By Thais Harris, NC
Nutrition Education Program Manager
You are not just what you eat, you are what you absorb. Our health depends on our ability to digest what we consume, assimilate nutrients, and properly dispose of waste products.
Our digestive tract is a complex ecosystem, and needs to maintain acid/base balance (for proper pH), healthy muscle tone (to ensure foods move in the right direction), appropriate acid secretion in the stomach (to protect us from harmful bacteria and to break down foods), sufficient enzymes (from the pancreas, to further break down foods), proper bile secretion (from the liver via gall bladder, for fat absorption), and strong mucosa (to protect us and so we can absorb nutrients). Not to mention keeping the right atmosphere for the friendly bacteria to inhabit it, thus keeping the unfriendly microorganisms out. To meet all of these needs, we need to consume whole, healthy foods that provide enzymes, vitamins, minerals, fiber, proteins, fats and carbohydrates, and we also need to understand how our lifestyle affects this process.
Digestion starts with our brains. When we think of food, look at food, smell food, and touch food, our brains start the digestive process by initiating physiological responses, such as salivation, heart rate changes, digestive enzyme secretion, and many others. This is one of the reasons why eating mindfully helps digestion. When you are ready to eat, present your food beautifully, even if you are just cooking for yourself. Take a deep breath, and then look at your plate, smell the aromas, and feel gratitude. Then take your time chewing, experiencing all the different textures in the food. Put your fork or spoon down between bites, and visualize how your food is nourishing you.
Chewing sufficiently can hugely diminish digestive discomfort (and the saliva that mixes with our food while chewing is equipped with enzymes to start breaking down the food for better absorption). Some experts say chewing 40 times is ideal, some say 10 times is enough. The best rule of thumb is to chew until you can no longer identify the food based on its texture. A teacher of mine used to say: “drink your foods and chew your liquids,” meaning that we should chew enough that the food is almost liquid, and drink slowly enough so that we are almost chewing our liquids. Drinking too much liquid, especially cold liquid while eating is not recommended because it “cools” and dilutes the power of digestion (mainly the acids). A moderate amount of a warm beverage, drank slowly, is the best accompaniment to our meals.
Other practices that promote healthier digestion include minimizing distractions while eating, and eating in places that you do not associate with stress (in front of the computer, where you pay the bills, or even while watching a show or movie).
Hippocrates, considered to be the Father of Medicine, came to the conclusion that “all disease begins in the gut.” More and more research now validates his conclusion. Without the ability to absorb nutrition from our food and eliminate waste, we open the door to a number of health issues, including many that seem not to be related to the gut, such as headaches, back pain, frequent colds, mood issues, skin issues, chronic conditions, and even cancer. Ensuring that we have a “well-oiled digestive machine” is one of the main ways to prevent disease.
Interested in assessing or improving your digestive health? Complete the exercise below.
In the second installment of this article, we will go into more detail on the different phases of digestion, and take a closer look at the bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms that compose the microflora that inhabit our gut, and how they help us stay healthy.
Thanks for reading!
Here’s an exercise I recommend for getting to know more about your own digestion:
1. Start by keeping a diet journal, writing down the time of day you eat, what you eat, where you are and with whom, your mood, and how you feel 30 minutes after eating (both in your body and mood-wise).
2. After 3 days to 1 week of keeping your journal, answer the following questions (Questionnaire adapted from Elizabeth Lipski’s book Digestive Wellness):
a) Do you eat breakfast every day? Breakfast provides the fuel we need to get our bodies going for the day. It literally means “break the fast”.
b) Do you have indigestion? If so, is your indigestion better or worse at specific times of the day? Clues are what you ate, how fast or how much you ate, or where you are.
c) Do you eat when you aren’t really hungry? If so, examine the reasons, and try to find other outlets for your energies.
d) How often do you eat? Most people feel best when they eat three meals daily plus nutritious snacks. This meal plan keeps blood sugar levels even and facilitates digestion.
e) Do certain foods/beverages provoke symptoms? Eliminate suspicious foods for a week and note any differences in how you feel.
f) Are you relaxing at mealtimes or rushing? How much time are you taking with each meal? Eating more slowly aids digestion.
g) Do you get at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day? A serving is a piece of fruit, a half cup of most vegetables, or a cup of lettuce. Five servings is a minimal requirement (optimal is nine to eleven servings).
h) What percentage of your foods and beverages are high-sugar, high-fat, low-fiber, or highly processed? Replace these with fresh, wholesome foods.
i) Do you consume enough high-fiber foods? We find fiber in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
j) Do you drink enough – 6 to 8 cups – water, herb teas, and broth? Soft drinks and coffee don’t count (these are dehydrating and require us to consume even more when we consume them)!
Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach. Institute for Functional Medicine, 2004.
Lipski, Elizabeth. Digestive Wellness. Keats Publishing, 2000.
Dr. Christiane Northrup. M.D.
I hope you read part 1 of the Digestion article (above) and were able to start a journal and answer the questions provided.
Please feel free to send us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org!
(when our brains activate digestion)
The cephalic stage begins as you think about or smell food and results in the stimulation of your salivary glands and the secretion of gastric fluid into your stomach.
Chewing, as I mentioned in part 1 of this article, is crucial to reduce food size and allow for the mixing of your food with mucus and saliva, which will lubricate the food as it travels through your esophagus and into your stomach. The saliva contains the digestive enzyme amylase, which begins to digest starches, and bicarbonate, which neutralizes acidic foods.
