. Eat fermented foods, take a probiotic supplement, and avoid toxic foods to create a supportive environment for your good bacteria.
Check Your Gallbladder
The main function of the gallbladder is to store bile that is produced by your liver. Your bile is released into your GI tract as needed. Bile is primarily composed of the fats you eat. Your gallbladder may become blocked with sludgy bile, known as gallstones. The traditional treatment for gallstones is the surgical removal of your gallbladder. There are various natural ways to resolve gallstones. The problem lies in timing. Usually, you are unaware that you have gallstones until your gallbladder is blocked and you are in excruciating pain. At that point, it is often too late to dissolve the stones by natural means.
Maintain good gallbladder health by eating only good fats. Good fats will then be used to create good bile that won’t get thick and stuck in your bile ducts. This is yet another reason to avoid eating damaged or oxidized fats. Regular detox and support of your liver will also help your gallbladder. I recommend a gentle detox program at least 2 times per year. If you often have pain or discomfort on the right side of your rib cage, consider a liver/gallbladder cleanse or getting an ultrasound.
Help Your Pancreas
Your pancreas sits behind your stomach. It has two main functions: it makes and secretes enzymes and manufactures and secretes insulin. Pancreatic enzymes are released into your small intestines once your food is released from your stomach. These enzymes are vital for breaking down large food molecules into smaller sized nutrients. If your pancreas doesn’t make and release enough enzymes, you will not be able to digest and absorb the nutrients in your food. Digestive disorders and diseases such as IBS, IBD, Crohn's disease, and some cancers have been linked to a low functioning pancreas (Pancreatic Insufficiency). Help your pancreas by taking a pancreatic enzyme supplement with each meal.
The most common signs of gastrointestinal disorders are fairly obvious:
- Undigested food in stool
- Foul smelling stool
- Blood in stool
- Reflux or GERD
These are all symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders and they should be taken seriously. Your GI tract is the super highway for all nutrients to get to your organs. If your GI tract is compromised, you will not get the nutrients your organs need to perform their functions.
Hippocrates believed that all health, and disease, starts in the gut. Considering that we now know that all organs receive nutrients through the gut, I think we can safely conclude that Hippocrates was correct.
For personalized protocols for healing your digestive issues, purchase a consultation with me!
Carly Neubert BA, NC
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