Let’s be honest, so few of us consider our digestion beyond our taste buds!
And if our digestion causes us problems, we don’t try to fix or repair it–we just douse the symptoms in pink slime or chew up some chalky tablets and call it good.
In a few decades, when our bodies are seriously deteriorating and ridden with disease, we don’t think, “Hmm…could it be my digestion?” Instead we look everywhere else and throw in more chemicals to manage our symptoms! Further over-burdening the liver, further complicating digestion and our health.
And yet, if the body was able to properly absorb and utilize your nutrients, it would work SO MUCH BETTER! In fact, it could probably even heal you! But it’s been years since it had proper nourishment…so instead, we experience disease and discomfort.
Imagine the digestive system working like a cascade, one thing effects the next thing, and that thing effects the next and so forth. If one thing in the cascade of digestion gets thrown off, you could be in for some serious trouble!
The primary organs involved in digestion are the mouth, stomach, pancreas, liver, gall bladder, small intestine/large intestine. Each of these organs play a vital role in breaking down your food or collecting the goodness that comes from it. In order to be healthy, we need all of these organs to work optimally.
When digestion works well, we are able to break food into small enough particles that can be used by the cells, directly!
Proteins get broken down into amino acids.
Carbohydrates get broken down into glucose.
Fats get broken down into fatty acids and glycerol molecules.
Micronutrients get broken down into usable forms.
It all begins with a smell…
Believe it or not, digestion begins in the brain! From the moment we smell our food cooking, the brain signals to the body to get ready to eat. This is why our tummy may grumble at the mere sight or smell of food.
As we smell our food, our mouths begin to water. This isn’t by accident. Built into the saliva is an enzyme called salivary amylase, which is specifically for helping us to break down carbohydrates. So, ideally, we would chew, chew, chew until the carbs disintegrate into our saliva. Otherwise, the carbs are not properly digested.
Once you’ve chewed your food, it moves down through the throat and passes through the esophageal sphincter. The esophageal sphincter is one of the few in the digestive tract that can open up to allow food in or allow food out (throwing up or the bubbling up of indigestion).
As your food reaches the stomach, it will ideally be met with almost pure hydrochloric acid (HCL) in the stomach. The weight of the food in your stomach triggers the stomach to contract and further smash up your food. The cells in the stomach, stimulated by the HCL, also release another digestive enzyme, called pepsin, which is specifically for breaking our proteins down into amino acids.
In order for the next process of digestion to occur, the food must reach a proper pH (level of acidity). If the food is not acidic enough, it will just sit in the stomach and rot–being forced into the next phase (into the duodenum) after the next meal.
Stomach Acid, worth more than gold.
There is a common misconception: individuals who experience indigestion or heart burn have “too much stomach acid”. That is simply not the case. I dare you to ask your doctor to test you for “too much stomach acid” before putting you on proton pump inhibitors (which prevent you from making stomach acid all together) or anti-acids (which make it an unhealthy alkaline environment, impossible for breaking down food).
When they prescribe these things, understand they ARE trying to alleviate your symptoms, but they are NOT SOLVING the problem. Unfortunately, they are making a grave decision that will effect your health for the rest of your life.
Bottom LINE: Inadequate stomach acid leads to nutrient deficiencies which lead to disease and poor health! As I said, it won’t matter if you’re eating the most phenomenal diet–if your body cannot break your food down properly (into amino acids, glucose, and fat molecules), it simply won’t matter.
Indigestion MOST ALWAYS comes from a LACK OF STOMACH ACID. If you only have a little stomach acid and you eat a big dinner, it’s just going to sit there in your stomach and rot (not being broken down like it should).
Without adequate stomach acid, our proteins putrefy, carbohydrates ferment, just like alcohol (ever feel drunk or drowsy after a carb-heavy meal), and fats go rancid.
The food we ate begins to rot and bubble. To see what I mean, grind up a portion of your meal into a blender and let it sit. Watch it rot. This is what happening in your stomach without adequate stomach acid. Then, to make matters worse, the little bit of stomach acid you actually DO have travels on these now rotting food bubbles, up through the throat and out of the esophageal sphincter (where it shouldn’t be), causing that “burning feeling” we’ve all experienced (indigestion/heartburn). In addition, undigested food makes a Thanksgiving Feast for pathogenic bacteria.
According to Dr. Myhill, Low Stomach (Hypochlorhidria) Acid Can Cause:
- Accelerated aging because of malabsorption.
- Wind, gas and bloating as foods are fermented instead of being digested, i.e. irritable bowel syndrome.
