The Digestive System - How Well Do You Understand Yours?
How commonplace is it nowadays to hear of people feeling bloated? They’re often stuck in a rut of either avoiding certain foods to try & reduce it or just accepting their fate that come the end of the day they’ll be feeling the waistband a little more snug or having to undo their top button for comfort. Constipation, diarrhoea (combination of both), bloating, wind, reflux, indigestion, abdominal pain are all symptoms many people live with on a daily basis & have absolutely no understanding of why its happening. Is it in response to modern lifestyles or modern dietary habits? Certainly, disorders of the gastrointestinal tract are contributing to the huge health burden that is crippling our NHS. Perhaps you’re reading this & can identify with the above, indeed the majority of people I see in my clinic tick a number (if not all) of those symptoms. Maybe you’ve visited your GP & have been offered a diagnosis of IBS or have been given some medication which offers initial relief. Maybe you’ve done your own investigations & have tried eliminating foods, tried certain diets, or taking self-prescribed supplements. All of the above symptoms (& more, including fatigue, headaches, joint pain, skin conditions, weight gain, PMS) are the body's way of saying it needs some assistance, either with re-thinking what you’re putting in your mouth, what it needs to breakdown the food, how it moves it through your system, how it absorbs nutrients, how it expels waste.
I talked in my previous blog post about how we’ve lost the art of listening to our body. Once you start to tune into your body you’ll begin to recognise the connection between food, how the digestive system responds & feelings. The digestive tract is a long & continuous tube that runs from your mouth all the way down to where waste comes out the other end. Throughout the length of this complex system there are a number of different processes the food you put in your mouth goes through in order to provide us with the nourishment we need to thrive & there are equally as many places where things go wrong. So let us look at how digestion happens & although far from comprehensive the overview below may give you a better understanding of where things might be going wrong for you.
DIGESTIVE ENZYMES – such a hugely overlooked & underestimated area when it comes to digestive health. Enzymes are the key to us converting the nutrients in our food into energy. Digestion starts in the mouth, or even in the brain, because if you think of a lemon your mouth starts to water & that’s truly the beginning of the digestive process. That stimulation of salivary enzyme production is the first of many enzymes your body will use to break the food down as it passes through the digestive tract & is absorbed into the blood stream as nutrients to be used in a number of bodily functions. Chewing your food thoroughly kick starts the production of enzymes which allows the food to be received into the stomach ready for the next process to happen. This is why it is vitally important to chew your food properly. Digestive enzymes are necessary for the breakdown of carbs, proteins & fats in the food we ingest.
So how does it go wrong right at the start? Poor food choices increase the demand on energy for digestion, taking it away from other body systems which impacts on health by them not being able to function as efficiently. Juice diets & meal replacement shakes bypass a hugely important step in the digestive process & when people begin to eat properly again they find they’re more bloated & have problems digesting certain foods. Enzymes are made from protein & so a lack of protein in the diet or over the course of the day reduces production. If you are unable to break down protein efficiently, particles can breach the tight junctions in the intestinal wall allowing particles through & into the bloodstream resulting in intestinal permeability, more commonly known as ‘leaky gut’. The effects of ‘leaky gut’ on health are wide-reaching & have been linked to many conditions including allergies, depression, chronic fatigue, migraine, obesity, IBD & autoimmune conditions. Signs you don’t make enough digestive enzymes are bloating, indigestion, wind & abdominal pain.
STOMACH ACID – hydrochloric acid (HCL) & pepsin are secreted in the lower stomach to begin the digestion of proteins. HCL signals to the pancreas to release digestive juices & enzymes to further digestion & also initiates the movement known as ‘peristalsis’ which moves the food through the digestive tract. So you can see here, if you have low stomach acid there’s potential for ‘sluggish’ movement, contributing to fermentation, leading to gas, leading to constipation. A most vital role stomach acid plays is in the neutralisation of harmful bacteria & parasites entering the stomach which can lead to infection, for example H.pylori. For many people, experiencing symptoms such as belching, a burning sensation after eating, abdominal pain, stomach rumbling will result in a diagnosis of indigestion (or heartburn) & a prescription from your GP for antacids/PPIs/H2 receptor antagonists (Omeprazole, Gaviscon, Zantac, etc) to suppress the production of stomach acid. However, it is now widely accepted (although unfortunately still not in conventional medicine) that it is in fact low stomach acid rather than high stomach that results in the symptoms associated with indigestion. Stomach acid suppression through the use of medication can affect B12 absorption, mineral absorption & protein digestion. Stomach acid secretion is naturally reduced as we age & is further affected by poor dietary choices, dieting, alcohol, smoking, chronic stress & the use of medications.
