Healthy Digestion: How Should Optimal Digestion Work
Good digestion is fundamental to our health. We cannot enjoy happy and abundant life if we don’t digest our food well. That may seem an overstatement at first, but as soon as we realize what optimal digestion does for our bodies then we will automatically have a great respect for our digestive system.
The only way our bodies get nourished is through a proper and well-working digestion. Every cell, tissue, organ and literally the whole body depends on digestion. The body has to have the raw materials, to be able to function properly and these raw materials have to come through the digestive tract. The key to improving digestion is to understand how a healthy digestive process is supposed to work.
Unfortunately, most of us know far too little about it. As soon as the food disappears in our mouth, we don’t really have much idea what happens with it inside our bodies. When we understand better how our body works, we will also treat our body better. Making healthy nutritional choices will become easier. So let us have a closer look at the path that our food takes through the digestive system.
“Happiness for me is largely a matter of digestion.”
Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
Eating in a relaxed state of mind is the key to good digestion
Digestion can be compared to a domino effect. That means one function triggers the next and so on. Most people don’t realize that the beginning of digestion is not in the stomach or in the mouth, but in the brain. That means that we need to be in a particular autonomic nervous system state in order to digest food well.
When we are in a state of action, our body switches into a sympathetic state of the autonomic nervous system. But digestion can only happen when we are relaxed. That is the parasympathetic state of the nervous system. Gastric juices and enzymes will not be secreted in the sympathetic state instead, the hormone cortisol will rise to deal with the stress.
These days most people are in the sympathetic mode most of the time, even during meals. We are so preoccupied with all our duties at work and at home. To manage all the activities and responsibilities many eat in the car, hardly anyone seems to have enough time to eat a meal in a relaxing environment. No wonder, we are not digesting optimally. Sitting down, eating slowly and enjoying our food is the first step we can take to improve our digestion.
“Laughter aids the digestion. You can eat a huge stew with your schoolmates and digest it with no bother at all, whereas you can get indigestion eating a leaf of lettuce in boring company.”
Maurice Messeque, Of People and Plants: The Autobiography of Europe´s Most Celebrated Healer
Chew, chew & chew
As soon as we see, smell or even think of food, the salivary glands start producing saliva. Also, the stimulation of gastric juices is triggered at this point. The food we eat needs to be broken down mechanically and chemically. The mechanical break down happens to a great degree in our mouth, as we chew it and enjoy the taste. We should not underestimate this important step in the digestive process. Taking time to chew our food well, is a great investment in good digestion. Saliva contains about 99,5% of water and 0,5 % of solutes. One solute is the enzyme called salivary amylase, which helps with the digestion of carbohydrates.
It´s amazing how the digestive system is communicating with itself. When we place food in our mouth, the brain discerns what kind of nutrients are on the way and makes sure our stomach is prepared with the digestive juices to continue the digestive work.
“Do not bite more than you can chew; Do not chew more than you can swallow and do not swallow more than you can digest”
Ankala V Subbarao
Stomach acid is your friend and great helper
The chewed food that we swallow is called bolus and it passes through the esophagus to the stomach, where the bolus is further broken down mechanically and also chemically. The stomach has two little openings. At the very top there is the cardiac sphincter and at the bottom of the stomach, we have the pyloric sphincter. Both of them are closed as long as the stomach does its digestive job on the bolus. During this digestive step, the pH of the stomach has to be very, very acidic so the nutrients in the food can be broken down and prepared for absorption.
Only healthy individuals have high stomach acidity during a meal. A healthy stomach is able to handle high acidity because it has a protective lining so it does not get burned. The hydrochloric acid disinfects and breaks down the food. When the food had been infected with some bacteria or a pathogen, the high hydrochloric acid makes sure it won’t get into our intestine and eventually into the bloodstream. So the natural acidity is our protection.
The acid also activates an enzyme called pepsin, which breaks down further long chain proteins. So when the bolus is mixed well with the digestive juices it is ready for the further journey down the south in the digestive system and the next step is triggered.
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Getting ready to nourish you
Then the little pylori sphincter gets a signal from the nervous system to start opening and a little bit of the digested food – now called chyme – moves into the small intestine. The very acidic chyme has to become almost neutral, which happens through the sodium bicarbonate that virtually floods the chyme. That happens before the chyme enters the next stage of the digestive process in the small intestine and before being absorbed into the bloodstream.
Then the pancreas knows that it has to send its enzymes and digestive juices to finish digestion and to prepare the nutrients for absorption. Also the gallbladder contracts and send biles so the dietary fats can be broken down and digested well.
Whatever is not needed and not absorbed that will move into your large intestine. Even though most nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, some absorption takes place in the large intestine. This should not be underestimated.
In the colon
In the colon the digestion is supported through the activity of bacteria, also called probiotics. Colon does not have a lot of nutrition brought in with the blood supply, so the probiotics produce nutrients for the colon so it stays healthy and vital. For example, some B vitamins and vitamin K are a product of the bacteria, that live in the colon. These vitamins are important for normal metabolism. Sodium, chloride and some dietary vitamins are also absorbed in the large intestine. It is amazing how efficient our body is.
In the colon, we will also start recycling bile, saliva and other substances for later use. After that, the formation of waste takes place, so that everything that is not needed by the body can be eventually expelled.
“Although we often take it for granted, digestion involves a highly complex and well-coordinated interaction of many different acids, enzymes, alkaline substances, hormones, and other items too numerous to mention. When these are produced and released in just the right amounts at just the right times, digestion proceeds unnoticed, in the background, perfectly.”
Johathan V. Wright, M.D & Lane Lenard, Ph.D: Why Stomach Acid Is Good For You
Nutritional Consultant Student
Katerina lives in Munich, in the southern part of Germany, just a short drive from the beautiful Alps. In February 2018, Katerina began the Nutritional Therapy Consultant training which is based on holistic approach to nutrition. She has deepened her knowledge of nutrition, and how it can impact the body through digestion, blood sugar regulation, fatty acid balance, hydration, hormone health, and much more!
Katerina is learning how to address nutritional deficiencies in clients through whole foods diets, lifestyle changes and even supplementation. Her goal is to teach others how good they can feel and inspire others to make the most of every day.