Promoting Digestive Health
If you spend any time on social media, you’ll have likely come across some top tips to optimise your digestive health, but sometimes we forget the basics. So, we thought we’d go back to school (well, not quite, no one needs those bad hair day reminders) and look at the digestive system in all its glory. We’ll also consider why we should probably pay it a little more attention than we do, and some simple changes we can make to help it run as smoothly as possible.
What is digestion?
Generally, we accept that digestion is the eating and assimilating of food. We use food as fuel, but we also use it to build every single cell in our body. So, breaking it down, and using it is incredibly important to our daily function.
Digestion actually starts in the mind. Before we’ve even taken that first bite, we are thinking about taking it, and our brain tells our digestive system to get to work.
This is why mindful eating is so important and spending time cooking. As we are preparing food, our senses are peaked. We smell those spices, and we see those crispy edges on that focaccia! This process increases saliva production, and in our saliva, we find a range of enzymes that help to digest food.
When we take that first bite, we are mechanically contributing to our digestive health. Each chew and bite breaks the food into a smaller piece. Now we know asking you to chew each piece of food 50 times is a tall order, but if you are suffering from your digestive health and often find undigested food in your stool, you may find going back to the simple art of chewing more, helps!
Once we have chewed that food, it travels down the oesophagus and into the stomach. Here it is submerged in acid! But you know that if you’ve ever suffered from acid reflux. The acidic environment breaks the food down, even more, especially protein. It also steals vitamins like B12 from the protein ready to be absorbed.
Whilst we think of the stomach being a vat of acid, and a bit of a tough guy, this is often where things go wrong. If you have too much or too little acid, things can start to go a bit rogue. More often than not, we end up with cases of low stomach acid thanks to a range of medications like stomach acid inhibitors (if you get heartburn), or antihistamines (if you suffer from hay fever). Without enough stomach acid, the food can’t be digested properly.
From the stomach, the food moves to the small intestine, where most of the nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. Here the food is bombarded with digestive enzymes from the pancreas, and bile made by the liver makes its way into the small intestine too. Bile is important for fat digestion and the enzymes secreted by the pancreas help to digest all macronutrients, protein, fat and carbohydrates. It goes without saying, if you have poor liver or pancreas function, then digestion at this stage becomes compromised.
If you are concerned about your digestive processes, it’s worth speaking with an appropriately qualified practitioner. You may also consider a digestive enzyme supplementation.
After the small intestine, we have the large intestine. The large intestine is responsible for four main things:
The large intestine reabsorbs fluid and electrolytes. Here the contents from the gut turn from liquid to solid (that runny stool hasn’t spent enough time in the large intestine for some reason).
👉 The Microbiome
Here resides the microbiome which is a community of microbes gaining a lot of attention, for good reason. There are microbes found throughout the GI tract, but the majority of them are found here. These guys can make vitamins, amino acids, hormones, and chemical messengers. They train the immune system, strengthen the gut barrier, communicate with other vital organs including the brain, prevent invasion from the bad bugs, influence gut movement and function, and finally, they love eating fibre!
Maintaining balance here is key and there are several ways to do this. Probiotic supplementation is gaining significant interest, so you may be interested in our probiotic complex.
👉 Nutrient Absorption
Whilst most of this occurs in the small intestine, thanks to the microbiome, this also occurs in the large intestine.
👉 Waste Compactor
At the end of the large intestine, the rectum stores and compacts the waste produced by the body, like the parts of dead red blood cells that make your stool brown! But the colour of poop can also depend on intestinal secretions, and the smell largely depends on bacteria. (Although if there is a particularly foul smell, then it’s always best to check nothing sinister is going on).
The digestive system can function independently of the brain, meaning that it doesn’t need to be told what to do. But this nifty skill also gets us in trouble, it can lose much of its function during times of stress.
We have two parts of our stress response, the fight or flight part and the rest and digest part.
When we are facing a stressor (something which threatens our internal balance), our body redirects our resources to deal with it. This is why our heart rate increases, because blood is being pumped to our limbs and brain. Digestive processes aren’t seen as necessary to our immediate survival in those times, and so blood is redirected away from them. This is why you get butterflies in your stomach, or if you’re feeling particularly stressed, you’ll vomit or have diarrhoea. Without a functioning digestive system, the body just wants the food out!
When the stressor has passed, the digestive function needs to resume, so resources are redirected back, hence the name, rest, and digest.
The issue is that in our modern-day life, stressors don’t seem to pass, or if they do, we soon find ourselves faced with another one.
So, our resources are consistently directed away from digestive function. This is why we often see cases of irritable bowel syndrome alongside chronic anxiety, stress and/or depression. (i)
We can thank this thing called the gut-brain axis for that. There is a highway between our gut and our brain, but what’s really interesting is that most information is being sent from our gut to our brain, where most of us would have thought it was the other way around.
But this does highlight one of the most important aspects of digestive health. Our mental health.
Our stress response significantly affects how well we digest and utilise our food. Whilst we can’t remove every single stress from our lives, there are some things we can do to mitigate the damage.
Mindfulness in a basic sense is simply about bringing your awareness to what you are sensing and feeling at that moment.
Mindful eating is therefore about bringing awareness to what you’re eating. This is a very simplistic view of it, but that’s really all that is necessary for this purpose.
Why is digestive health important?
When you are focussing on what is in front of you, there isn’t much room for thinking about anything else (those things that are stressing you out). In doing so, you prime your rest and digest side of the stress response (parasympathetic nervous system), by way of the vagus nerve, which helps return the body to homeostasis.
The vagus nerve is responsible for many functions including:
- Satiety (hunger)
- Satiation (fullness)
- Energy metabolism
- Secretion of gastric acid and digestive enzymes
- Gastric capacity
Mindful eating is a little bit like giving your digestive system the time and space it needs to do its job, properly.
And it can be as simple as sitting down at a table with a chair and eating.
Not watching TV, not catching up on emails, not on the phone, not eating it running out of the door, not spilling it in your lap in the car or taking a bite between keyboard taps at your office desk.
If our brains are to know that we are full, it needs to be available to receive that information from the gut, not busy coordinating next week’s meeting. If we are to utilise nutrients in their entirety, our bodies don’t need to be jolted into a stress response simply because we’re running out of the door.
So, for your next meal, sit down at a table and eat. No phone, no TV. No emails. Just you and your food and don’t forget to chew properly too!
The digestive system is incredibly interconnected and when things start to go rogue, we really notice it. In more challenging cases it’s important to get the support of a qualified practitioner, but for many of us, just slowing down, and enjoying our food again can really bolster our digestive health.