Know Better, Do Better: Digestion
When we talk about health, our first stop must be the digestive system – not only the basic organs and where food goes, but also the several key “big ideas” of digestion, what can go wrong, and how to simply correct these problems to avoid unnecessary or inappropriate treatment. This is an important topic for everyone to understand, but especially for parents to know how to assess and help their children when it comes to gastro-intestinal issues.
The 3 Big Ideas we first need to identify are:
Digestion is a North to South process;
The 3 main digestive organs from a nutritional standpoint are the stomach, pancreas and gallbladder; and
Digestion is fundamental to nutritional healing.
With these 3 big ideas in mind, let’s continue on to understand the basics of what digestion is and how it works.
First, what is digestion? Digestion is simply the breaking down of food to make it into smaller and absorbable parts. (Absorption is the use of nutrients in foods after they have been digested. We like to talk about absorption a lot, as it pertains especially to the small intestine, but today we are focusing on digestion.)
In a nutshell, how is digestion supposed to work?
Digestion starts in the brain: sight and smell activate salivary glands and a calm (or “parasympathetic”) state creates an environment for the production and secretion of enzymes needed for digestion. When food is placed in the mouth, there is both mechanical breakdown and chemical breakdown of the food, through chewing and saliva. Once chewed the food is called a “bolus.” This bolus travels down the esophagus into the stomach. The stomach continues the mechanical and chemical breakdown of the bolus through mucous, hydrochloric acid and pepsin. Now the bolus is called “chyme” and it enters the small intestine. Here secretin and CCK (cholycystine kinase) are released which stimulate the pancreas to release pancreatic juices and bicarb and cause the gallbladder to release bile. The chyme which was full of acid from the stomach is now neutralized. In the jejunum of the small intestine, villi and microvilli absorb nutrient molecules into the bloodstream. The leftover chyme goes into the large intestine, which recycles water and forms vitamin K, B1, B2 and B12. After this, the large intestines expels what is left over as feces.
With so many steps involved in digestion, there can be breakdown or issues all along the way. Let’s talk about some of the main problems people encounter with their digestive systems and how we can intervene appropriately. While many digestive problems seem extremely complicated, when looking at it from a north-to-south approach, we can find that many of them are actually quite manageable at home.
Since digestion is a north to south process, we will start north – with the brain. When in a parasympathetic (relaxed) state, the body increases secretions, increases motility, decreases constriction of sphincters and increases blood flow. All of these are necessary for optimal movement and digestion of food. When not in a relaxed state, there is decreased production of secretions including hydrochloric acid, food movement is slowed and can become stuck or compacted instead of moved along and utilized. Complications with not being relaxed can include a feeling of excessive fullness after meals, feeling like skipping breakfast, bloating within 1-2 hours after eating, plus the rest of the symptoms that we will discuss below.
Moving slightly south we come to the mouth. If digestion of starches does not happen both mechanically and chemically in the mouth, there can be the result of dysbiosis (or an imbalance of gut microbes, specifically affecting an overgrowth of candida). Therefore it is important to chew each bite (protein or carbohydrates) for 30 seconds to allow for the mechanical (chewing) digestion as well as giving time for amylase in saliva to chemically break down the food. Symptoms associated with chemical and mechanical issues in the mouth include bad breath, excessive fullness, constipation and/or diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, brain fog, anger, plus the symptoms we will discuss below.
Now we travel a bit more south to the stomach. This is where hydrochloric acid is produced and thrown into the mix to digest proteins. HCl production can be inhibited by stress, too many carbohydrates, nutritional deficiencies such as low zinc, allergies and alcohol. Too little HCl can cause decreased digestion of protein, and in turn can cause the small amounts of acid that are present to reflux up into the esophagus causing the sensation known as “heartburn.” We also can see a lack of taste for meat, excessive fullness, bloating, fatigue, plus many more symptoms, some of which will be discussed below.
