Do you know what’s happening in your gut? Can you trust your gut? I know these are pressing questions in your mind that have you tossing and turning at night….no? Well, they should be because your gut health is where your health starts.
In this article, I will give you a brief overview on…
…how digestion and absorption of nutrients work and what happens if any of these 2 are not working
…common symptoms indicating things are not working as they should
…and what you can do to get things working
Your gut (digestive tract) is the first place where all the food that enters your body is processed and like all production lines, all processes in the line need to be functioning properly in order to produce a quality end product.
In this case, the quality end product would be nutrients from food absorbed into your body.
The old adage “you are what you eat” really should be updated to “you are what you absorb”….and, you may not be absorbing very much.
Digestion breaks down food so the nutrients in it can be absorbed into your body. It is through absorption that your body receives the nutrients it needs to get healthy and stay healthy.
If your digestion or absorption is compromised…well let’s just say it ain’t a good thing.
Your Digestive System – Friend or Foe?
You would think the process is simple starting with chewing some food, followed by swallowing then down it goes into your stomach, your stomach does its magic then off it goes into your small intestine and BAM, your body has nutrients! Uhm….not quite.
At the very least, it is a complicated 3 step process…
Step 1: Digest food
Digestion starts with digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid (stomach acid). These digestive juices convert food into a mushy substance called chyme.
If your stomach does not have adequate amounts of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes your food will not break down properly. When this happens much of the food will end up staying in your stomach where it will ferment and putrefy, causing symptoms such as gas, bloating, that feeling of heartburn or indigestion and the undigested chyme will feed bad bacteria.
The chyme that does pass into the small intestine, often triggered by irritants like caffeine and nicotine, will not be acidic enough to trigger the release of bile from the gallbladder to break down fats and other digestive enzymes from the pancreas to further breakdown chyme so nutrients can be absorbed.
Ever wonder why the only time you feel the urge to poop is after you’ve had your morning coffee?
As more food enters your small intestine waste gets pushed further and further down until it is ready to be eliminated.
Unfortunately, some of the food that enters the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine) isn’t ready to be there. It only gets there because of a caffeine or nicotine trigger.
And the moral of this little story is…why bother to eat if you are just going to poop out all the nutrients!
Step 2: Absorb nutrients from digested food into your body
The small intestine is lined with a mucosal wall (often called the body’s second skin) that has tiny fingerlike projections called villi attached to it. The role of villi is to absorb nutrients from digested food and carry them to the bloodstream. Bam! your body is nourished!
Unfortunately, if your mucosal lining is not healthy your ability to absorb nutrients is compromised. More fermentation and putrefaction happens, and your ability to avoid toxins and pathogens from entering your body is also compromised. This opens up a can of worms when it comes to issues such as risk of developing diseases, gaining weight, inability to lose weight, feeling tired all the time, and not being able to manage stress, plus a host of other ailments such as the ones already mentioned in step 1.
Step 3: Eliminate waste
The large intestine mainly functions to reabsorb water from undigested food and prepare the waste for elimination. Also, good bacteria that live in the large intestine break down undigested sugars and fibers and make some vitamins, especially vitamin K and biotin. These vitamins are also absorbed into the body.
How do you know your digestion and absorption production line isn’t working properly?
Here are just some symptoms of a compromised digestive production line.
- Indigestion, gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, constipation (common symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS))
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Arthritis/Joint pains
- Weak, cracked or ridged fingernails
- Undigested food in stool
- Chronic candida infections
- Inflammatory Bowel Diseases – Crohn’s Diseases, Diverticulosis and Ulcerative Colitis
- Weight gain/inability to lose weight
- Inability to manage stress
I’ve had most of the symptoms listed above at some point in my life as many people have. So at what point do you want to start paying attention to these symptoms? If you are experiencing any of these symptoms regularly you should consult a nutritional practitioner, however, a once or twice a year bout of diarrhea isn’t something to be too concerned about.
Things you may be doing that are hurting your digestion and absorption
Regular intake of alcohol – Alcohol can increase inflammation of the gut wall, increase gut wall permeability (Leaky Gut) and deplete health promoting bacteria (1) (2). Red wine, however, has been shown to increase healthy gut bacteria (Bifidobacterium)(3)
Regular use of antibiotics – Antibiotics are helpful for fighting infections but antibiotics are not selective. They attack both bad and good bacteria. Good bacteria are essential for intestinal health and your overall health (4).
