Ok guys, I'm really excited about this post. This is a follow-up to my first Foundations of Health post, about Proper Digestion. If you haven't read that post yet, go do that first, then come back to this one. Digestion is a complicated process, and hopefully this can give you some insight into where yours has gone wrong. Of course I'm not going to list every single issue that could possibly arise from poor digestion. Being unable to digest the nutrients we eat can affect every cell of our bodies. But, I will go through some of the most common digestive issues and some simple things you can try at home to address your digestive distress.
As I talked about previously, digestion is a North to South process, starting in the brain, and ending at the anus. Dysfunction can also begin in the brain. Our autonomic nervous system as two divisions- sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our fight or flight response and the parasympathetic system is responsible for rest and digest. If we were cavemen, these two systems would interchange as needed, but unfortunately we live in a world with deadlines and schedules and rush hour traffic. That means that as we rush out the door with our breakfast in tow, we are in the sympathetic, stress state versus the rest and digest state. So what does it all mean for our digestion? When we're in a stress state, our brain is not sending messages to our mouths to produce and release saliva, or to our stomach to prepare the gastric juices. This can mean a few things. First of all, we need saliva to break down carbohydrates, so without proper saliva (and not to mention a lack of chewing), we gulp them down into our stomachs. Since our stomachs lack the proper gastric juices, the food sits in our stomachs far longer than it should. The improperly digested carbohydrates begin to ferment and the proteins putrify. This can obviously cause discomfort, but the pressure can also force open the lower esophageal sphincter, causing heartburn. If you experience frequent heartburn, here are some things you can try:
1. Stop and be mindful before eating. Put any screens away and just focus on your food. Take a minute before you eat to be silent, be thankful, or pray. This relaxation will help your body get into the parasympathetic state. Look at your food and smell it before you eat it. This helps get the gastric juices and saliva going.
2. For heartburn, try taking a shot of lemon juice. This will encourage the production of both saliva and gastric juices, which will speed up the digestion of the food and help move it out of the stomach. The relief can be almost immediate. The vitamin C in the lemon juice also helps the body assimilate zinc, which is critical for the production of stomach acid.
Ok, now let's move on from the stomach to the duodenum and the small intestine. The duodenum is where digestion is finished by way of digestive enzymes and bile. Let's start with the gall bladder, where the bile is stored. Bile is made of fats and toxins the liver has filtered out of the body. If the fats we eat are poor quality and rancid, our bile can be thick and sludgy. This can cause gall bladder attacks or spasms, and can eventually cause the build-up of gall stones. If the bile is too thick to be squeezed into the duodenum, the fat we eat isn't emulsified, which means it can't be absorbed. Instead of being absorbed in our small intestines, the improperly digested fats bump and scrape along through our small and large intestines until they're excreted. They can even cause an imbalance in the bacteria in our guts, causing more long-term problems with absorption.
If you notice you have greasy, light colored poop, or poop that floats, those are signs that you're not digesting or absorbing your fat. Other symptoms include dry skin and gall bladder pain (under your right ribs). So how do we address this?
1. Replace rancid and denatured fats (vegetable oil, canola oil, hydrogenated oils, cottonseed oil, etc) with healthy fats like grass-fed butter, avocados and avocado oil, coconut and coconut oil, olives and olive oil, or grass-fed animal fats like lard and tallow.
2. Eat foods that support digestion like beets, which help thin the bile and encourage bile flow. Fermented and raw foods contain active enzymes that aid in the enzymatic break down and support the pancreas.
On to the small and large intestines, where are the digested nutrients are absorbed into our bodies for use. One of main drivers of intestinal issues is food that was maldigested further north in the digestive process. Now we have undigested chunks of food, and perhaps parasites and bacteria (that should've been killed off by adequate stomach acid) traveling through the intestines and tearing them up as it goes along, and causing issues like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and intestinal permeability (leaky gut). The symptoms for these issues are most likely bloating and cramping. Diarrhea can be a sign of food sensitivities or toxins. The large intestine absorbs water, but when there's an irritant, it flushes everything out as quickly as possible. Without the proper time to reabsorb water, the poop is thin and liquidy. Intestinal issues can cause a myriad of more serious, chronic problems like food sensitivities, nutrient imbalances, and even autoimmune issues. That subject deserves it's own post at a later date for the sake of brevity today. But how can you address intestinal issues?
1. Work on everything I've already listed above to ensure that digestion north of the intestines is as healthy as possible.
2. Remove foods you suspect you may be sensitive to. If you're not sure what this could be, I encourage you to consider an elimination diet. The reintroduction phase (after the elimination) can give you some great information on foods you may want to avoid. I created a program that is essentially an elimination called 7-Day Restart. It could be a great place to start.
3. Consider taking a probiotic or eating fermented probiotic foods (like sauerkraut and kombucha) to help repopulate your gut with healthy bacteria. This can help "crowd out" bad bacteria and help restore balance.
I hope this has been helpful for you to learn about ways we can all improve our digestion and perhaps address some symptoms you've been having. If you have been living with years of digestive distress, you've tried everything, and you're still suffering, please know it is common, but not normal. Thankfully, there can be relief. As a Certified Nutritional Therapist, I help clients just like you find balance again. If you're interested in working together, check out the services that I offer and contact me with any questions.
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