For my next series, I’ve decided to do a bi-weekly “Foundations” post where I’ll go through some of the topics that are the pillars for health and that I’ve learned extensively about in my Nutritional Therapy program. The foundations we will be covering are Digestion, Blood Sugar Balance, and Essential Fatty Acids.
With each of these foundations we’ll start with how these processes are supposed to work, then go into some of the problems that can (and often do) occur, then some tips for solving them!
When I first started my NTP program, I knew digestion was going to be one of my favorite topics because I’ve definitely struggled with my own digestive troubles over the years (hence why I first got tested for food allergies) and also my husband has had some pretty serious acid reflux issues. Also, I’ve heard countless times that people will say they feel “fine” but after further discussion I hear about things like them feeling bloated all the time, constipated, belching after meals, stomach pains, etc. To set the record straight, having those issues is not “fine” and hopefully if you are having some of those issues, these tips at the end can help!
One of the most important points of digestion is that it is a North to South process. What does this mean? It means that if things are not happening properly up north, then there is no way the rest of the process is going to go smoothly as food travels south. For example, let’s say you went on a road trip. You could have a brand new car fully packed with all of your snacks, music, clothes, etc. and be on your way, but if you never started out with gas in the tank, you aren’t going to get very far. You want to fill up the tank at the beginning in order to have a smooth and easy trip.
This is similar to digestion. If you haven’t done things properly from the get-go, then nothing will work properly later on. Digestion starts in the brain. It starts when you first think about food or see it. You will want to be in a parasympathetic state, which means you are fully relaxed. Rest and digest isn’t just a meaningless saying, you truly need to be relaxed in order to properly digest your food. At this stage in the process, your brain already starts to trigger your stomach to start making HCL (hydrochloric acid) in preparation for eating.
Next up is your mouth. You need to chew, chew and chew some more. You should chew each bite 20-30 times or about 30 seconds. That’s a LOT of chewing. And if you look around, more times than not I see people put food in their mouth, chew it once or twice then swallow it down. This is SO STRESSFUL to our stomachs- our stomachs don’t have teeth! Also in the mouth is where you produce saliva, which starts to break down your food, as well as where we get the digestive enzyme amylase, which allows us to digest carbohydrates. So if we don’t chew correctly, carbohydrate digestion won’t get started. And if you’ve ever raced through a meal with a lot of carbs, you know that awful feeling of something just sitting like a rock in your stomach- well that’s partly because it never even had a chance with digestion up above.
During this phase, our food turns to a substance called chyme and it goes down our esophagus into the stomach. Our stomach needs to be highly acidic in order for everything to be working well. This highly acidic environment also kills off any potential bacteria present in our food. This is also where we start to break down our proteins.
Our gallbladder and pancreas come into play in the next stage when our food moves from our stomach to our duodenum (upper small intestine). Our gallbladder then releases bile (for fat digestion) and our pancreas releases sodium bicarbonate (in order to bring the acidic chyme back to a neutral level) and pancreatic enzymes.
Once in the small intestine, this is FINALLY where nutrient absorption happens- all the way down here! So you can be eating the most perfect diet, with all the grass-fed, wild caught protein you wish and all your good healthy fats and veggies but if any of the above steps didn’t work, you aren’t going to be getting the full benefits! (More on this in our next series on what can go wrong in digestion). Anyway, if everything is working perfectly, once in the small intestine we absorb the nutrients from our food and then the remainder goes into the large intestine. A lot happens here; more nutrients are absorbed, water is recycled, and waste eventually gets moved out.
And that, in its most simplified explanation, is digestion! So our major takeaways are:
- Digestion is a North to South Process
- Digestion starts in the Brain
- It’s imperative to chew our food (drink your solids and chew your liquids)
- We WANT to have stomach acid to break down our food and kill off any harmful bacteria
- There are 3 digestive organs that are the major players in digestion, including the gallbladder, pancreas, and stomach
- Absorption doesn’t happen until the small intestine
- The large intestine recycles and eliminates
Pretty complicated, huh? There are a lot of steps and that means a lot of areas things can go awry. One of the major take-aways of this post is that digestion is so fundamental to nutritional therapy. Without addressing digestion, it is difficult for any meaningful changes to occur because if you aren’t properly absorbing the nutrients from your food (or if you aren’t eating the right foods in general), then you can’t receive any of the benefits.
Hope you will join me again for Digestion: Part 2, where we will talk about some of the major things that can go wrong in digestion.