Back in the early 2000’s there was a show on TV called ‘You are what you eat’. As a Functional Nutritionist, I would have liked to add a little to the title. I would have called the show ‘It’s not what you eat, it’s what you can digest and assimilate from the food you eat’. Unfortunately it’s a little long-winded, and definitely not as catchy as the original title.
The process of digestion and assimilation
I’m wondering how many of you studied Human Biology in High School? I did, and I remember writing an essay on how you digest a jelly bean. Some of you may have had the slightly healthier alternative of how you digest a chicken sandwich. For those of you who didn’t do such an assignment or can’t remember the details, let me give you a very quick anatomy lesson.
Digestion starts in the mouth with the mechanical breakdown of foods through chewing. Chemical breakdown of foods also starts in the mouth with the mixing of saliva with food. The saliva contains amylase which assists with the breakdown of carbohydrates. This mixing around creates a ‘bolus’. Once the bolus is swallowed, it moves down through the oesophagus, thanks to the rhythmic waves of smooth muscle called peristalsis. Mucous is also released in the oesophagus, which lubricates the bolus as it makes its way to the lower oesophagus. It then moves on through the lower oesophageal sphincter into the stomach.
The next step in the journey
Once in the stomach, the bolus mixes with the acidic gastric secretion of stomach acid, made of hydrochloric acid. Stomach acid provides a number of functions. It helps destroy harmful parasites and bacteria that may have hitchhiked in with your latest meal. It also helps continue chemical digestion by stimulating the conversion of pepsinogen into pepsin. Pepsin is necessary for the breakdown of proteins into their individual amino acids. This new mix of food and chemicals in the stomach becomes known as chyme.
The chyme passes from the stomach via another sphincter into the small intestines. The passage through the small intestines is a rather long journey, 20 winding feet in fact. In the duodenal section of the small intestine, pancreatic enzymes and bile from the gall bladder are released. These are important for the continued breakdown of fats, carbohydrates and protein. Once broken down into smaller, more assimilable parts, the amino acids, fatty acids and sugars are absorbed in the jejunum section of the small intestine. Further along in the ileum, B12, water soluble vitamins and bile salts are absorbed.
Whatever is left at this point moves through into the large intestine. In the large intestine, helpful bacteria turn the fibrous remnants of our meals into vitamins, short chain fatty acids, and other nutrients. These nutrients continue to be absorbed, along with water, turning our food into faeces, which then get passed out as waste.
How can digestion and assimilation go wrong?
Through my simplistic explanation, it might seem like digestion is a fairly straight forward process. Unfortunately, there are many places along the journey where digestion and assimilation can go awry.
- Could there be problems with insufficient mechanical or chemical processing?
- Is there sufficient secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach? Or too much secretion?
- Could there be an insufficient release of enzymes along the digestive tract?
- Could absorption be an issue? For those with Celiac Disease, we know that the villi in the small intestines become damaged. This leads to poor absorption of nutrients. Besides Celiac Disease there can be other factors that affect the integrity of the villi. These include bacterial overgrowth and certain medications
Could stress be a contributing factor?
Stress also plays a role in poor digestion and assimilation. During periods of chronic stress, we make less stomach acid. This, in turn, compromises our ability to breakdown and assimilate nutrients. Lower levels of nutrient availability compromise stomach acid production. You can see how stress can create a vicious cycle leading to less than stellar digestion. Besides stress, there are other factors that can compromise digestion including various medications, bacterial imbalances, thyroid conditions, and ageing.
Signs and symptoms of poor digestion and assimilation
Compromised digestion can lead to various signs and symptoms in the body:
- Our immune system can become confused. Poorly digested food particles in our gastrointestinal tract can trigger immune responses leading to rashes, hives, breakouts and eczema.
- The toxic build-up of bacterial by-products can lead to fatigue, memory issues, depression, brain fog, anxiety and headaches.
- Unexplained hunger and cravings for sugar and starches from poor nutrient levels can lead to weight issues and may also contribute to further nutrient depletion.
- Malabsorption can result in various symptoms, including diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, flatulence, stomach pain, dry skin, anaemia, hair loss and fatigue.
As you can imagine from this list of signs and symptoms, getting digestion right can make a huge difference in a person’s health outlook.
Tips for improving digestion and assimilation of nutrients
To get your digestion right, consider the following tips:
- Chew your food well. Experts recommend chewing each mouthful 30-40 times. The mouth contains digestive enzymes, which are released when you chew. Ensuring you chew your food sufficiently provides greater surface area for the enzymes to start doing their job. Chewing as recommended takes some getting used to. My recommendation is to give it a try – your digestive system will thank you for it.
- Take time to relax while you are eating. Rather than eating on the run, take some time to sit in a peaceful environment and enjoy your meal. Your digestive system is able to function better when in a state of relaxation. When stressed, our bodies go into a state of ‘fight or flight’. This halts the digestive process. We want to eat when in a state of ‘rest and digest’.
- Boost your stomach acid. This can be done by adding some freshly squeezed lemon juice or raw apple cider vinegar to a glass of room temperature water to drink before your meals. The acidic nature of the lemon juice or apple cider vinegar will trigger the release of digestive juices.
- Avoid overeating. Ensure your portions are appropriately sized. Larger meals require more bile and stomach acid for adequate digestion, which can be taxing on the digestive system.
- Give your digestive system a break between meals. Many of us have become ‘grazers’, eating small portions often, rather than the traditional 3 meals a day. My advice is to avoid snacking between meals. By having a break of at least 3 hours between meals, it gives the digestive system a break. Additionally, breaks between meals trigger the digestive tract’s self-cleaning operation. This is known as the migrating motor complex. This process sweeps clean the digestive tract of residual undigested food.
Give these tips a go
If these tips don’t make sufficient difference, a digestive enzyme supplement may be enough to enhance your digestive processes. If this still doesn’t provide sufficient relief, you may want to consider other factors that may be playing a role in digestive problems. These include food intolerances, microbial dysregulation, SIBO and parasites.
A Nutritional Medicine Practitioner can help you figure out what’s going on in your digestive tract. We will work with you to figure out what factors may be contributing to poor digestion and assimilation of nutrients, and your subsequent signs and symptoms of digestive dysfunction.
I offer a complimentary 15-minute phone chat to talk about your symptoms, and whether a functional nutrition approach can help you to feel good again. Click here to book a time for a chat.