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The Basics of Digestion

With Americans spending 725 billion dollars on laxatives per year, I would say that constipation is a hot topic. Yet, what leads to bloating, gas, or IBS? To grapple with topics of digestive distress, it’s important to understand the basics of the gastrointestinal tract. This is commonly referred to as the GI tract or the digestive tract. By learning how the digestion process works, what hinders it, and what assists it, we can unlock the biochemistry of bodies and take supportive actions and elevate your health.

If you have ever experienced constipation, bloating, gas, or chronic stomach aches, you know how powerful the digestive system can be when something disrupts it. These may be temporarily fixed by Pepto-Bismal or a laxative, yet, there is so much you can do by altering nutrition and lifestyle choices to remedy many forms of digestive upset. By reading this blog, I hope to give you the basic awareness of the digestive process, from putting food in your mouth to elimination and what’s in between. My goal is to equip you with the knowledge and facts to make decisions that fully support your health and digestion. Hippocrates proclaimed 2,250 years ago that “All disease begins in the gut,” and whether or not you believe that to be true, it highlights the crucial role that the gut plays in your overall health.

For the body to generate energy, fight disease, repair cells, and grow, we need to digest and assimilate the foods we consume. When the body functions correctly, harmony between our organ systems occurs, each one playing a part in the breaking down of food and moving it to where the end product needs to go. The digestive organs consist of the small intestine, large intestine, gallbladder, pancreas, liver, mouth, and esophagus. Each one plays a role in the body’s ability to produce enzymes, release bile, break down protein, fat, and carbohydrates and allow the minerals and nutrients from those foods to be transported through the blood and lymphatic system into the cells. Once they reach our cells, they are used to synthesize energy. Think back to a time, perhaps a holiday where you consumed a large, carb-heavy meal and sweet desserts. You probably undid your top button on your pants and took a nap. The meal did not give you energy and vitality. Other times, you may have had a light lunch and felt energized to tackle the rest of the day. This is the product of how your body processes the foods and deliver nutrients to your cells. Chewing foods thoroughly is important, as it lessens the amount of mechanical and chemical digestions actions, allowing you to work on other things. If you do not properly chew, you are giving your body a lot more work to do. “Larger particles are retained in the stomach to reduce particle size further until eventually any remaining large particles are emptied through a ‘housekeeper-wave’(1).” The elements of food that cannot be utilized or broken down further are sent to the large intestine, where feces are formed and then eliminated. Elimination should happen once, if not twice per day.

This is all well and good if we are consuming clean proteins, fresh vegetables, and whole-food carbohydrates. These are the fuel to the body and allow the digestive process to run smoothly. Foods that have a negative impact on the digestive system are sugar-filled beverages, processed high-fat foods, artificial sugars, and GMO’s. This is essentially what’s called the MAD (Modern American Diet) or the SAD (Standard American Diet). The building blocks of inflammation, digestive dysfunction, and diseases can be traced back to the dinner you just ate at McDonald's. One digestive disorder that is caused by a specific food compound is intestinal permeability, better known in the vernacular as a leaky gut. It is the result of stomach lining being compromised and essentially separated, leading to undigested food particles being leaked into the bloodstream. Zonulin is a protein in the stomach lining which keeps the junctions firmly in place. However, it can be displaced by the ingestion of the compound glyphosate. Glyphosate is a chemical found in conventional food products (i.e not organic), which causes a huge host of problems like food allergies, autoimmune disorders, and discomfort after eating. Gliadin, which is a protein in wheat, has been “linked to zonulin release from the gut (2).” So while eating a piece of bread now and then will not cause severe damage, being conscientious about the amount of wheat we consume increases our digestive health.

As you can imagine, the quality of the food you consume greatly affects the health of the organs, the microbes in your digestive tract, and how you feel. “There is growing evidence that imbalances in gut microbial populations can be associated with disease, including inflammatory bowel disease (3),” giving us further confirmation that the foods that lead to imbalances, impaired digestive function and dysbiosis are artificial sugar, high fat, refined carbohydrates and processed items. While you do need to eat perfectly 100% of the time and reduce your meals to organic broccoli and range-free chicken breast, it is important to maintain a baseline of health. Do you feel energized after you eat? Do you have enough strength and energy to partake in all the activities you want to? If your body free of aches, pains and discomfort? I encourage you to consume foods which agree with your body, taste delicious, nourish your spirit and give you vitality! Eating a diet of whole foods, chewing your foods thoroughly and adding supplemental support when necessary is crucial for the health, vibrancy, and strength of your digestion, and therefore your entire body’s health.

1. Lovegrove, A et al. “Role of polysaccharides in food, digestion, and health.” Critical reviews in food science and nutrition vol. 57,2 (2017): 237-253. doi:10.1080/10408398.2014.939263

2. Fasano, Alessio. “Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 1258,1 (2012): 25-33. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06538.x

3. Conlon, Michael A, and Anthony R Bird. “The impact of diet and lifestyle on gut microbiota and human health.” Nutrients vol. 7,1 17-44. 24 Dec. 2014, doi:10.3390/nu7010017


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