Want to improve your digestion?
Updated: Apr 12, 2019
We have to eat to live. The first thing we do as babies is put things in our mouth, probably because we need to know where our mouths are to survive, but it's also nature’s way of building up our immune system by exposing it to bacteria and viruses.
So much evidence is coming out now about how our gut health influences not only our mental health, but also our immune system, which is bolstered by our gut flora, or our good bacteria. Although sometime necessary, antibiotics destroy all bacteria, and unfortunately, the meat we eat contains them, too.
Combined with pesticides, our gut flora are suffering, and making us sick in other ways. Unhealthy eating habits include eating too fast, not chewing properly, or making unhealthy food choices. Working on these alone will help our digestion in the first instance, and helping improve our gut flora will help our digestive and immune systems, and our mental health.
Digestion starts when food enters the mouth and we chew it. Saliva contains enzymes which mix with the food and start breaking down carbohydrates and fats. This is why it's important to chew our food slowly and thoroughly, so that the saliva mixes with as much of the food as possible.
Chewing slowly and thoroughly also gives the brain and body chance to recognise the presence of food, and more saliva being produced, so that the digestive juices start being released further down the digestive tract in anticipation of the food arriving. Saliva also lubricates the food, so that it moves easily down the throat and oesophagus before reaching the stomach.
The stomach is very muscular and churns away, physically breaking down the food into even smaller pieces, making sure that the gastric juices reach all surface areas of the food. The gastric juices within the stomach are highly acidic, and help break down or denature protein into smaller molecules. To get an idea of one kind of denatured protein, think of how an egg white changes colour and consistency when cooked. The food doesn’t resemble what you ate at this stage, but rather a mixture called chyme, which moves into the small intestine. At this point, the gallbladder releases bile to further break down fats.
The small intestines
The movement of food through the digestive tract is called peristalsis and is like a wave of muscular contractions controlled by our ‘gut brain’, a complex network of nerves that operate autonomously so that we do not have to think about digesting our food.
Nerves sense that chyme is present, and cause the muscles in the digestive tract just behind the chyme to contract. This pushes the chyme further along, whilst the muscles just in front of the chyme relax, so that the food can enter that space. This is repeated again and again, pushing the chyme all the way along the digestive tract, and as it moves along, it becomes more and more broken down and digested, right until the rectum, whereby this point it resembles faeces. When we have motility issues, inefficient peristalsis contractions may be causing the problem, but when we are stressed or nervous, muscles in the gut contract, also causing inefficient peristalsis.
Digestive enzymes from the pancreas break proteins down into amino acids, small building blocks that are used to make other things, such as neurotransmitters, cell membranes, blood cells, and much more. The pancreatic enzymes digest carbohydrates and fats into even smaller molecules, to be absorbed into the bloodstream via the “brush border”.
The “brush border” is made up of millions of tiny finger-like protrusions on the lining of the small intestine and large intestines, giving it a brush-like appearance. It increases the surface area for absorption of nutrients and water.
The large intestine (colon)
Anything that the body cannot absorb becomes waste products, which are stored in part of the colon and the rectum for excretion. Most of the water we drink is absorbed in the small intestine, but the colon is the last point where the body can absorb water before excretion.
We need to make it as easy as possible for our bodies to break down the food we eat so that digestion is easy. Then we will be able to absorb as many nutrients as possible so that we stay as healthy as possible. Herbs can help improve digestion in so many ways. Bitter-tasting herbs that improve motility can also improve absorption of nutrients by helping the body produce more digestive juices to break down the food for absorption. Some herbs can be relaxing or stimulating laxatives - the one to use depends on the cause of the constipation.
Drinking enough water and getting enough fibre is crucial. For every cup of tea or coffee or can of coke, i.e. caffeine, make sure you drink the same quantity in water, and then some. Fibre is easily obtained from fruit, or by adding psyllium or ground flax seeds to your cereal, porridge or smoothies in the morning. Taking probiotics and eating food that contains prebiotics can help improve and balance gut flora, which works well combined with eating fibre, which also feeds the gut flora. The right balance of gut flora will help ease bloating, amongst many other benefits.
Drinking alcohol is dehydrating, so be sure to top up with water if you drink. In addition, alcohol depletes you of nutrients, some of which are required to help proper digestion. For example, if you do not have enough zinc, which is depleted by alcohol and required to make hydrochloric acid in the stomach, your body will have difficulty breaking down protein.
Constipation, diarrhoea, sluggish digestion, reflux, bloating, flatulence, malnutrition, malabsorption, halitosis (bad breath), bowels can’t tolerate coffee, dyspepsia, nausea after eating, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), IBS-C, IBS, ulcerative colitis, the list goes on! If you are experiencing any of these digestive problems, please contact me.