I spent the majority of my life suffering from digestive issues.
… issues that I thought were totally normal.
No, really: I literally thought that everyone was walking around politely holding in their gas even though it sent shooting pains through their stomach, that everyone went days and days without going #2, that everyone would suddenly break out into sweats and have to
run sprint to the nearest bathroom. (Oof. Ever been there?) It was really all I had ever known and so it had become my “normal.”
Well trust when I tell you THIS IS NOT NORMAL. And when I finally realized this — that these were symtoms of poor digestion and impaired gut health — it was life-changing. With dietary changes and targeted supplementation, not only was I able to eventually free myself from these annoying symtoms (ah, sweet freedom), but also greatly improve my health, generally.
There’s no doubt about it: proper digestion and gut health are critical for overall health and wellness.
Hippocrates was onto something when he stated “all disease begins in the gut” over 2,000 years ago. (This is the same man who said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Yes, we like him.)
- If digestion is impaired, our bodies can’t assimilate and absorb nutrients properly. (This is a biggie.)
- Chronic digestive distress causes chronic inflammation and stress, which wreak havoc on the body and can cause hormonal imbalance.
- 70-80% of the immune system resides in the gut. Therefore good gut health is necessary for a healthy immune system.
- The gut microbiome synthesizes healing short-chain fatty acids and a number of key nutrients (including biotin and vitamin K2).
- The majority of the body’s seratonin (a.k.a. the “happy hormone”) is produced in the gut, which is why the gut has been called “the second brain” and is so intimately connected to mental health.
Understanding the digestive process is key to understanding where things go wrong… and how we can set them right again.
So let’s take a close look at everything that happens between your tongue and your tushie: Digestion 101.
How does the digestive process work?
Digestion involves many different organs
It begins even before we put food in our mouth — as soon as we see and smell food, we start secreting saliva. But once food enters our mouths, the action truly begins. Let’s take a look at the each stage of digestion.
- The mouth: food is manually broken down by our teeth and coated in saliva, which contains digestive enzymes that are necessary for carbohydrate digestion.
- The stomach: the mechanical breakdown of food continues, and it is mixed with gastric juices, transforming what we ate into a very acidic paste called chyme.
- The small intestine: has a dual role as a digestive organ and a gland (since it creates hormones). The acidic pH of the chyme stimulates the production of messenger hormones that signal the pancreas and gallbladder. The small intestine is contains millions of villi and macrovilli to absorb the nutrient molecules into the bloodstream, where they are carried to the entire body.
- The pancreas: is signaled to release bicarbonate (i.e. baking soda – to neutralize the chyme) and pancreatic juice (to enhance digestion) into the small intestine.
- The gallbladder: is signaled to release bile, which emulsifies and absorb fat.
- The large intestine: recycles water, captures any lost nutrients that are still available (with the help of the bowel flora), converts the nutrients to Vitamins K/B1/B2/B12 and butyric acid (fatty acid), and (last but not least!) forms and expels feces.
Digestion is a north to south process
When something goes wrong up in the north, it often affects things down south.
Digestion is a parasympathetic process
Digestion is a parasympathetic process, which means the body must be in a relaxed state in order for things to work properly. This is why the parasympathetic process is also referred to as the body’s “rest and digest” mode, where as the sympathetic mode is known as the body’s “fight or flight” mode.
Where do things go wrong?
Well, just about anywhere throughout this process! Which is remedying digestive issues can take some time — it requires identifying where things have gone wrong and setting them right again.
Eating in a rush or while stressed out
Since digestion is a parasympathetic process, when we eat while in a rush or stressed out, digestion is impaired. This is because the body de-prioritizes and essentially shuts down aspects of digestion.
Not chewing food properly
Chewing is an important digestive process in and of itself. Not only does it mechanically break down food, but it also coats the food in saliva, which contains key digestive enzymes that assist with carbohydrate digestion. When food is not properly chewed, it places an added burden on the stomach and can also impair carb digestion.
Inadequate stomach acid
It’s estimated that about 80% of us aren’t producing enough stomach acid.
Inadequate or impaired bile production
Bile is critical for fat digestion. If bile is thick and sluggish, it can’t properly be secreted. The
Some signs of fat maldigestion include running to the bathroom shortly after a fatty meal, light (clay-colored) stools, and floating stools. Pain under the right side of the ribcage (where the liver and gallbladder are) also signals that something is amiss here.
Imbalanced gut microbiome
The gut microbiome contains both “good” and “bad” bacteria (including yeasts like candida). In a healthy microbiome, the good bacteria outweigh the bad bacteria and keep it in check. But when the bad bacteria outweigh the good, problems arise.
The “bad” gut bacteria feast on sugars and carbohydrates. Whereas the “good” gut bacteria aid digestion and synthesize beneficial short-chain fatty acids and nutrients, the “bad” gut bacteria release gas (and toxins!), making us gassy in turn.
Do you suffer from digestive issues and want some help tailoring your diet to remedy these issues? I’d love to support you! Learn more about my Nutritional Therapy offerings as well as my approach to nutrition here.
We’ll be taking a closer look at digestion, the gut, and how to improve both in weeks to come — stay tuned!