| Digestion: Why It’s Important, What Can Go Wrong, and Simple Steps to Optimize It
by Nina Lane
Digestion is an essential function of the body that reduces food to basic molecules so that nutrients can be absorbed and used by the body. Our health depends on our digestive system’s ability to break down what we ingest and absorb the nutrients so our cells can function. Good digestion is vital for good health. If there is dysfunction in the digestive system, we will begin to see dysfunction in other areas of our body.
Signs of poor digestion can be obvious like bloating, gas, belching, nausea, indigestion, heartburn, loose stool, or constipation. Other uncommon signs of poor digestion are, but not limited to, fatigue, cravings, mineral and vitamin deficiencies. Identifying the type of digestive dysfunction and its consequences will help us better understand our symptoms and how to address them. Dysfunction can happen at any point along the digestive system such as:
- The Brain: Interestingly, digestion starts in the brain with our perception of our food, its smell and sight. If we are busy or stressed, our brain’s signals to start the digestive process are dulled, leading to decreased function of our entire digestive system.
- The Mouth: Did your mother ever tell you to chew your food better? Well, she was right! If we quickly chew and gulp our food down, we are compromising our digestion. Proper chewing breaks down our food and bathes it in saliva. Saliva acts as a lubricant and contains enzymes which start acting on our carbohydrates and fats. Without sufficient chewing and saliva production the initial steps of digestion are compromised, adding stress to the stomach and intestines downstream.
- The Stomach: Optimal stomach acid and enzymes facilitate the breakdown of protein, the absorption of B12, the killing of pathogens, and trigger further downstream digestion. Due to stress, allergies, medications, and/or nutritional deficiencies, the production of stomach acid and its functions can be compromised. This can lead to common digestive issues such as reflux, heartburn, or ulcers, as well as less common symptoms such as fatigue after eating, infections, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, intestinal issues, etc.
- The Pancreas, Liver, and Gallbladder: This group of organs work together to provide pH balance, enzymes, and digestive juices to the chyme (broken down food) after it leaves the stomach and is in the small intestine. Digestive dysfunction to the north will lead to dysfunction in the south. Reduced neural signalling, chewing, saliva, and stomach acid production can lead to insufficient signalling of pH buffers, reduced enzyme secretion and emulsion of fat.
- The Intestines: While most nutrient absorption happens in the small intestine, the large intestine is where the final absorption and breakdown of our food matter happens. Incomplete digestion of our carbohydrates, fats, and proteins leads to fermentation, rancidification, and putrification of our food matter in the intestines. This can lead to bloat, poor nutrient absorption, lymphatic congestion, and damage to our small intestinal lining. Further down in the large intestine, poorly digested food matter can fuel an imbalance of good to bad bacteria, leading to dysbiosis. When dysbiosis is present, we can struggle with issues like diarrhea, constipation, flatulence, diverticulosis, colitis, and irritable bowel disease.
Each point of digestive dysfunction can lead to further dysfunction downstream leading to greater and greater digestive dysfunction. When this happens, we cannot utilize the nutrients and building blocks needed to support optimal health. You may have heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” But a more correct statement is, “You are what you absorb!” Thankfully, there are a few simple ways to improve digestion that you can try today at home.
Simple Steps to Improve Digestion
Breathe! Take a moment before you eat to take a few deep breaths, show gratitude or say a prayer of thanks for your food. Studies have shown meditation can improve digestion function2.
Chew your food. Better chewing leads to smaller food particle size and increased absorption of nutrients3. It can, therefore, work to alleviate digestive issues in the stomach and intestine.
Increase bitter, tangy, and sour foods. You may have heard that taking diluted apple cider vinegar or lemon juice can help reduce digestive issues. It’s true! Stimulating the senses and engaging the digestive system, bitter foods have long been valued for a unique ability to cleanse the body and build vitality. Digestive bitters are herbal combinations that support digestive function by stimulating the production of stomach acid, bile, and enzymes to breakdown food and assist in the absorption of nutrients.
Add fermented foods. Fermenting is a natural, ancestral method of food preservation, but it can also be a great source of beneficial bacteria and yeast (probiotics), vitamins, and enzymes. Science has associated probiotics with a variety of health benefits such as improved digestion, better immunity, and even increased weight loss. Great fermented foods to try are kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, beet kvass, miso, and kimchi.
Whether you are experiencing a little or a lot of digestive dysfunction, you can see improvement with a few simple changes.* It is prudent to remember that digestion starts to the “north.” Improving our eating habits and working on digestive function from the top down will yield tremendous success in alleviating many digestive issues. And as your body is able to utilize the fuel and nutrients as intended, you will experience increased health and vitality.
* For more significant digestive issues, it is recommended to work with a qualified practitioner.
After spending time in academics and the pharmaceutical industry, Nina Lane decided to follow her passion to truly help people live their healthiest lives. Now as a practitioner utilizing Nutritional Therapy and the latest science-based evidence, she is helping her clients find their individual paths to better health. Her goal is to educate and empower individuals to take control of their health through sustainable, real life change. You can find out more at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling her at (306) 380-6174. Also see the Directory of Services ad on page 19 of the 24.3 September/October issue of the WHOLifE Journal.