- A tendency to allergies. The reason for this is that if foods are poorly digested, then large antigenically interesting molecules get into the lower gut, where if the immune system reacts against them, that can switch on allergy.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease
- Iron deficiency Anaemia
- B12 deficiency. We need stomach acid to assimilate B12! It is essential for our mental health (amongst MANY other things)! Crazy to think, some forms of depression can be completely cured by replenishing B12 and Folic Acid (B9, technically).
- A tendency to candida dysbiosis or bacterial dysbiosis.
What is really happening is that MOST ALL OF US are not producing ENOUGH stomach acid. There are a variety of reasons why we are not producing adequate stomach acid. Here are a few:
- Age. As we age, we naturally produce less.
- Drinking carbonated drinks with our meals (this buffers the acid in our stomachs via the fizzy action that comes from the carbon dioxide/sodium bicarbonate, etc.)
- Or simply drinking too much (of anything) with meals will dilute stomach acid
- Not taking the time to cook the food, smell the food, and eat the food. Most of us rush through meal times–which doesn’t prepare the body to get into a state of digestion (which is a parasympathetic, relaxed state).
- Helicobacter Pylori (also known as h.pylori). I have had this twice in the past, and it’s estimated that 90% of the population has it. H.pylori is the cause of stomach ulcers, as discovered in the ’90s. Long story short, they are microscopic bacteria that burrow into your stomach lining, surrounding itself with a bicarbonate protection. I wrote a bit about how to kill these buggers with broccoli sprouts here.
Anyways, DO NOT think that taking antacids are as casual a matter as doctors make it seem! If you carefully read the information on, say Priolsec, is clearly says, “not intended for use more than 14 days.” And yet, many folks are on these indefinitely!
I have had to tell several doctors, “NOPE!” when it comes to antacids. And they actually understand, but don’t ever care to get to the root of the issue (low stomach acid). Be educated. This is not to be taken lightly. For further reading, please check out the book, “Why Stomach Acid is Good For You. Natural Relief from Heartburn, Indigestion, Reflux and GERD.”
A few things to stimulate your body to produce more HCL:
- Apple cider vinegar. Just as splash or two into your water about 15 minutes before meals. This will stimulate your salivary glands and tell your body to start making stomach acid, with the SOUR taste.
- Gentian Bitters. Similar effect as the apple cider vinegar. The BITTER taste stimulates HCL production.
- Supplement with Betain HCL (with or without pepsin). Speak with a practitioner in regards to dosing. My general rule of thumb is I use less when I’m not eating protein and more with protein.
Digestion Continues into the Small Intestine
Hopefully the food is super acidic, if so, it gets the green light to move through another digestive sphincter (the pyloric valve), and into the the upper part of the small intestines (the duodenum).
The body pumps out mucous to protect the intestinal lining as well as two hormones, secretin and cholecystokinin/CCK. These hormones stimulate the pancreas to release bi-carbonate (which will make the acid neutral so it doesn’t damage your intestines) and stimulate the gallbladder to release bile (which will mix with the fat, breaking it down into the smallest particles).
As a side note, fats are essential for life! Our brains are made of fat. Our sex organs and ability to procreate, rely on fat. Healthy skin that doesn’t need lotion, depends on fat. A healthy cell relies on fat, as the outside is protected by a layer of fat (phosolipids). I mean, each macro nutrient serves a vital role on a cellular level. WE MUST BREAK DOWN OUR FOODS PROPERLY.
If the food wasn’t acidic enough, these processes DO NOT happen.
- Pepsin doesn’t get released by the stomach (so you won’t break down proteins and you’ll have atrocious farts).
- Your food does NOT get buffered or neutralized by the pancreas before being sent into the small intestine, where it may cause damage.
- If the gall bladder does not release bile, you will NOT break down those fats. Instead, your poops will float because they are filled with undigested fats.
And so, the nutrient deficiencies begin because ain’t no way your body is going to get the amino acids, glucose nor fatty acids it should.
So as you can see, it truly is a cascade. And these are just a few examples of how digestion can go wrong…
The Incredible Small Intestines, The Source Of All Immunity
Your intestines are incredible! While they seem like bunch of flimsy pipes in your abdomen, they are so much more. If you were to open them up and spread them out, they would be the size of a studio apartment! There is a reason for all of this surface area, MAXIMUM chances of nutrient absorption. All that food that you broke down into the smallest particles will now move back and forth in the intestines by a process called peristalsis, for maximum nutrient absorption.
The food will glide past millions and millions of villi and micro-villi (called enterocytes) that line the small intestines. These are small hair like protrusions that reach and grab for glucose, amino acids, and short chain fatty acids. Your nutrients can only be absorbed in the smallest forms.