Once you swallow food, the protein stimulates the release of stomach acid and digestive enzymes. The hydrochloric acid in your gastric juice serves several purposes in digestion:
• It kills off any harmful microorganisms you may have ingested,
• It begins to relax large, coiled protein molecules so digestive enzymes can more readily break them apart
• It activates pepsin, the enzyme that breaks down protein into smaller pieces called peptides.
During the gastric phase of digestion, the muscles of your stomach wall flex to help mix together food particles, gastric juice and pepsin before the food moves on to your small intestine.1
Most of the carbohydrate and fat digestion, as well as the remainder of protein digestion, occurs in the intestinal phase. The presence of food particles activates hormones, which signal the pancreas to release enzymes to further break down nutrients, and the gall bladder to release bile for fat digestion.
It is important to understand these phases so that it might become clearer why not to have too much liquid while eating, why to avoid antacids, and why to eat slowly and without distractions.
According to Christiane Northrup, M.D., here are some of the most amazing facts about our Digestive System:
1. Our Gut Lining:
it's our first line of defense against bugs and other harmful organisms. When your gut is healthy, it keeps any foreign invaders in food from getting into the bloodstream. It also protects you from airborne viruses and bacteria.
2. Digestive Tract and Nervous System:
In addition to the nervous system in the spine, there is a nervous system in the gut called the enteric nervous system, which sends (and receives) signals to/from the brain. If you are anxious, depressed, or stressed, you may notice that your desire for food is different or your digestion is off. Stress hormones can shut down digestion (which results in constipation) or speed it up (which results in diarrhea).
3. The Digestive System Produces Neurotransmitters:
How many of us reach for a sugary treat when stressed? This is a short-term (and unhealthy) way to make the neurotransmitters your body needs to restore your emotional equilibrium. Keeping a healthy diet with plenty of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants is a way to keep a healthy production of “feel good” neurotransmitters.
4. Gut Instinct:
The gut is very effective as a second brain and is thought to hold unconscious wisdom. It doesn't have to contend with the judgments from our rational minds. As an energy system, the digestive system is part of the third chakra. This area has to do with self-esteem, self-expression, an appropriate sense of responsibility, and having the confidence to go with your gut.2
Science is finding that the microorganisms that inhabit our bodies (most of them in our guts) have more to do with digestion and health than we have ever imagined. For starters, it is thought that 90% of the cells in our bodies are microflora cells (bacteria, fungi, viruses), and only 10% are human cells. Keeping the right balance of bacteria and other organisms is key to good health, as the overgrowth of harmful bacteria can make us sick, while beneficial bacteria (known as probiotics) work with us to keep us healthy.
Our microflora can influence our:
• Genetic expression
• Immune system (80% of our immunity comes from our gut!)
• Brain development, mental health, and memory
• Weight, and
• Risk of numerous chronic and acute diseases, from diabetes to cancer.3
A healthy diet is the ideal way to maintain a healthy gut, and regularly consuming traditionally fermented or cultured foods is the easiest way to ensure optimal gut flora. Healthy options include:
• Fermented Vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchi)
• Tempeh, Nato
• Kefir, yogurt (make sure to get plain or make your own)
When you first start out, you'll want to start small, adding as little as half a tablespoon of fermented vegetables to each meal, and gradually working your way up to about a quarter to half a cup (2 to 4 oz) of fermented vegetables or other cultured food with one to three meals per day.3
(from the Nourishing Connections Cookbook)4
• 5 pounds of cabbage, cored and shredded or chopped (save the outer leaves)
• 1½ tablespoons sea salt
• 4 – 6 tablespoons whey or an additional 1½ tablespoons sea salt
• Small handful of arame sea weed, soaked in hot water, then rinsed
• ½ – 1 tablespoon of finely minced or grated ginger
• ½ – 1 tablespoon of finely minced garlic
• 2 – 3 tablespoons fresh dill, minced
• 1 tablespoon caraway seeds or fennel seeds
1. Mix the cabbage with the salt and whey (if using). Add any optional ingredients. Pound the cabbage with a mallet or massage with your hands for about 10 minutes to release the juices.
2. Place the cabbage in a large glass jar or crock, pressing down firmly with your fist to pack the cabbage tightly. Liquid should cover the cabbage by at least ½ inch. Place the reserved outer leaves over the shredded cabbage.
3. Fill a smaller jar with water and place it inside the jar to weigh down the cabbage and keep it below the liquid.
4. Cover the jars with a towel and leave it at room temperature for at least 4 days and up to two weeks. Check the jar every few days to make sure the cabbage is still below the liquid.
5. Taste the sauerkraut on the 4th day to see if you like it. The sauerkraut is ready if it tastes good to you. When you like it, refrigerate it in a sealed jar, making sure there is water over the sauerkraut. It will keep for 6 months in your refrigerator.
1. Annigan, Jan. The Three Phases of the Food Digestion Process. SF Gate.
2. Northrup, Christiane, M.D. Your Gut: A Delicate Garden? July, 2012, http://www.drnorthrup.com/blog/2012/07/your-gut-a-delicate-garden
3. Mercola, Joseph, M.D. Confirmed – Your Digestive System Dictates Whether You’re Sick or Well. January, 2013. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/01/02/
4. Couch, C. and DeNicola, J. Nourishing Connections Cookbook. Ceres Community Project, 2011.