GUT BACTERIA – our gut plays host to millions of species of microbes, largely health-protective & vital for the roles they play in immune health. Research suggests disruption to development of microflora in a child’s early years can lead to health problems in adulthood such as allergies, anxiety, obesity & Type 2 Diabetes. The gut as an organ interacts & influences all body systems. Serotonin is synthesised in the gut (only 10% in the CNS), thereby we see a correlation between altered gut function & depression, anxiety, mood & behaviour. Serotonin also influences motility & so low serotonin levels not only affect mood but transit time, again leading to sluggish bowel movements & a connection to IBS-Constipation. Modern lifestyle reduces the diversity of the microbiome through bad habits such as smoking, alcohol intake, recreational drug use, lack of sleep, along with refined sugar, food additives, artificial sweeteners, dieting, chronic stress, excessive exercise, food intolerance, medication usage, exposure to toxins in our environment & the effects of our sterile environment & obsession for highly toxic cleaning products.
There’s still so much we don’t understand about the human microbiome but what we do know is diversity seems to be key for optimal health & this diversity is obtained in the diet through a wide range of colourful, real food. If you know me, you’ll have heard me say over & over “eat the rainbow” because it is so important to get as many different types of real, colourful, rich in fibre (organic as much as possible) food into your meals each day to feed your gut. It is also a really important exercise in protective health for your future as more research is showing a correlation between poor gut health & the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, cancers & dementia.
I think the importance of prebiotic, probiotic & fermented foods in the diet is pretty well documented nowadays, but there are other considerations when aiming to improve digestive capabilities & offer nourishment to the gut. Naturally occurring enzymes found in avocado, banana, mango, papaya & pineapple assist with the digestion of proteins, carbs & fats. Bitters will support the gallbladder to assist with stimulating bile, necessary for fat digestion. Good sources are watercress, radish, rocket, artichoke, chicory, dandelion leaves, ginger & apple cider vinegar. Herbs & spices, such as cloves, oregano, rosemary, garlic, thyme, cinnamon & turmeric all have antimicrobial (along with so many other beneficial to health) properties & it is therefore recommended to use these in cooking wherever possible.
1. KEEP A FOOD JOURNAL – log what you’ve eaten, the time, how you feel physically, how you feel emotionally. This will allow you to identify foods that aren’t working for you. The food we eat should promote good mood, relaxation, a feeling of nourishment & good health, if that’s not currently happening for you this is a good exercise to try. If you need more advice on putting this into practice, please get in touch.
2. EAT IN A STRESS FREE ENVIRONMENT – stress puts us in a sympathetic nervous system state which is the ‘fight or flight’ response & we need to be in the parasympathetic state in order to ‘rest & digest’ food. The ‘fight or flight’ state is how we would naturally save our lives, being more alert as a car mounts the pavement & diverting all energy to heighten our responses to flee the threat. Stress has such a detrimental effect on digestion because it can either cause it to be put on hold which results in fermentation, gas, bloating as food sits in the gut unable to move through it (constipation) or the body dumps it as fast as it can so not to carry extra weight as we run for our life (diarrhoea). If you’ve had a stressful morning at work, take a walk to try & switch to a more relaxed state before you sit down to eat lunch. Same applies at home in the evening. If you can’t take yourself out of the situation take a few deep breaths before eating.
3. TAKE FLUIDS AWAY FROM YOUR MEAL – fluids can dilute your digestive enzymes & stomach acid. Take your beverage around 30 minutes after your last mouthful, having allowed it to stand so it is at room temperature. If your beverage is too cold it will divert energy in your body away from digestion to warm it up.
4. AVOID TRIGGERS – large meals, caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, spicy, rich or fatty foods should all be avoided late in the day as they take longer to digest & in some people can trigger indigestion, abdominal pain & sleep disturbance.
5. INTRODUCE MORE FOODS INTO YOUR DIET – this should always be your aim – remember diversity is key! Not only is this feeding your microbiome but so importantly providing the cofactor nutrients (for example B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, selenium) needed to carry out all bodily functions. Have a read of my 'Eat the Rainbow' blog post for inspiration & tips on introducing more colour into your diet. If you find your diet is limited or becoming more restrictive due to digestive symptoms, work with a registered Nutritional Therapist who will investigate the root cause of your problems & guide you with a safe, tailored to your health, gut healing protocol.
None of the above information is intended to make a diagnosis or enable you to do so, but merely to try & give a better understanding of what goes on in your body from the first bite of food all the way through to your bowel movement. We are all unique & that’s why applying what you read in the Daily Mail, following the same plan as your work colleague or taking the health advice of a popular fashion blogger is massively misguided. Addressing the root cause of your health complaints can have such a life-changing affect, on mental health, energy, sleep, concentration, immune health, fertility, in fact every single body system & I’ve experienced this first-hand with my own health. I'm aware this post hasn't touched on so many areas, for example H.pylori, SIBO, parasites & inflammation because it would truly go on forever – well done if you’ve stuck with me to the end! There are a vast number of associated health conditions connected with digestive dysfunction & that is why it is so important if you’re struggling, to work with a registered Nutritional Therapist who is trained to investigate the root cause of illness. We have a wealth of knowledge as well as the most advanced testing at our disposal. Don't accept living with discomfort or leading a restrictive life as your fate. If you’d like more information on how a Nutritional Therapist can help you, or even where you can find one local to you then please get in touch. Getting your digestive system functioning properly is the biggest investment to health you can make!
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