2 out of 3 clients I work with have digestive issues.
As long as I can remember, I have had abdominal pain while eating dinner. My immediate family all suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome ("Ass Crisis", as we've affectionately deemed it). I have had a vested interest in learning and working with the digestive system from the day I saw my first client.
Fortunately, I have found that most "gut problems" respond extremely well to Naturopathic medicine. If you, or someone you love, has been suffering, this post is for you.
The Digestive System - more than just your stomach
The digestive system encompasses everything from your mouth down until you see it in the toilet (hopefully) the next day.
Digestion starts in the brain, evoking a physical response long before food passes your lips. When we think about food, envisioning how it will taste and feel and actually let ourselves feel hungry, our body gets to work increasing saliva, stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Like a good seduction, digestion is as much a head game as the act of doing it.
Problem Zone 1: eating mindlessly, not letting yourself get hungry, eating in a rush, over-eating etc. so that your body doesn't have time to catch up
Chewing your food thoroughly accomplishes two things:
- Mechanical break down of your food into smaller pieces for further break down later on
- Secretion of amylase, an enzyme in saliva that helps to break down starches in food
Problem Zone 2: eating without thoroughly chewing, drinking large amounts of fluids with meals that may dilute your digestive enzymes
The esophagus is a flexible tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. At the bottom of the esophagus/top of the stomach is a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter or the cardiac sphincter. When it opens it allows food from the esophagus in the stomach, otherwise it should stay shut to prevent splash up of acid causing heartburn.
Problem Zone 3: eating too quickly so that food gets stuck or the stomach becomes overloaded; heartburn that creates pain in the esophagus
In the stomach, hydrochloric acid (HCl) is produced by the parietal cells in the stomach. Another enzyme called pepsin begins to work on the food as well, breaking down protein. An acidic environment is required to breakdown our food and prevent pathogens (bacteria, fungi, parasites and other food borne illnesses) from taking hold. After churning in the stomach, the partially digested food (now called chyme) moves past the pyloric sphincter at the base of the stomach and empties into the upper small intestine.
Problem Zone 4: inadequate stomach acid causing poor digestion of food, heartburn and increasing risk of illness, ulcers
As food enters the upper portion of the small intestine, it passes nearby to the liver, gallbladder and pancreas, which all make enzymes to help us digest fats, proteins and carbohydrates (lipase, protease, amylase and others like lactase for digesting lactose, renin, sucrase etc.). This will result in further breakdown of our food.
Problem Zone 5: inadequate fat in diet to stimulate production of lipase and bile, not enough protein in diet to make these enzymes, blood sugar issues that compromise the pancreas' ability to manufacture amylase and keep blood sugar in check, poor functioning of the liver and gallbladder
The Small Intestine
The small intestine has three parts: the duodenum, jejenum and ileum and collectively is about 6 meters (20 feet) long in humans. As it passes through each of these, food interacts with the lining of the intestines, is absorbed and utilized by the rest of the body. Nutrients from our food are absorbed along the small intestine and breakdown continues.
Problem Zone 6: food sensitivities create inflammation along the lining of the small intestine resulting in poor digestion and impaired absorption of nutrients. These can create very dramatic digestive symptoms, and malnutrition.
The mostly digested food enters the large intestine, where water is reabsorbed back into the body along much of its 1.5 meters (5 feet). Different kinds of bacteria work on breaking down the remnants here.
Problem Zone 7: poor bacteria in the colon can cause bloating, gas, distention and pain.
Finally, stool exits the body. Stool is mainly water, combined with food remnants, dead bacteria and cellular waste. If there is inflammation here or in the colon, the remaining material may not be broken down properly.
Problem Zone 8: Hemorrhoids and anal fissures (small cracks around the anus) can block the passage of stool and create pain, bleeding and tearing of the delicate tissue.
Putting It All Together (The Digestive Dream!):
You feel a rumble in your belly, and realize it's lunch time. You start to think about your lunch, looking forward to what you are about to eat. As you are heating it up, you take a few deep breaths, happy to have a little break. When your food is ready, you sit down at the table, looking at the plate in front of you. You say grace, or take a few more deep breaths, looking forward to savouring the meal instead of wolfing it down, even though you are hungry. You chew your first few bites slowly, enjoying the taste and texture of the food in your mouth. You have a a sip or two of water - but just enough to moisten your mouth - and enjoy your meal. Maybe you chat with your family or coworkers, or your enjoy the fresh air outside or the nice music in the background for a leisurely 20-30 minute meal. Work and the rest of the afternoon are the last thing on your mind. When you finish, you feel good. Your belly feels happy: flat, pleasantly full and quiet. In between meals, you sip on lots of water. Sometimes fresh water, other times you opt for herbal tea. You make sure to get lots of breaks in at work to move around, and enjoy a daily walk. You have 1-3 bowel movements each day that are very easy to pass, formed, in one piece. Afterwards you feel great.
- THINK about your food before you eat - how it looks, smells, will taste, how it was prepared
- Pause before eating. Say grace, take 3-5 deep breaths.
- Take 1 tsp-1 Tbsp of raw, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar 10 minutes before meals, to help improve stomach acidity. Digestive bitters and other supplements recommended by your Naturopathic Doctor may also be helpful.
- EAT and ONLY Eat. No distractions - TV, phone, computer. This will help avoid over-eating, under-chewing and promote better digestion.
- Chew your food thoroughly until is it liquid before swallowing. A good rule is 10 chews per bite of food.
- Avoid liquids before and with meals, except to moisten mouth. This will help to avoid dilution of stomach acid and enzymes so that they can work effectively.
- Take your time eating. Enjoy your meal.
- Don't eat when stressed, angry or emotionally upset. Eating, like any other kind of work, can be affected negatively by a negative state of mind.
- Check your stool. Is it formed, watery, soft, sticky or breaking apart? Knowing these details makes it easier for other health care providers to assist you.
- Test your Stool Transit Time every few months. On an empty stomach in the morning, take 2 Tbsp of white sesame seeds, chewing lightly before swallowing. Then time how long it takes before you seem them again in your stool. This will give you a rough estimate of how long it takes food to pass through your system. Retest in a week to see if this varies.
If you experience gas, bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation or other digestive concerns and are interested in learning more, please schedule your Free 15 Minute Health Discovery Session with me.
In health & happy digestion,