As a registered nutritional therapist, digestion has to be one of my ultimate topics to talk about yet it’s also incredibly complicated. So let me start at the beginning.
The ideal scenario would be that we eat our food, it digests well with very few, if any, side effects like bloating, excessive flatulence, diarrhoea, constipation, stomach cramps, etc. and our bodies would then absorb all the nutrients from the food and utilise it as intended - simple! Unfortunately, for many people the world is not a perfect place and our digestive systems go through huge amounts of “wear and tear” over the years our digestive system is affected adversely. Hormonal shifts, stress in our life, activity (or lack of), genetics, food intolerances (quite often various), vitamin and mineral status, metabolism, thyroid health, chronic diseases, any illness, medication use, supplement use, sleep (normally not getting enough), environmental toxins, antibiotic use as infants, and of course what we put in our bodies with food; all of these factors have an impact on our digestion. Before we cover things we can control and ways to make our digestion better, we need to understand the nitty-gritty of digestion.
What is the digestive system and what organs make it up? Digestion simply is the act of consuming food, breaking down food, processing, and utilising it for energy. There are a couple ways food is digested, one by mechanical digestion (e.g. chewing and peristalsis); secondly by chemical digestion where food is broken down into even smaller molecules with the help of stomach acid and digestive enzymes.
Enzymes begin getting to work in our mouth, with saliva, which contains Amylase that kick-starts the chemical process of breaking down the food while our teeth start the mechanical. Chewing your food well is absolutely essential for optimal digestion. The quicker we eat, the larger the food particles are that enter into our stomachs, which means that more digestive enzymes and energy will be required for our bodies to break the food down; so why not help to make your body's life easier by chewing your food well!
Food then travels through your oesophagus to reach your stomach where chemical digestion - gastric juices (pepsin and hydrochloric acid), begin breaking-down your food. Its essential for our bodies to have enough acid to help breakdown food and proteins in our digestive system; actually those who suffer from low HCL level can actually experience higher incidences of GERD or reflux issues.
Did you know: Your body is able to secrete approximately 2 liters of HCL a day!
Whilst we have the HCL working on breaking down the food, we still have mechanical digestion happening through a process called peristalsis which makes the muscles in the stomach wall contract and release to mix up the food and enzymes. Here’s a great video you can watch to learn all about how it works.
After the food has been chemically and mechanically broken down, which varies in time depending on how much food you eat and the variety - but around 1-2 hours, it travels into the small intestine. The small intestine breaks down the food and here many vital nutrients are absorbed, little finger-like projections called villi and microvilli provide a HUGE surface area for us to absorb these molecules from food and get into our blood vessels of the intestinal wall.
Our liver and pancreas are also involved in the digestion process - the liver produces bile, which is carried into the small intestine by a bile duct, then the pancreas secretes pancreatic juices and enzymes that aid in digestion as well. Lastly, once the food has been broken down and passed through the small intestine, the large intestine absorbs all remaining nutrients and mostly water; this is how stool is formed and then it passes out of our bodies.
Very simply the route of digestion is: mouth → oesophagus → stomach → small intestine (pancreas and gallbladder are involved here as well) → large intestine → colon
There’s a saying I find myself telling clients over and over again.... “Chew your Juice and Juice your Food” which just mean that you should be chewing your food thoroughly enough to turn it into a puree before swallowing and chew liquids in your mouth so you’re not just gulping smoothies and juices without activating the first part of digestion in the mouth from your saliva.
As I regularly tell my clients... You could have the best diet in the world, but if your digestive system is not working optimally you won't be able to absorb and utilise all the goodness you are ingesting. So how do you optimise your digestion? It takes a lot of time, patience, and playing guinea pig to get to the bottom of exactly how your digestive system is, what helps and what harms it + some specific protocol I share with my clients. I’ll be sharing some of the tips in part II or if you have immediate questions you can always contact me for a consultation here and we’ll get started.
Do I need to take digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes in the form of a supplement can be quite helpful for those of you who need a little boost. For example, many can’t digest beans and legumes very well and there are many supplements on the market that help break down polysaccharides.
Fun fact, there are some foods that contain natural digestive enzymes that are more “powerful” than most other whole foods like pineapple and papaya! Do you need to take digestive enzymes, no; but in some cases it may help to alleviate gas and bloating. Always check with your doctor or Nutritional Therapist.
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Your guide to living whole and well. Emma Olliff is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, wellness expert, food lover, and advocate for healthy living!