If you are taking antibiotics you should supplement with probiotics to put back in some good bacteria. Otherwise, your body will be more susceptible to developing other illnesses because the antibiotics just killed all your good bacteria, which you need to ward off illnesses.
Regular use of painkillers – Most painkillers are NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) which have been known to increase gut permeability, ulcers, and indigestion (5).
In a study conducted on the effects of NSAIDs on intestinal permeability and inflammation in people who have rheumatoid arthritis is was found that use of NSAIDs may lead to loss of intestinal integrity (6).
Consuming lots of caffeine – Caffeine affects your health by prematurely triggering the release of chyme from your stomach to your small intestine, and by binding to minerals preventing them from being absorbed into your body. The minerals are instead eliminated in urine (7).
Eating foods you are allergic to – An allergic reaction occurs when your body’s immune system mistakes a food as a threat and attacks it. Allergens can irritate the lining of the gut leading to inflammation and increased permeability.
Eating sugar – Sugar robs your body of minerals because it uses minerals to metabolize sugar. Sugar also feeds candida (yeast).
Here’s some good news! You and your gut can become friends instead of foes.
You can influence your stomach and small intestine to produce the digestive juices required for proper digestion.
The wall of the intestines regenerates about every 4 days. By eating healthy nutrient rich foods and/or supplementing you can regenerate a healthy one.
How to improve your digestive system
Oftentimes supplementing is the best way to kick start your system into good working order.
Betaine Hydrochloric Acid (HCl) – Required to bring chyme to a low pH level to trigger release into the small intestine and stimulate the release of bile and pancreatic enzymes. Also required to sterilize parasites from food.
A simple test to find out if you suffer from too little stomach acid as opposed to too much is to take a HCl supplement when you feel symptoms of heartburn/indigestion. If the symptoms go away low stomach acid is the issue. If they get worse then too much stomach acid is the problem and if this is the cause I suggest going to the doctor to get a Heidelberg test to confirm an over acidic stomach.
Digestive Enzymes – Required to break down food for absorption of nutrients into the body.
You can get a supplement that contains HCl and digestive enzymes or you can take them separately depending on your specific needs. If you do get a digestive enzyme supplement ensure it contains the enzymes: amylase, protease and lipase.
You can take digestive enzymes on an ongoing basis but after supplying your body with proper nutrients it starts producing enough enzymes and supplementing may no longer be necessary.
Probiotics – The health of your gut flora is a key factor in your health. You have good and bad bacteria…we all do, and like everything else in life the good should out weigh the bad. Taking a probiotic supplement is a good way to add health promoting good bacteria to your gut (8).
There are different strains of bacteria. I suggest using a supplement that has multiple strains, but it should at the very least include the following strains: bifidobacterium bifidum, lactobacillus acidophilus.
L-Glutamine – helps repair the intestinal lining of gut.
Vitamin A (Retinol) – Also helps to repair the intestinal lining of the gut.
MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) – MSM is natural and highly usable form of sulphur that helps to calm inflammation in the gut. It also aids nutrient absorption and helps the liver’s detoxification function.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids– Has very effective anti-inflammatory properties and good for supporting brain health.
lifestyle practices to improve your gut health…
Probiotics – Eat fermented foods to get your probiotics (good bacteria). Examples of fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, natto, kombucha, wheat grass juice, miso and red wine.
Avoid wheat – If you experience inflammation symptoms such as joint pains and eczema.
Avoid processed food – Not only are processed foods usually devoid of nutrients they are usually heavily laden with various chemicals that deliver toxins to your body. These toxins get absorbed into your body and pose serous threats to your health.
Chew your food – Chewing stimulates the production of digestive juices.
Drink water and eat fibre – Eat your veggies and drink lots of water. Adequate water and fibre is required to keep things moving. This is especially true if you are always constipated.
Avoid drinking chlorinated water – Chlorine depletes production of HCl.
Don’t eat on the run or when upset – When you are stressed your body goes into fight or flight mode and shuts down digestion.
Avoid caffeine – Do not drink coffee with your meals. Have coffee no less than 1 hour before a meal.
Getting what you need from the food you eat to maintain a healthy body and lower the risk of developing illnesses is more complicated than just chewing and swallowing.
The health of your digestive system is crucial in nutrient absorption….you are what your absorb.
Live Healthy…Be Happy!
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