"A good set of bowels is worth more than any amount of brains."
- George Bernard Shaw
The old phrase "you are what you eat" seems to be said more often than ever these days. Every day people are gaining awareness about what they put in their body - as they should! We not only are what we eat, but we're also what we absorb, what we don't absorb and what we don't eliminate. In order to fully understand digestive problems, one needs to understand the basics of digestion. I encourage you to read below to get a an idea of what is happening every time you eat.
The Digestive Process
The digestive system interacts with all other body systems: nervous, endocrine, and particularly, the immune system. Most people don’t know that 60-70% of their immune system is located in the gut as a vast network of lymph tissue referred to as GALT (gut associated lymphatic tissue). It lays the foundation of good health. Digestion actually begins in the brain. The hypothalamus, a part of your brain involved in metabolic processes, stimulates appetite, and once you eat, your brain decides how you will digest that food: in a sympathetic (stress response) or parasympathetic (optimal) mode. You WILL NOT digest well if you are stressed. I can't emphasize enough how powerful stress is in the world of digestion. Ever notice how things seem to feel better on the weekend, or on a relaxing vacation, even if you're eating half as well as you normally do? Do not take stress lightly when it comes to your health.
The mouth is literally the opening to the digestive system. The act of chewing is often underestimated and is crucial to proper digestion. Enzymes in your saliva start breaking down food immediately. Your masticated food (a 'bolus') heads down the esophagus, passes through the cardiac sphincter and into your stomach, where it gets mixed with enzymes and acids and becomes a liquid called chyme. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) destroys harmful bacteria and alters enzymes to begin digesting protein. As we get older we become less efficient at creating HCl, digestive enzymes and pancreatic enzymes. Having low HCl and digestive enzyme levels leads to a host of digestive problems, and, ironically, often tricks us into thinking we're producing too much acid. Antacid and proton pump inhibitor (Prevacid, etc.) use can exacerbate this problem, and is rampant in the United States. If you have heartburn symptoms, check out the heartburn and acid reflux page.
When the chyme leaves the stomach it enters the small intestine through the pyloric sphincter. Think of your small intestine as a hose, a 20ft long hose where all the magic happens. This is where the majority of the digestion and nutrient absorption occurs. Your small intestine transforms from an acidic environment to an alkaline one as the pancreas and liver secrete pancreatic juice, bile and enzymes, digesting carbohydrates into glucose (for energy), protein into amino acids (for building), and fat into fatty acids (for energy and building).
The small intestine, consisting of three sections, is lined with very small, finger-like protrusions from the epithelial lining called villi. Think of them like a shag carpet; they are protruding from the lining of your intestine and are actually increasing the surface area of the intestinal wall, creating maximum absorption area. The video below provides a good visual of intestinal villi. Each villi is covered in smaller hair-like structures called microvilli. Enzymes exist on the villi helping further break down nutrients into a readily absorbable form. The villi are your friends. When your villi get worn down, you may develop intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut. More on that here. The good news is, you can restore atrophied villi.
After you absorb nutrients through your small intestines it enters your blood stream. This blood is sent to the liver via the hepatic portal vein (yellow) for filtering and detoxification. The liver is truly an unbelievable organ; it breaks down and stores amino acids, synthesizes and metabolizes fats and cholesterol, stores glucose, detoxifies the blood by removing toxins and is the keeper of homeostasis. We should all be a little nicer to our liver. It's working overtime and not getting compensated.
Once the chyme leaves your small intestine it enters your large intestine, also known as your colon. Although water, fat soluble vitamins and minerals will be absorbed, most of the nutrient absorption has already happened at this point. The naturally present bacteria present in your colon will continue helping with digestion. There is growing awareness about the importance of gut bacteria, also called 'flora.' Perhaps you're already familiar with supplemental probiotics, which promote healthy gut flora. Some important and interesting information on gut bacteria can be found on my dysbiosis page. The research we have on gut bacteria is growing each day. Like the villi, the good bacteria are our friends.
The colon is the final stage of the digestive process. A healthy colon makes for a much more comfortable person. Do you have daily eliminations, or are you worried about eating something and not being close enough to a bathroom? How's your breath? What about your skin? All these things and more can be improved by changing what you eat and taking some time to heal the damage done. Everything on this website is here to help you understand what is working for and against you, to help you re-examine your diet, and to provide suggestions for ways to make you feel better than you have in a long time.