Now we come to the pancreas. If chyme pH is not acidic enough in the duodenum, secretin is not released to tell the pancreas to release pancreatic enzymes that further break down starches, fats and proteins. The pancreas also releases bicarbonate to neutralize the acidic chyme. Without bicarbonate, chyme can produce ulcers in the lining of the intestine. Complications with pancreatic enzyme insufficiency can also cause symptoms such as generalized weakness and fatigue, burping/gassiness, excessive fullness, bloating, poor healing and menstrual complications to name just a few.
Continuing down the southbound track, the gallbladder is told by a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK) to release bile when there is enough fat in the diet. If there is not enough dietary fat, CCK will not send the message to the gallbladder, and the fat will not be digested. This causes deficiency in absorbed fat which causes poor immunity and healing, energy and sleep issues, mucous in stool, headaches, dry/flaky skin, breakdown of cells and hormones throughout the body, and infertility or menstrual cycle irregularity. Additionally if the gallbladder is not triggered to secrete bile, there can be a build up of bile in the gallbladder which becomes thick and “sludgy” causing right upper abdominal pain and nausea.
When the processes above do not happen as they should, complications continue throughout the small and large intestines. This can result in leaky gut, dysbiosis, lack of nutrient absorption (so you are eating but not getting the nutrients from your food), dehydration and diarrhea or constipation. See our numerous other posts and videos for more information on the physical and mental complications with dysbiosis and leaky gut.
Now that we have a picture of what is supposed to happen, and then what commonly happens throughout the GI tract to cause complications, we can start hypothesizing, experimenting and concluding about our own bodies.
Let’s go through a few more examples of using the principles of digestion to heal the body. Remember that symptoms (pain, nausea, itching, etc) are simply the body’s way of telling us that there is something deeper going on.
Have you noticed becoming nauseated when you eat highly fatty foods? Most likely there is a gallbladder issue. We could start with targeted gallbladder therapy, such as bile salts and beet kvass. However, do we need to start with the gallbladder? Remember the rule: North to South. This means that instead of targeting the southernmost point, we start therapy on the northernmost point so that we are fixing the root of the problem rather than simply targeting symptoms. Start with the brain. Before you ate that fatty meal were you parasympathetic so that digestive juices could be produced thus the trickle of digestion beginning? Did you allow yourself to see and smell your food before consuming? How about your mouth? Did you chew each bite for 30 seconds allowing the digestion to begin appropriately? If the answers to these questions were “no,” then you have a few things to start working on – by changing these simple habits you may be able to solve the case of your gallbladder.
Often we see symptoms associated with vitamin/mineral imbalance or lack of essential fatty acids. But, if we look at the process from north to south, we can see that first we must start with the brain and check if we are parasympathetic, visualizing, smelling and enjoying our food so that our bodies are able to start producing the HCl necessary to start the whole cascade of digestive enzymes being produced and secreted. Maybe you truly are not getting enough zinc in your diet and maybe you need more essential fatty acids. But always start from the top down – check in with your brain, make sure you are chewing, getting enough dietary fat, etc. Without these practices, even if you give your body the necessary nutrients, it might not be able to process them appropriately to be able to make a change in your symptoms.
As you are working through your own symptoms and healing, remember these basic principles to help the north to south process:
Get relaxed before a meal: say a prayer, take a few deep breaths, laugh;
Chew food thoroughly (strive for 30 chews for each bite);
Drink warm liquid before a meal such as water with lemon or stock/broth;
Avoid smoking, alcohol, coffee, refined sugars and flours. These all generally decrease stomach acid and vitamins and minerals needed for pancreatic enzyme production;
Make sure you are getting enough dietary nutrients including fats to trigger the cascade of enzymes needed for digestion.
Now that you are equipped with this information, take it and use it with yourself and your family. Even when it comes to children these principles remain the same. See if you can identify where the issue truly lies starting with the brain and working your way down. Using this system will help you identify true causes without getting worried and confused about the symptoms.