Let’s face it: Digestion is hardly a sexy subject. It’s not something you’d drum up a conversation about at a cocktail party,
“Hello, Melinda, how are you? I just can’t seem to get rid of this terrible gas. Do you know where the bathroom is?”
And most of us don’t chat about it home, either.
“Good morning, darling, have you had a bowel movement today? Was it satisfactory?”
So despite discussions around digestion being relegated to embarrassing discussions with your doctor where you may not even spill all the beans, so to speak, or to late-night solitary Google sessions where you are combing the internet for advice on what to do and information about why on Earth is this happening to you – digestion remains the stinky elephant in the room.
Certain things are private, I get it, I get it. Hence this post where I can break down for you a few concepts and key insights into digestion that you can view in the seclusion of your own home where no one has to know about it. And if you are one of those people that does like to talk about digestion, that’s all the better!
Digestion is really an umbrella term that encompasses the process of eating food.
- We break it down mechanically with the teeth and stomach, and biochemically with the use of stomach acid, digestive enzymes and bile.
- We absorb it through the lining of the small intestine, where the vast majority of absorptive action takes place.
- We assimilate it so all of the broken down proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins and other nutrients you have absorbed can be taken up and used by all the cells of your body so you can live your daily life.
- And lastly, we pass it through the system (and ultimately into the toilet) in order to get rid of food waste, metabolic byproducts like spent hormones, cholesterol and inflammatory compounds, and other such unsavory characters.
Phew! Now take a deep breath.
In addition to coordinating, executing and completing the role of digestion, the digestive system plays a big role in defense. Over two thirds of the entire immune system resides in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which makes sense because a lot of the things that can harm us come to us through what we eat, swallow or drink.
Not only do we have heavy immune arsenal in our guts, we also have a few other measures in place to make sure bad guys stay at bay.
The stomach produces hydrochloric acid. Yup, you read that right—the stuff that if it drops on your skin it will burn a hole? That’s the one. Stomach acid helps you to not only adequately break down proteins and other compounds, it creates a very inhospitable environment for harmful bacteria, yeast and parasites. These guys often meet their doom in the stomach when they come face to face with the acid it produces.
Likely you have been hearing lots of media coverage about the colony of friendly, beneficial bacteria that live in the large intestine. Collectively, these guys – all 100 trillion of them—are known as the microbiome. They play a large role in communicating and coordinating with your immune system. They help protect against everything from food poisoning to autoimmune disease to allergies and ear infections. When they are stressed, the body can feel the effects in every system.
So far, we’ve covered digestion and defense, and yet there is even more. The gastrointestinal system is like the Central Statin of the body, communicating with every other cell and system, every day. This includes the brain and nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the lungs, the genitourinary system, the endocrine/hormonal system and so on. As such, proper digestive health and function is a cornerstone of overall health and optimal well being.
When something is not right in the system—even if it is minor—little symptoms can begin to crop up, much like a musical instrument playing off key when it needs a tune up.
Maybe your stomach doesn’t feel quite right, maybe you are bloated all the time or have more gas than you think you should or perhaps it is super stinky. Perhaps you’ve been struggling with constipation or loose stools, or maybe you have even been formally diagnosed with a gastrointestinal condition.
In any event, feeling uncomfortable in your digestive system is not normal and clues us in that there is something (or many things) amiss. The following areas are what I most commonly see as reasons for tummy trouble. Addressing these aspects can be enormously helpful in reducing virtually all digestive distress:
1. Avoid foods that your body is sensitive to.
Research shows that a great majority of those with a diagnosed condition like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or IBD have food sensitivities. What I have seen in my clinic is that most people who come to me with digestive distress are probably eating a food that is not suitable for them.
Even food considered healthy can cause problems if you have a food sensitivity. The most common culprits are gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye), dairy products (all products containing milk – even yogurt!), soy, beans and legumes, sugar alcohols and fake sweeteners (Splenda, maltitol, etc) and less commonly, a host of seemingly random foods like potatoes, peppers, spices, nuts, corn, chia seeds and food dyes.
Finding out what foods your body is sensitive to can be tricky because it can take up to 3 days to generate a reaction, although many happen quite quickly. When just starting out with someone, I will typically have them eliminate at least gluten and dairy for two to four weeks and see how symptoms change. Of course, if someone is really eating a lot of one particular food like protein bars every day, I have them cut down on that. At the end of those two to four weeks, we challenge the food by introducing two to three servings in one day. That will certainly let you know how your body responds.
2. Increase digestive fire.
I refer to digestive fire as your body’s ability to break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates biochemically through the use of stomach acid, enzyme and bile.
When digestive fire is lackluster, your cannot break down these large molecules. When large, unbroken molecules hit the small intestine, it revolts, creating gas, spasm and bloating. When they pass into the large intestine, your beneficial bacteria try to help break them down, but they create more gas through their fermentation process so now you are feeling really bloated. Taking a supplemental plant based digestive enzyme with meals can help enormously in this regard.
3. Consider a probiotic.
Probiotics are supplemental friendly bacteria that help spruce up your normal bacterial populations. They can help improve bowel regularity, ease skin conditions and are crucial for anyone who has taken antibiotics. Probiotics are especially important in those with IBD and other autoimmune conditions.
4. Watch out for “leaky gut.”
Maybe you have already done the prior three recommendations and are still experiencing symptoms. “Leaky gut” is term commonly used to describe a process by which the lining of the small intestine—which you will remember is the major site of absorption—becomes compromised. The job of the small intestine is to let certain particles into the body and keep others out. When this integrity is breached, there is an abnormal immune response, leading to inflammation, food sensitivities and potentially malabsorption and nutrient insufficiencies.
Symptoms are varied, but I always look for accumulating food sensitivities. When someone comes in to see me and tells me they used to be able to eat foods X, Y, Z and now they can’t, and they are bloated all of the time, and are tired and feel achy, and have a hard time concentrating, I consider leaky gut a possibility, as it is a major barrier to feeling your best in your digestive system and body.
By addressing these four crucial areas, you have covered all of the major facets of excellent digestive health: a diet appropriate for you, the ability to break it down, a healthy bacterial population and an intact, healthy small intestine through which you can absorb your nutrition. The end result is that you feel healthy and vibrant, and that is a topic worthy of cocktail party conversation.