Nutrition is more than eating a salad and bada-bing-boom – your cells have all the energy and nutrients they need! If it were that easy, I think we would all much healthier.
Digestive health is a huge part of overall health, and if your digestive health is poor or impaired, then, your body will not get all the good nutrients you may be feeding it. It’s not as simple as just eating “healthy food.”
Digestion is really a full body process that starts with your brain and ends many, many hours later with poop. It’s one long process (literally), and it requires optimal functioning throughout the 30 foot long tube.
Some things that could impair digestion include:
- Not enough stomach acid in the stomach
- Dysmotility in any part of the intestines – slow bowel, gastroparesis
- Not chewing thoroughly
- Unknown food allergies or sensitivities
- Processed food, toxins, and other junk
- Overeating OR undereating
- Leaky gut syndrome
If your digestive health is impaired, your body will not be able to efficiently digest and absorb the macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) or micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) it needs. You may end up with acid reflux, constipation, diarrhea, stomach cramping, bloating, or symptoms that appear unrelated to digestive health, such as skin issues.
Here’s a brief rundown of how your body’s tube digests food, preferably real food.
It all starts with the the simple thought, smell, or sight of food, which is enough to secrete more saliva to help begin digestion of food. When you take the time to relax before beginning to eat and focus on mindful eating, you’ll aid in better digestion because being in a stressed or busy state of mind impairs digestion.
Once you begin eating, food hits your intestines – your “second brain.”
Once you put food in your mouth and begin to chew, saliva moistens food to help digestion and swallowing.
Chewing (or mastication) really helps breakdown food into smaller pieces, so your body doesn’t have to digest huge chunks of meat or full leafs of spinach. Although, it may feel weird to spend more time chewing instead of scarfing down a meal in 10 minutes flat, taking the time to chew, chew, chew aids enormously in digestion.
After your thoroughly chewed food travels down your esophagus, it hits your stomach to be churned up in chyme. Gastric juice with stomach acid (hydrochloric acid) and pepsinogen (to break down protein) are released if your cells are producing adequate stomach acid. Older age, stress, and use of medications to suppress acid (Prilosec) inhibits acid production.
Stomach acid is needed to suppress H. pylori bacterial infection, which can lead to stomach ulcers, kill other bacteria and parasites, and activate pepsin to breakdown protein. If there isn’t adequate stomach acid – like in the huge amount of Americans on Prilosec – protein may not be digested adequately and bacteria and parasites can survive and lead to infections or ulcers.
Chyme leaves your stomach and enters the small intestine where most of the nutrient absorption takes place. Pancreatic enzymes and bile salts are secreted to help breakdown carbs, fats, and proteins into their smaller parts. They are then absorbed across the intestinal membrane.
However, if your intestinal cells are damaged, absorption is impaired, and your body cannot absorb or use all the nutrients you ate. Damaged intestinal membranes may also absorb certain proteins or toxins, while a normal intact intestinal tract has immune cells to prevent this.
Vitamins and minerals are absorbed based on your body’s need for them, as well as if there’s fat available (for fat-soluble vitamins). There are many factors that influence vitamin & mineral absorption and risk for deficiency, including age, source (food, multivitamin), alcohol use, and more.
Food (fibers, water, bile salts, etc.) continue on through the tube to enter the large intestine. Water and electrolytes are absorbed. Bacteria in your gut ferment fiber to produce vitamins, such as vitamin K and B-vitamins, and short-chain fatty acids. There’s trillions of these little guys in your gut, and new research is linking them to weight management and disease development.
The goal is eat to populate your gut with healthy bacteria and displace pathogenic and harmful bacteria, which is especially important if you’ve taken recent antibiotics. This is why probiotics from fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, kombucha, fermented veggies like sauerkraut) are so great!
If your digestion is healthy, it will all end with a normal bowel movement. Constipation, diarrhea, or any other issues can indicate poor digestive health.
How to Improve Digestion
As you can see, there are numerous factors that influence digestion. If you have poor digestive health, it will affect your entire body! You may not be absorbing all the nutrients you are eating, or you could be damaging your intestinal cells from the food you’re eating.
First, focus on eating well-balanced, real food (without all the processed junk and additives). Eating mindfully and relaxing during meal-time can lead to major improvements in digestion and overall health.
Of course, there’s many other things you can do as well, such as health-promoting vs health-harming foods, which I will focus on in future posts on digestion.