If the food is NOT broken down properly (via chewing, stomach acid, enzymes), it will just cause damage to the small intestines, villi, and microvilli as it moves through your digestive tract, making holes and tears. Imagine filling a pair of panty hose with small round stones vs. large, jagged, rocks. Damage will occur to the very delicate intestinal lining if we send big chunks of food down into it.
Once damage has occurred in the small intestines, we are much more susceptible to have food-particles and other foreign substances pass through the intestinal wall and into the blood, where it can ultimately get to the brain.
When this happens, the body starts reacting to just about everything we eat or breathe because the blood stream is easily accessible through the intestines (also known as the “blood-brain barrier”).
However, instead of taking allergy medicines or avoiding certain foods, we should really focus on healing the gut. Only by healing the gut can we experience lasting health.
In addition, certain foods, like gluten, can cause damage to our villi–and thereby their ability to absorb nutrients. When we eat gluten (especially a lot of it), it stimulates the release of a chemical called zonulin, which opens up the intestinal walls, making them even more permeable.
In addition, there is a very important group of lymph tissue found attached to the small intestines, called the “Peyers Patches” or the “Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue/GALT”. When people say, “Your immunity lies in the gut”, this is what they are talking about. It’s pretty incredible the way our bodies can recognize foreign invaders within the digestive system and squash them on the spot.
“Peyer’s Patches s are key players of the mucosal immune host response toward gut antigens and bacteria.” – PubMed
Everything Turns to Shit
Haha..okay, I can actually say that and mean something positive by it!
Once our small intestines have gotten every last bit of nourishment from our food, it then passes into the illeocecal valve on it’s way to the colon. This valve is really important because it basically separates the food (in the small intestines) from the poop (what it turns into in the large intestine).
Sometimes, with gut dysbiosis, this illeocecal valve can get jammed open or shut. If it is left open, then poop can pass back up into the small intestines, where the body will try to absorb nutrients from it….which will obviously make someone feel awful!
Once the food moves into the colon/large intestine, the body reabsorbs water/cholesterol, captures any lost nutrients (with the help of the bowel flora), and ultimately forms what is known as poop. Poop is basically what your body couldn’t use from the food. Is is essential to have an acidic GI tract and plenty of good guys to help you make a good poop.
Bacteria, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Most of us have bacterial overgrowth going on in our pipes. When the bad guys outweigh the good, we experience all sorts of health upsets.
How do things get out of whack? Well, for starters, we’ve created the perfect environment! Unfortunately, many of us were born via C-section, not breast fed, and on top of it, given so many antibiotics as at the slightest sniffle. Did I mention our obsession with sanitizing everything? All of these things have led up to our sorry states of gut bacteria and microbial life in general…but then things like poor digestion, and poor quality foods exasperate it.
So, naturally, if you want to get rid of any pathogenic bacteria, the first thing to do is change the environment. Some people jump right into probiotics, but you’re essentially adding to the bacteria party going on in there. Ultimately, we want a more acidic GI which is doable with fermented foods (or supplements if you’re feeling lazy).
Next, I highly recommend gut restoration by doing the Gut And Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet. It has rocked my world and my entire microbiome. It involves weeding (starving off the bad guys), seeding (replenishing with the good guys), and then feeding (keeping the good guys happy!).
Here is an article where Dr. Mercola interviews Dr. Natasha on her GAPs diet. I’ll soon share my experience on the GAPS diet in a separate post.
Digestion Trumps All
So as you can see, you can be on the best supplements, best diet and best probiotics in the world…but if things aren’t working well in your digestive system, it won’t matter one bit!
Wise up, be empowered! The next time your doctor tries to put you on something that’s going to inhibit your digestion and lead to nutrient deficiencies, say no thanks! And find a practitioner who is genuinely interested in helping to support you and your body during this healing time.
When health is suffering, no matter what the issue, we must always look first at digestion. From acne to infertility, all of it can be traced back to digestion.
If your body is unable to get to the nutrients in the food, your body will begin to crumble and show signs. We can ignore the signs or numb them, but the nutrient deficiencies continue.
Only when the body can have nutrients at a cellular level will it work, properly.
I hope that you will be inspired to think a little bit more about all of the incredible things your body is doing for you at EVERY meal.
What are you doing for it? Are you eating quality food, filled with maximum nutrients? Are you chewing your food? Are you taking the time to truly enjoy it? Are you eating things that taste delicious? Think about it before your next meal. Bon Appétit!
“A good digestion turneth all to health.” – George Herbert