What is Digestion?
Simply put digestion is the process of breaking down the food we eat so that we can absorb and utilize the nutrients found within food while eliminating what is not used or needed by the body.
Having optimal digestive function is key to optimal health as we need the ability to break down and absorb nutrients from food which are required as co-factors for all of the biochemical processes in the body.
When the body lacks nutrients health declines due to the cells of the body lacking nutrients that are needed to function on a cellular level.
Cellular dysfunction ripples out to organ dysfunction to system dysfunction to you guessed it….. symptoms of poor health.
It all starts with the diet and the ability to digest and absorb the nutrients found in food through optimal digestive function.
Where does digestion begin?
Digestion is a north to south process that begins in the brain and ends with feces being eliminated. The best way to improve gut health is to go back to where digestion begins.
It is the thought and smell of food that stimulates our digestive juices and gets them flowing along with saliva production in the mouth. Good digestion and secretion of all the necessary digestive juices and processes require the body to be in a parasympathetic nervous system state.
Many individuals are eating on the run or when they are stressed out and as a result are not properly digesting their foods. This can be one of the first reasons why someone is having digestive complaints.
One of the best ways to improve digestion that doesn’t cost you a penny is by taking a deep breath, sitting down, and enjoying your food in a relaxed manner.
The mouth is where both the mechanical and chemical breakdown of the food begins. It is very important to thoroughly chew your food for the mechanical breakdown of food.
The digestive function of saliva is to start the breakdown of starches and carbohydrates in the mouth. Chewing and mixing your food with saliva allows for increased surface area and chemical digestion.
The salivary gland produces saliva which contains an enzyme called amylase that acts immediately on breaking down the carbohydrates found within the food but it needs time to act which is why chewing thoroughly is important.
Aiming to chew 30 times per mouthful is an inexpensive way to improve gut health to prevent bloating and gas.
If food is not initially properly chewed this puts a strain on the digestive organs further down the digestive tract and can lead to problems such as strain on the pancreas.
As a result of food not being chewed properly the enzymes from the pancreas are unable to fully breakdown the food.
The undigested starch and carbohydrates are food for candida and can contribute to dysbiosis of the gut flora and a leaky gut.
The function of the stomach in the digestive system
The main function of the stomach in digestion is to kill pathogens and break down protein. These 2 functions of the stomach are essential for good gut health as undigested protein ferments and low stomach acid allows pathogens to flourish.
The acidic environment of the stomach is crucial for gut health and preventing infections. Pathogens and parasites that enter the body via food or water can wreak a lot of havoc while promoting inflammation in the body if not destroyed by stomach acid.
The stomach mechanically mixes the food with the stomach acid HCL through muscular contractions while chemical digestion of protein takes place through HCL being secreted to acidify the food and activate the enzyme pepsin to break the protein down into polypeptides and amino acids.
The acidity of the stomach acid also acts as the first defense against harmful organisms in which pathogens, parasites, viruses, fungi, etc are killed by the acidity of the stomach. If the stomach acid is not acidic enough these pathogens can take up residence further down the digestive tract causing a host of digestive problems.
Many people do not have sufficient stomach acid which is a common reason for digestive complaints such as heartburn and nutritional deficiencies such as B12, iron, and calcium.
Most often heartburn and acid reflux is a symptom of low stomach acid.
When the food is properly acidified and the protein has been broken down it passes through the pyloric sphincter and into the top part of the small intestine called the duodenum.
Digestive function of the pancreas
The second digestive function of the pancreas is to release digestive enzymes that further help to finish the digestion of the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
Gallbladder function in the digestive system
The primary digestive function of bile is to emulsify and digest fats while sterilizing the small intestine with antimicrobial bile.
The production of phosphatidylcholine via the PEMT gene is also crucial for preventing gallbladder problems and ensuring that the bile does not become thick and sludgy.
As bile is antimicrobial it helps to clean the small intestine, thus preventing small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Many digestive complaints are linked to SIBO with the root of the problem being linked to poor bile production and flow, gallbladder problems, and SNPs in the PEMT gene.
For optimal digestion function, it is very critical that we have appropriate stomach acid levels along with good bile flow from the gallbladder and secretion of digestive enzymes from the pancreas.
This ensures the breakdown of protein into amino acids and peptides, fats into fatty acids, and carbohydrates into glucose which can then be absorbed by the small intestine along with all the vitamins and minerals to fuel the body and supply the nutrition needed for the body to function and maintain health and vitality.
The small intestine is lined with millions of microvilli that are fingerlike projections that allow for the absorption of nutrients, glucose, amino acids and short-chain fatty acids that are carried by the villi to the capillaries and into the liver.
The intestinal lining is also selectively permeable which means that it only allows nutrients in while keeping waste out.
If foods are not properly broken down in the mouth, stomach, and duodenum with the help of chewing, HCL, pepsin, bile, and pancreatic enzymes this can result in undigested foods impacting the villi and integrity of the gut lining causing selective permeability to be lost and leaky gut.
A leaky gut allows undigested food to pass through the lining and into our bloodstream. When food is not properly broken down the body does not recognize the undigested food as a nutrient that can be used and instead thinks it is a foreign invader.
The immune system then mounts an attack on the undigested food by producing antibodies against what would have been a nourishing food if only properly broken down in the first place. Food sensitivities and intolerances can be created through the production of antibodies against undigested foods that have passed through a leaky gut.
Whatever is leftover from the small intestine such as indigestible fibers, bile and water then pass through the ileocecal valve and into the large intestine.
The large intestine is responsible for recycling water and capturing any lost nutrients that are converted into vitamins k, B1, B2, B12 with the help of beneficial bowel flora.
The large intestine also forms and expels feces which is very important as we do not want to be holding on to waste. Obtaining fiber through the diet and having good bile flow is important for daily bowel movements as the fiber absorbs the bile and bulks up the stool.
The bile stimulates peristalsis to move food and waste along the digestive tract and out of the body. Daily bowel movements and the elimination of waste is necessary for a healthy digestive system. A sluggish gallbladder is often the root cause of constipation.
From a functional point of view, the primary organs involved in the digestive system function are the stomach, pancreas, and gallbladder. If any of these primary organs involved in upper digestive functions are not working properly a host of digestive symptoms can occur.
Before jumping into “treating digestive symptoms,” instead look to what primary organ involved in digestion is not working optimally and how you can support that organ to improve digestion.
How to improve the function of the stomach and digestive organs for optimal gut health
Some simple ways to improve digestion is by supporting the primary organs involved in digestive function with the following supplements.
Support stomach acid with betaine HCL (work with a practitioner to use this properly and ensure no contraindications)
Digestive Enzymes to help support the pancreas with additional enzymes to break down all food. If you have symptoms of bloating especially after eating legumes, grains, and vegetables a broad digestive enzyme can be beneficial to break down difficult to digest carbohydrates, fiber, sugars, and starches.
Gallbladder nutrients helps to support bile flow from the gallbladder and aid in fat digestion. Symptoms of nausea, bloating, belching and difficulty digesting fats indicate a need to support the gallbladder.
Sometimes healing and soothing nutrients need to be taken before optimizing digestive function. Optimal GI by seeking health is an amazing blend with gut-healing nutrients and herbs to soothe the intestinal lining, calm inflammation, and help to heal a leaky gut.
If you experience digestive “symptoms” and would like to find out what dysfunction may be underneath your digestive symptoms I specialize in optimizing digestive function and would love to help.