The Question of Digestion

By on May 25, 2017

Digestion is essential for life. Simply put, it is the process that allows our bodies to take in good nutrients and excrete waste products. Beyond the simple sorting of the good from the bad, research is now starting to explore the crucial role gastrointestinal health has on our overall health and disease status.

The digestive system is the biggest barrier between our environment and the inside of our body. To help you visualize the size of the digestive system, the small intestine is the size of a doubles tennis court and approximately 100 times bigger than the surface area of our skin. The size of the digestive system is often hard to comprehend, but what is more incredible is that the digestive system is made up of only one layer of cells, unlike the skin that is seven layers thick. To enter the body nutrients must be absorbed through the digestive lining. When the integrity of the digestive lining is compromised, intestinal permeability (‘leaky gut’) increases. When the gut has increased permeability, undigested food particles and bad bacteria are able to enter the blood stream triggering the immune system.

SYMPTOMS OF A LEAKY GUT
Did you know that gas, bloating, heartburn, constipation, and diarrhea are not normal parts of digestion? Did you know that fatigue, weight gain, headaches, food sensitivities and autoimmune diseases can all be signs that your digestive tract is working less than optimally, and that you may be suffering from leaky gut? The good news is that by making both dietary and lifestyle changes, the digestive system can be healed.

RELAXATION IMPROVES DIGESTION
Digestion occurs in a relaxed state. When we are relaxed, saliva begins to flow allowing for the release of digestive enzymes to help us breakdown our food. The stomach starts to move to allow us to mix our food and send it into the small intestine for absorption.

Stress on the other hand, prevents us from being able to fully digest and absorb our food. Eating unplugged is a great way to relax our bodies and allow for healthy digestion. This means turning off the television, putting your phone away, not eating at your desk or in your car, and taking time to focus on your food. Being mindful of eating both your meals and snacks, chewing your food and even using rituals like deep breathing, or being grateful before a meal are excellent ways to stimulate a relaxed state and the digestive process.

PROBIOTICS FOR DIGESTIVE AID
Probiotics are getting a lot of attention, and it is well deserved. The importance of a healthy gut microflora is essential for healthy digestion. The digestive system is made up of both good and bad bacteria, however there are more good than bad in a healthy digestive system. There are more microorganisms in the digestive system, than cells in the human body. With trillions of bacteria in the intestines, there are around three to four pounds of bacteria making up the microflora at any given time. The composition of our microflora is dependent on a combination of both dietary and lifestyle factors. These bacteria compete against one another for space and food in the digestive tract. The more good bacteria in the gut, the easier it is to control the negative effects of the bad bacteria. However, stress, poor dietary habits (such as eating a diet high in refined sugars, refined grains and processed foods), the use of antibiotics and other medications all have a negative impact on the gut microflora.

When the balance between the good and bad bacteria is disrupted, we are more susceptible to food sensitivities/allergies, weight gain, infections, and a number of diseases. Therefore, fixing gut microflora imbalances is essential in achieving healthy digestion. Good bacteria promote a healthy immune system; help to make nutrients like vitamin K and short chain fatty acids; protect the thin gut lining, and help with the breakdown of fruits and vegetables.

FERMENTED FOODS FOR GOOD BACTERIA
Increasing fermented foods is one way to help naturally increase the good bacteria found in your digestive system. Increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet also supports a healthy gut microflora, by promoting a number of different good bacterial strains. Probiotic supplements can also help re-establish a healthy gut microflora, and provide us with another means to help protect our digestive health.

As a final note on digestive health, avoiding food irritants goes a long way to support healthy digestion. This may mean determining your individual food sensitivities or intolerances, and eliminating these foods from your diet to allow healing to occur. This may mean making dietary changes, like removing refined sugars, refined grains, trans fats and minimizing alcohol consumption. Finally, this may mean taking processed foods out of your diet, which are linked to inflammation in the body and weight gain. Your digestive journey may include all or one of the above suggestions. In the end, healing your gut is essential in achieving health and wellness.

Jennifer Hendry-Lynn, HBSc, ND is a naturopathic doctor practising at Realign Health in Cambridge, Ontario. Visit: drjennd.com.

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