Understanding Digestion 101

Lemon juice in water can be supportive to your digestive system

Understanding “Digestion 101” may be the key to understanding the root cause of your health concerns! Digestion is what your body does to break down the food you eat into nutrients that are then assimilated into your body.

You know the saying: “You are what you eat”? Well, it’s a saying because it’s literally true: your body is made from the nutrients of the foods that you ingest, digest and absorb. If you feed your body junk, it will literally be made of junk, and work like….well you get it.

So first and foremost for optimal health you need to eat the foods that work best for your body. (There is some variety in this, depending on your age, life stage, activity level, ethnic background, etc. )

However, if your digestion is not working well, many of the foods you eat will either not be absorbed properly, or even cause you harm.

Let’s dig in to the basics of digestion and easy steps you can do to improve your digestion.

Gut supportive soup and fermented yogurt for probiotics to support your microbiome

How do you know you need to work on your digestion?

  • You often feel bloated or gassy.
  • You have heart burn or reflux.
  • You don’t have 1-3 bowel movements per day, or they are too soft (diarrhea) or too hard (constipation).
  • You have food allergies or sensitivities.
  • You have any autoimmune condition.
  • You have sensory, focus or learning difficulties.
  • You have skin rashes, eczema or acne.

If you feel like most people you know would fit into one of these categories, then you’re probably right. The majority of people reading this post (in an industrialized country with access to the internet), could probably use a little TLC to their digestive system.

Unfortunately, it’s been several decades of processed foods and an ever increasing toxic load that is now chronically or acutely affecting the general population.

Before we get to how to address these issue, let’s understand how digestion works.

How Digestion Works

Digestion is a north to south process. To support your digestion you need to understand that it all begins with the brain.

Before you’ve even taken a bite of food, your brain needs to enter the parasympathetic mode of your nervous system. You think about eating, see the colors on your plate and smell the delicious food, and your mouth already begins to produce salivary enzymes (such as salivary amylase for carbohydrate digestion and lingual lipase for fat digestion).

The Mouth

When you take in and chew your food, your are already beginning to digest! The sensory input from your tongue sends a message to your brain to get the rest of the system going! Once you have chewed your food it is called a bolus.

The Stomach

When you swallow the bolus, it goes through the esophagus and into the stomach. In your stomach, the hormone gastrin signals your stomach to produce hydrochloric acid and to activate pepsin and begin protein digestion. This begins the chemical digestion of your food. If you didn’t sufficiently chew your food, you can see how your stomach will have a much harder time.

The Small Intestine

When it’s broken down enough, the food, now called chyme, goes through the pyloric sphincter and into your small intestine. There upon detecting the presence of protein and fat, the hormone cholecystokinin is released.

Cholecystokinin triggers the gallbladder to contract and release bile to further emulsify the fats (breaking them down into pieces small enough to be absorbed) and the pancreas to release enzymes. This is also when your brain receives its satiety signal. So if you’ve been scarfing down food, you may have already over-eaten before you get this message.

Pancreatic enzymes break down fat, protein and carbohydrates. The chyme moves into the jejunum and ileum of your small intestine, where most of the absorption happens through microvilli on the lining of the small intestine.

The fully broken down nutrients are absorbed as glucose and amino acids into the blood stream via the liver (while some long chain fatty acids enter the lymphatic system).

The Large Intestine

Whatever hasn’t been absorbed moves through the ileocecal valve, into the large intestine. In the large intestine, some water is absorbed and microbiota break down fiber and resistant starch and make B vitamins and butyrate.

If your gut flora is imbalanced and unable to perform these functions, or has been negatively impacted by, for example, antibiotics, you may find yourself with certain vitamin deficiencies.

The Colon

Finally waste is eliminated. And waste must be eliminated so that you don’t start to reabsorb the toxins that are in it by letting it stay in your body longer than necessary. Hence the importance of daily bowel movements.

A variety of vegetables can provide fiber to aid digestion and increase bulk in stool

Frequently Asked Questions About Digestion

What is digestion?

Digestion is the process of breaking down food into molecules that can be absorbed and used by the body. It starts with ingestion, or the taking in of food, and is followed by the mechanical and chemical breakdown of the food into small molecules that can then be absorbed and used by the body.

What are the steps of digestion?

The steps of digestion include ingestion, mechanical digestion, chemical digestion, absorption, and elimination. Ingestion is the taking in of food, mechanical digestion involves chewing and breaking down food into smaller pieces, chemical digestion involves breaking down food into small molecules using enzymes and acids, absorption is taking in of nutrients from the small molecules, and elimination is the removal of waste products.

