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Column: Digestion 101

You may be wondering why I am writing an article about how digestion works. We all digest our food, don’t we? It’s like breathing; it’s something we do without thinking about it. Well, hopefully by the time you finish reading, you will have a better grasp of what is supposed to happen during digestion. Then you can ask yourself if that is, in fact, what happens in your body.

Remember that the goal of digestion is to reduce food to molecules so small that the nutrients can be absorbed and used by the cells of the body.

Also remember that there are three macronutrients: fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Each of these is digested in different ways and primarily in different parts of the body.

Digestion only works when the body is in a relaxed and calm state. In the autonomic nervous system, this is called “parasympathetic.” The opposite of this is “sympathetic,” also known as “fight or flight” mode.

If you are eating on the go, standing up, looking at a screen (big or small), reading, or are upset, you simply will not be able to properly digest your food. This is why it is important to sit, relax and enjoy your meal.

Practice taking three slow, deep breaths before taking your first bite of food. This sets up the whole digestive process for success. Saying grace is another way to switch to a parasympathetic state.

Digestion is a north to south process. It starts in the brain where it is triggered by the sight, sound and smell of food. This begins the production of saliva in the mouth which is the first place that food begins to be broken down, or digested. This is particularly true for the macronutrient carbohydrates.

It is essential to “chew, chew, chew your food” to achieve the goal of digestion. Remember the saying, “drink your solids and chew your liquids.” Chewing your food thoroughly ensures better digestion of that food. The enzymes in saliva break down the nutrients and help pre-digest them so that the stomach and small intestines don’t have to work so hard.

Once you swallow your food, it passes through the esophagus into the stomach where the digestion of the macronutrient protein takes place. Of course all foods are digested in the stomach, but because the protein molecules are so tough, the stomach is designed to be the only highly acidic environment in the body in order for these proteins to be properly broken down, as well as to kill any pathogens that we may ingest.

When the contents of the stomach have reached the proper acidity level, they are ready to move into the small intestines where they are bathed in bicarbonates and bile (produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder) to begin the breakdown of the macronutrient fats, as well as further breakdown of all nutrients to prepare them to travel through the blood stream as needed throughout the body.

Once the foods we eat are digested to the extent that they can be, they enter the large intestine, or colon, for one last chance to be recycled before the remaining waste is eliminated through the anus as stool.

Transit time is the amount of time it takes for a food to enter the body via the mouth, travel through the digestive tract and be removed from the body via the anus. Typically, a healthy transit time is between 19 and 24 hours.

The vast majority of us have too little stomach acid. Less than 5 percent of our population actually produce too much stomach acid. If you experience persistent acid reflux, indigestion or heartburn, recognize that you may, in fact, not have enough HCl (hydrochloric acid) in your stomach to properly digest your food. If unchecked, or if regularly using acid blockers or more than an occasional antacid, you may be exacerbating the issue.

Oftentimes, the lining of the small intestines has been impaired by improper digestion to this point, as well as the ingestion of non-foods, such as highly refined and processed products and hydrogenated and trans fats. Because these foods don’t break down properly, or in a timely matter, they will often be larger than they should be when they reach the small intestines. Eventually these too-large molecules push their way through the lining of the small intestines and create what is known as a “leaky gut.” This is a very serious problem that causes everything from food allergies and sensitivities, to more serious issues such as autoimmune issues as well as setting the body up for disease such as cancer. It should be noted that a leaky gut is not the single cause for any of these issues, but it can be a very big contributing factor.

So this is how digestion is supposed to work. I mentioned only a very few things that can happen when digestion is not working properly. There are too many issues to mention in this space.

You can go a long way in improving your health by incorporating a few simple habits into your life. Take the time to thoroughly chew your food. Really taste it and keep chewing until there isn’t anything left to chew. If you “wolf down” your food, you can be assured that you are not digesting properly and your body is not getting the nutrients it needs. The simple act of sitting to eat with no screens to distract you, no books, no stressful conversations, etc., will automatically ensure you will digest your foods better. If you do nothing but sit and eat your meal calmly, your digestive system will work much more efficiently and your body will thank you. Remember our bodies rely on proper digestion to keep everything running optimally. Happy chewing.

Jeni Hall of Dublin is a board certified nutritional therapist practicing in the Monadnock region. Her mission is to empower you to heal your own body and keep it healthy. See www.jenihall.com, for more information.

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