What organs are involved in digestion?

The organs involved in digestion include the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and rectum. The mouth is where chewing and salivation take place, the esophagus transports food to the stomach, the stomach uses acids and enzymes to break down food, the small intestine absorbs nutrients and water, the large intestine absorbs water and stores waste, and the rectum eliminates waste from the body.

The accessory organs involved in digestion are the liver, the gallbladder and the pancreas. The liver performs over 500 vital functions in the body including producing bile during the digestive process. The gallbladder receives and stores bile from the liver, then delivers it to the small intestine to break down fats in the chyme. The pancreas produces enzymes that break down sugar, fats and starches and also produces hormones that help regulate blood sugar, stimulate stomach acids and tell your stomach when to empty.

How long does the digestion process take?

The amount of time it takes for digestion to be completed can vary depending on the type and amount of food consumed. Generally, the process of digestion takes between 24 and 72 hours.

What foods aid in digestion?

Depending on your specific circumstances you may need to support different parts of the digestive process. Foods that are high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can help aid in digestion by providing bulk and giving the digestive system something to work on. Additionally, foods rich in probiotics, such as yogurt and kefir, also help digestion by promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Other foods may work to help increase stomach acid, or support the liver in producing bile. It is best to work with a practitioner to get personalized advice on which foods will support YOUR digestion.

What are the benefits of good digestion?

Good digestion has numerous benefits, such as improved nutrient absorption, better overall health, improved immunity, and better weight management. Good digestion can also help reduce digestive issues such as bloating, constipation, and heartburn. To be blunt, you cannot afford to have poor digestion as it will have a systemic effect on all parts of the body!

Read more about why you should optimize your digestion here!

What are some common digestive disorders?

Common digestive disorders include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acid reflux, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulosis, and celiac disease. Symptoms of digestive disorders can include bloating, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. All of these can be supported through nutritional therapy.

Is it important to drink water for digestion?

This is an interesting question. Yes, it is important to drink adequate amounts of water during the day to avoid dehydration and help your body make the digestive juices it needs to do the work of digestion.

However, it is best not to drink water with your meals. Drink the majority of your water in between meals. One liquid that can aid the digestive process is soup (meat stock or bone broth).

What role do enzymes play in digestion?

Enzymes are proteins that play a key role in digestion by breaking down food molecules into smaller molecules that can be absorbed and used by the body. Enzymes help to break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in the stomach and small intestine. Substances called proteases, amylases and lipase are released into the small intestine by the pancreas.

What foods should be avoided during digestion?

Foods that are difficult to digest, such as processed and fried foods, should be avoided during digestion as they can slow down the digestive process and cause digestive issues. Additionally, foods that are high in sugar, such as candy and soda, can cause digestive issues as well. You should not drink too much water with meals, as this dilutes your stomach acid and makes it harder to digest.

If you are working on supporting the body with bigger health concerns, there may be a place for a special diet such as the autoimmune paleo protocol, the GAPS diet, or other elimination diets that restrict other food groups for a certain amount of time.

GAPS and Digestion

The GAPS diet is the number one protocol for healing your digestive system. While you can take parts of it to support parts of the digestive process, the sum of all of them together is what makes for rapid improvement in digestive symptoms.

The inclusion of a variety of fermented foods, not only supports the microbiome and digestion in the large intestine. It is also a significant way to raise your stomach acid so your body is more capable of initiating the digestive process.

Gut soothing broth in the form of meat stock and later bone broth are one of the best ways to support the lining of the digestive system.

For those with more severe symptoms, the GAPS introduction diet, introduces foods gradually, starting with those easiest to digest.

Understanding Digestion 101 In Sum

When you start learning about anatomy (parts of the body) and physiology (how the body works), it really makes you wonder, why isn’t this a mandatory subject in school?

It is such useful information to understand at least the basics of your digestive system, since we spend so much of our lives focused on procuring, preparing and eating food!

The other thought you might have is this: our bodies are literally miracles. There are so many things that could go wrong, and so many ways we mis-treat our body. And yet, through sheer resilience we survive. In other words, we can live off of cookies and chips for a long time, but eventually there will be consequences- in your body and that of future generations.

Digestion play a critical role in all facets of health. It determines what nutrients are absorbed and therefore any deficiencies that lead to health consequences. Therefore, supporting optimal digestion is where everyone really needs to begin on their health journey.

If you are ready to get a handle on your digestive system (with or without GAPS), book a call to find out how we can support you!

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